5 Things You Can Learn from the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders about Leadership

I love reality TV shows, but with one major qualifier.  The contestants must be doing something that involves real skill. Top Chef: cooking. Project Runway: designing and sewing.  Face Off: sculpting, painting and creature design. America’s Got Talent: a bit of everything. And Dallas Cowboys – Making the Team: dance.

For the record, I’m a Patriot’s fan. Haters be haters, but I’m from New England so that’s where my loyalties lie. Move on. Also for the record, I am NOT a cheerleader. Never was, and never will be. I wasn’t even friends with the cheerleaders. But man do I appreciate the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and the Making the Team TV show.

For those of you who have heard this already, you can skip ahead to the list below. But for everyone else… I had a dream several years ago that I was offered a place on the team. I got to wear the uniform (in real life, I should never put on that uniform). I got to take the team picture (it’s a memory that will last forever). And with a hilarious touch of realism, I told the coach that I would work hard on my jump splits because I know that’s my weakness. I wanted to make the team proud.

But beyond the amazing dance routines, the girl-next-door hair and makeup, and the epic jump splits, I truly believe that this show is a shining example of how to create and lead an excellent team. So in the spirit of training camp, here are the 5 things that I have learned from the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC, for short) about teamwork and leadership.

1. Expect Excellence

Kelli McGonagill Finglass is the current director of the DCC. She constantly reminds the rookies and the veterans that they are the “premiere cheerleading team in the NFL” and a “team of world-class dancers.”  Setting the expectation of excellence sets the stage for these women to strive to excel.

The same could be said for whatever team you are leading or are a part of. Expecting excellence sets the stage for success.

2. Create a Supportive Environment

The women of this team are encouraged to work together and support one another. Even though each step of the way is highly competitive, the women have to support one another to succeed. If one person on the field dances with lots of mistakes or doesn’t kick high enough, it makes the whole team look sloppy. The team benefits by having its members supporting and learning from one another so that everyone excels.

This is the same in any type of workplace. The team is only as strong as its weakest member. Encouraging the team to work together, learn from each other, and teach each other will improve the team as a whole.

3. Nip Problems in the Bud

DCC leaders Kelly and Judy (Judy Trammell, the head choreographer) “check in” with dancers who are having issues. Being “called into the office” is one of the clearly over-dramatized moments of the show. But, they often do this so that problems can be addressed before they get out of hand. These can be anything from helping someone who is struggling outside of the studio (loss of a job or loved one) or addressing how they aren’t picking up the complicated choreography fast enough. Let’s be honest, this doesn’t always end with a “go get ’em, girl.” At least 10 dancers are told that “this is your last night.” But even in those cases, if the person isn’t ready yet, they are encouraged to try out again the following year.

Imagine how many problems could be fixed at work if the leaders took the time to talk about their employees as people and address issues before they become huge problems. As with the DCC, it won’t always work out, but it can be used as a learning experience for the employee.

4. Set Realistic but Lofty Goals

These dancers need to learn 50 complex dances during the 8 week training camp PLUS the kickline! Not everyone comes into training camp at the same level or experience. But the goals are set at the beginning. Each training camp candidate knows what’s expected of them. They know how hard it will be. But at the same time, they also know how to succeed. Not only that, but they know that they will all succeed together.

Setting goals for your team helps them understand how to succeed. More than that, it provides your team with a shared purpose so they are more likely to work together towards that purpose.

5. Go big or go home

AT&T Stadium is the largest stage in the world for a cheerleader. If nothing else, the stage should inspire them to do their best. The first day of training camp this year, the Cowboy’s owner told them all to “empty your bucket.” In other words, give it your all. How else can you expect to be world-class if you don’t give a world-class effort?

If everyone – from the top to the bottom of an organization – went into work every day and gave it their all, imagine what we could all accomplish!

Wondering what this has to do with science? Very little other than science needs good leaders too. We have laboratory, universities, companies, and institutes that are full of people who need inspiration and direction. 

There’s also an awesome non-profit called Science Cheerleaders, which has over 300 current and former NFL, NBA and college cheerleaders pursuing STEM careers. Their goals are to challenge stereotypes, encourage young women to pursue STEM careers, and get all people involved in citizen science.

You can watch Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team on CMT

Growing tumors outside the body to kill the tumor still inside

To understand how to kill a tumor, you have to study the tumor. Historically, much of how scientists understand tumors comes from removing a tumor from a patient’s body, putting Cell_Cultureit in a plastic dish (called a petri dish), and studying whatever cells are grown in this dish. You may be familiar with the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. This book talks about HeLa cells, which are cells that were taken from Henrietta’s cervical cancer, grown in a dish, and propagated for the past 60+ years as what is called a “cell line“.  These cells grow and divide indefinitely, and have been propagated and transferred from lab to lab to be studied.  HeLa cells are one of the most famous and most-researched cells that have helped scientists better understand cancer. HeLa cells are not the only cell line that exists or has been used to study cancer.  There are cell lines from lung cancer tumors, prostate cancer, brain cancer, and most other major cancers. However, there are a few problem with using cell lines to understand and treat cancer.

