Beakers and chemicals. Sparkles and high heels. An uncommon pairing for most is Miss America’s reality— something she’s working to normalize for young women.
When Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier jumped back into the pageant world last year, she was initially stumped as to what she could do for the talent competition. A month before the competition, however, the then-Miss Virginia thought up an unprecedented way to catch the judges’ attention.
“I didn’t have performing talent because I don’t sing or dance or play an instrument. … I had to figure out the whole talent thing, and so [I thought about] a chemistry demonstration, right? I’m a scientist, I can be like Bill Nye,” Schrier recalls thinking. Adorned in a white lab coat and safety goggles, Schrier shed the stereo-typical song-and-dance performances of her predecessors and demonstrated the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide.
“Science is all around us. I’ve loved science since I was a little girl. It’s my mission to show kids that science is
fun, relevant and easy to understand,” she told the audience. She then poured potassium iodide into Erlenmeyer flasks full of hydrogen peroxide. The subsequent chemical reaction sent thick columns of blue, green and orange foam shooting into the air more than a dozen feet, leaving pageant judges awestruck. She dubbed the massive foam “elephant’s toothpaste.”
A scientist, Schrier is a 24-year-old Pennsylvania native who holds degrees in biochemistry and systems biology from Virginia Tech. Now a doctor of pharmacy student at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Pharmacy, she is taking off a year from her studies to fulfill her duties as Miss America.
Her official platform focuses on opioid abuse prevention and awareness, topics she spoke about during VCU’s Silent No More Overdose Symposium in January.
However, Schrier is also using her platform as Miss America to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers for girls. She was a keynote speaker at the Virginia Information Technology Agency’s Women in Innovation conference in March, encouraging women to pursue STEM careers. And decked out in her “sparkly hat” — as she calls her Miss America crown — and her sequin-decorated white lab coat, Schrier also leads science experiments with girls at places like Mad Science of Central Virginia, which holds children’s science classes and camps.
“Miss America is someone that needs to educate, be able to communicate with everyone, and that’s what I do as a woman of science,” Schrier said during the Miss America competition, which was held in December.“We need to show that Miss America can be a scientist and that a scientist can be Miss America.”
Virginia Business: What sparked your interest in science?
Camille Schrier: I didn’t really have an “aha” moment. … I grew up on a 10-acre property with a pond and all the nature that I could ever ask for around me — and that was really where I started to love biology. Then I loved cooking and baking with my mom, [which is] science … then it kind of took off from there.
VB: How did you end up going to Virginia Tech?
Schrier: It’s a long story, because I didn’t go to Tech originally. I went to [the University of Michigan] and I transferred to Virginia Tech. I started at Virginia Tech in 2015 as a junior in college. … I wanted to be in a place that I felt like would support me through any adversity… academically, personally, professionally — and that’s what they did. … I genuinely am the proudest
Hokie of all. I got two degrees there and stayed for [a] fifth year of undergraduate education because I was really interested in pursuing a degree in systems biology and biochemistry, so it took me a little bit longer. But I’m grateful that I did. Here I am now, a graduate student at VCU and taking time off [for Miss America duties].
VB: At what point did you decide to pursue pharmacy?
Schrier: I didn’t decide to do pharmacy until my fifth year of my undergraduate degree. … I was working in a pharmaceutical company, interning under a doctor of pharmacy. He showed me that there was so much more that you could do than just sit in a Rite Aid or work in a hospital as a pharmacist…. I love medicine, but I don’t necessarily like blood and guts, so it gave me that medicine aspect without being an M.D.
VB: At what point did you decide to pursue Miss America?
Schrier: I had competed as a teenager in organizations that were similar to Miss America and enjoyed them. I did them to gain interview skills and public speaking skills as a teen. … Then I was kind of done with them. I never thought I would come back. … I didn’t have a performing talent because I don’t sing or dance or play an instrument, and I also didn’t want to be on stage in a swimsuit … [but] they dropped the swimsuit competition in 2018, so that barrier was gone. … I ended up scrolling through Facebook one day … and saw an ad for a local competition … and so I’m like, “Maybe I’ll just try this. I’m not too old.” … I had to figure out the whole talent thing, and so … [I thought I’d try] a chemistry demonstration, right? I’m a scientist; I can be like Bill Nye. I got my beakers and my chemicals and all of that and … went to Miss Virginia and won, then went to Miss America and won.
VB: How did you decide what your platform would be as Miss America?
Schrier: Miss America has two jobs: to further the mission of the Miss America Organization but also to promote the voice of a social impact initiative. … Talking about medication safety and prescription drug abuse is something that I do inherently as a pharmacy student and what I will do in my career. I didn’t want to just pull something out of thin air that wasn’t authentic. … Now [I’m] working with the DEA, which is pretty much the highest level that you can get in terms of working with drug safety and abuse prevention.
VB: Part of your mission is about STEM education advocacy. What are your plans for this year for that mission?
