The Best of Both Worlds PDF Print E-mail
Written by Deanna Pan   
Wednesday, 25 August 2010 04:41

The Best of Both Worlds 
Whether she's dancing on the sidelines of Paul Brown Stadium or peering through the lens of a microscope, this local lady pursues both of her passions to the highest degree.

The tension in the tunnel is thick like butter as Ben-Gals Captain Tara Willson and her 31 teammates wait for the game to begin. Amid the deafening bellow of the orange and black crowd and swishing rustle of the squad's metallic pom-poms, her pulse is thumping; adrenaline, rushing; and time is slowing down. The moments before the Ben-Gal cheerleaders storm the field in peppy, rhythmic stride "make you feel like you're alive," Willson says.


For the nine-year veteran Ben-Gal, there's only one greater rush than dancing in front of an 65,000 screaming fans — and that's the thrill of scientific discovery. A doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati's Graduate Program in Cancer and Cell Biology, Willson is wrapping up her final year of study at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.


Like dance, her research is a passion, a creative outlet and an endeavor she's pursued relentlessly, meticulously and with 110 percent of her best effort. "People often ask me, 'How do you do both? Isn't that difficult and hard?'" Willson says. "If I'm not challenged or if I'm not burning the candle at both ends, I'm usually not content."


Every day signals a different technique, approach or test question at Dr. Lee Denson's lab at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Willson's research focuses on the role of a protein called STAT3 in the breakdown of intestinal cells that causes inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in children. It's a difficult disease to study because its multi-factorial, meaning there's no one main cause, Willson says.


Her research is like, "constantly trying to put a puzzle together and looking at all the pieces from 10 different angles," she says. But even in looking at all the different angles, Willson estimates that 80 percent of what she does can either not work or completely change her original hypothesis.


"It really allows you to be creative," she says. "Thinking outside the box is something that's very important in this field."


And her research goes beyond just cells in a lab dish. She hopes her findings will make an impact on patients, and that's what she loves most about it. "That's ultimately your cherry on top," she says. "That's always been my goal — to contribute to society in a scientific fashion in some way that would help lead us to either a cure or help with treatment."



A self-described "question asker," Willson's inquisitive inclinations ultimately drove her gaze into the microscope, she says. As an undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky, double-majoring in biology and agriculture biotechnology, Willson had planned on becoming a medical doctor. But after spending many a night in the school science labs, sending electrical impulses down the nerves of crayfish with a patch-clamp, Willson had a change of heart.


After graduation, she spent a year and a half working at the Vontz Center for Molecular Studies at UC to reinforce her decision to enter graduate school. Around that same time, she auditioned for Ben-Gals on a lighthearted whim.


"I've always loved dance, but growing up my mom very much pushed me academically," she says. Now, as a full-time student and Ben-Gal cheerleader, Willson has the best of both worlds, she says.


Outside of the hospital, she cuts the music, choreographs the routines and is "constantly working out." Twice a week, she rushes to Paul Brown Stadium straight from the lab for two-and-a-half-hour-long practices, arriving early to rehearse and don her sweat-proof make-up and pageant-queen curls in traditional Ben-Gal vogue.


As Willson's ninth year as Ben-Gal and second as captain, this season marks her last on the squad. "I'm kind of to the point where I feel like I've experienced literally everything you could experience except for going to the Superbowl," she says, which she naturally hopes to do this year.


Although it falls second to her passion for science, cheering for the Ben-Gals has been an experience she "couldn't put a price tag on." She's traveled the world from Kosovo and Korea to Egypt and Iceland to visit the military; volunteered with kids at cheer camps, schools and hospitals; and made life-long best friends with women who push themselves just as much as she does.


"The team is made up of extraordinary women. And that's kind of been the biggest honor for me — that you get to lead a group of women who do so many dynamic things," she says. "We have lawyers, chemical engineers, teachers, nurses [and] students."



Photographer: Neysa Ruhl
Model: Tara Willson
Location: Lofts@4120



Deanna Pan -

Deanna Pan is Cincy Chic’s multimedia editorial intern. Send her an email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .Read More >>

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