  1. Cell lines are EXTREMELY hard to create.  As you may imagine, a plastic dish is nothing like the environment inside the body that the tumor was removed from.  In the petri dish the cells are put into “media,”t he liquid that is used to feed the cells in the petri dish, and this media is also nothing like the nutrients and other growth factors feeding the tumor inside the body. Because of this unnatural environment, some of the tumor cells die – and in many cases mostor all of the tumor cells die.
  2. The cells that are left in the petri dish do not accurately represent the tumor anymore. A tumor isn’t a whole bunch of identical cells, but rather a tumor contains a lot of genetically different cells.  Scientists call this tumor heterogeneity. This is one of the reasons why drug resistant cells emerge after treating a tumor with drugs (like in the case of melanomadescribed in a previous post).  There are already drug resistant cells inside the tumor that don’t die when treated with drug.  Unfortunately, not all of these different cells in the tumor will live in a petri dish, so only a selected type or types of cells will live and can be studied.
  3. Even though cell lines had been the most useful tool in the past to understand cancer biology, they are not at all useful in understanding the EXACT tumor from a particular person. What does this mean? For example, drugs that kill HeLa cells in a petri dish might not work to kill another person’s cervical cancer because the genetic cause of that cervical cancer is different. In personalized medicine, the goal is to identify the drugs that will work to kill a particular patient’s tumor. Because of this, cell lines just aren’t good enough.

Scientists have been working on a number of solutions, and I’ll talk about four:

  1. Biobanking. A biobank collects excess tumor tissue from patients who are having a

    Where tumor tissue is stored in a biobank before researchers use it

    tumor removed as part of a surgery.  This tissue is immediately preserved by freezing and can then be used by researchers to study that particular tumor or many tumors of a particular type (e.g., lung cancer).  The disadvantage to this is that the tumor sample isn’t an unlimited resource. Once the tissue has been used up – it’s gone. The remaining examples all focus on growing the tumor tissue so that it can be propagated and used for many experiments.

  2. Modified cell line growth. HeLa cells were not grown in any special way, but researchers at Georgetown Universityhave found ways to grow tumor cells in a petri dish  that are identical to the tumor and nearly all tumors can grow under these conditions. So what are these conditions?  The researchers grow cells on top of a layer of mouse cells called feeder cells because they provide the cell-based nutrients to “feed” the tumor and allow it to grow.  They also use a particular inhibitor that allows the cells to grow indefinitely. They have created these modified cell lines from different types of tumors, from frozen biobanked tumors, and from as few as 4 live cells.  Even though this system, is better, it still doesn’t replicate the 3D architecture of a tumor…
  3. cancer organoids

    Cancer organoids. Notice the 3D clumps of cells after 217 days of growth. Thanks to the Kuo lab for the image

    Organoids. As you would expect the word to mean, an organoid is a mini 3D organ bud grown in a dish. Don’t imagine a teeny tiny beating heart.  These organoids are just clumps of cells, but an organized clump of cells that can help better understand cells and organs. The discovery of how to create organoids was so interesting that it was a 2013 Big Advance of the Year by The Scientists magazine. Scientist have also found a way to grow cancer cells into these 3D organoid structures. With tumor organoids, researchers can both study the genetics of the tumor (like you can with cell lines) as well as how the tumor behaved in a 3D environment that is more similar to what the tumor encounters in the body.  But what if we could do even better?

  4. Patient-derived xenograftsare when tumor tissue is taken directly from a patient’s tumor and put directly into a mouse.  Why would this be so awesome? The environment inside a mouse is more similar to the environment that the tumor is used to inside a person’s body.  The cells are less likely to die because they aren’t living in unnatural plastic. Also, a whole piece of tumor can be implanted into the mouse, maintaining the tumor cells connections to neighboring cells, which are critical for the tumor cells to communicate with one another for survival.

With all of these systems available to study tumors from a specific patient, what are scientists actually doing with these cells? In some cases, they are being used to sequence the genomes of the tumors to identify mutations that may be causing the tumor. If a tumor can be grown so that there is a lot of it, the tumor cells themselves can also be used to test treatments either in a dish or inside of a mouse. Imagine a cancer patient getting their tumor removed, part of the tumor is grown in one of the ways described above. Then the tumor is exposed to the top 10, or 50 or 100 anti-tumor drugs or combination of drugs to see what kills the tumor. This drug or combo of drugs can then be used to treat the patient. There are companies that are currently working on doing exactly this (check out Champions Oncology) so this “big dream” may soon become a cancer patient’s more promising reality.