Schrier: [There] was such a huge demand to have me come and do some events with young girls and young people, and be that crazy, kooky scientist girl with the crown on her head — people loved that … to just redefine what it looks like to be a woman in science. There’s this stereotype … [that] you can’t be glamorous and be a scientist. I’ve gone into that scientific realm and had people that questioned me because I was a woman that wore makeup and liked to dress up. Just as maybe in a role like Miss America, people wonder, “You’re a scientist? What?” I got to break stereotypes on both sides of that equation. I really hope to travel around and show kids that science is really fun by doing demonstrations. If we can get kids excited about science at a young age, then when … it gets really difficult, you can think back and remember how exciting it really is. It’s all tied together, and if I can be the catalyst for that — to use a scientific term — then I’ve done my job.
VB: How do you think we can get students interested in STEM and prepare them for tech jobs at companies coming to Virginia like Amazon?
Schrier: Showing them where science can be applied. [At a recent event,] I asked [kids] to tell me about something that they use in their life that has to do with science. The real answer is absolutely everything. Think about it: There are video games that they play. If they eat a Lunchable for lunch, if they use an iPad for homework, if they like watching TV, if they like watching cartoons, any of those types of things. There’s this perception that science is this very stuffy research, that it’s boring, and difficult and not relatable to people. … We have so many STEM jobs coming at us right now with this changing world of technology that we need kids to know that they have a place in science if it’s something that they’re interested in.
VB: What challenges are there for women in science?
Schrier: I had a man tell me, “I know why there’s less women in science. Women just aren’t as successful in science groups because their brain is just wired differently.” He made a point to come up to me at a meeting to tell me
that. I was like, “Sir, you’re wrong.” … It’s really shocking to me that in 2020 people still have that attitude. It’s really sad because sometimes I’m like, “OK. We all know that STEM is important. Am I beating a dead horse here?” But then I have those types of encounters that remind me why what I do is really important for every little girl … who needs to know that their brain works just as well as anybody else’s.
VB: Has becoming Miss America changed your career path?
Schrier: That’s a difficult one. I still plan to go back to get my Pharm.D. I still plan to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry, but I have a lot more experience behind me that might lead me in a different path. If I’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s to go where you are led. … I think I’m going to have an opportunity to build a lot of different partnerships with science companies in the next few years, that I’ll be able to advocate more at a social level for women in STEM, but also for medication safety after this year. I want to be that person that I needed as a young girl to see this woman who’s pursuing a science career and makes it really cool.
VB: What are your career interests?
Schrier: I’m a little nontraditional, unsurprisingly. …There is so much business in science now … so I was considering combining an MBA through this process, but I’m focused on just getting my Pharm.D. right now and then finding my way into a pharmaceutical company where I can use my clinical background to help guide the business. When you understand that clinical perspective, it changes the game.
VB: How did you become interested in advocating for opioid-abuse prevention?
Schrier: I went to a Narcan training session as a pharmacy student, which is the opioid overdose reversal medication. I realized how huge of a problem it was — both with prescription opioids and illicit opioids in Virginia and beyond. … We need to make it normal to talk about [opioid abuse] so that people cannot feel bad anymore, because it doesn’t discriminate [by] age, gender or socioeconomic status — it is blatant in our country.
VB: What have you seen in Virginia in terms of what we’ve done for STEM advocacy and for opioid abuse prevention?
Schrier: Virginia has [faced] the opioid epidemic. I will say that … VCU is one of the leading research institutions on addiction research, regarding opioids specifically. I think that’s part of the reason why I was drawn to [VCU] because it’s something that’s discussed … [and] I’m lucky that I had that perspective. … We have [venues] like the [Silent No More] Overdose Symposium … where hundreds of people are coming together to try to solve this problem. I think we’re doing an exceptional job, and I hope that other states can follow suit with that. Virginia Tech is [also] an example for me because I’ve worked with them personally on STEM advocacy for kids. … They’re fostering young people’s interest in STEM careers in a way that impacted me.
VB: What do you want to do with your year as Miss America?
Schrier: Being able to be that role model for young women — [telling them] that they don’t have to fit in
[a] box, they don’t have to look a certain way, they don’t have to talk a certain way or act a certain way. Go run around and be your weird self because honestly, we need more of that. … This is the first year I’ve taken off from my education since I was in pre-K, so it better be for a doggone good reason, right? … That’s what my goal is — to learn and push myself professionally and personally this year and be able to craft my messaging. … I hope that I’m able to show people that I’m a normal person with an exceptional opportunity.
VB: What will it be like returning to VCU to resume your studies next year?
Schrier: I was really worried about that actually. I had talked to two of my professors and my dean of students before I ever went to Miss Virginia, because I wanted to make sure, No. 1, that I was allowed to take the year off and return. We kind of have this mutually beneficial relationship, where I’m helping promote the university and they’re helping promote my platform and my voice.
VB: How have you stayed up to date on STEM and pharmacy topics while being out of school?
Schrier: [I’m] starting to develop an advisory committee of my professors and the people in the industry who are actually licensed pharmacists. I’m doing that, but I’m also a huge podcast girl, so I get a lot of my educational material through podcasts as I’m traveling.