Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019
With a message of drug safety and a burst of colorful foam, Virginia Commonwealth University pharmacy student Camille Schrier wowed the judges and won Miss America.
Her talent — a dramatic science demonstration of the catalytic conversion of hydrogen peroxide that shot bursts of colored foam high into the air — launched her over many of the other finalists, who showed off more traditional skills such as dancing and ballad singing.
The Virginia Tech graduate has degrees in biochemistry and systems biology and is pursuing a doctorate in pharmacy at the VCU School of Pharmacy. Her campaign initiative focused on educating people on the dangers of misusing medications including opioids.
“I am so proud to break stereotypes about who Miss America can be,” she told the judges.
Schrier’s science demonstration had already won the preliminary talent competition — and $2,000 — earlier in the week.
“We need to show that Miss America can be a scientist and that a scientist can be Miss America,” Schrier said during the interview round of the competition Thursday night in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Schrier won the right to compete by winning the title of Miss Virginia in June with the help of her science-related talent exhibition. That win and the video of her demonstration led millions around the world to see her story on TV news reports, social media and websites.
“I’m trying to be like Bill Nye [the science guy],” she told VCU News this summer, explaining her approach. “That’s what I’m going for. I want to get kids excited, but I don’t want it to be boring.”
Since her June win, Schrier has taken a year off from her studies at VCU to tour the state and share her campaign platform of STEM awareness and drug safety. She has spoken about science and medication to hundreds of schoolchildren and on national TV shows, including “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and “CBS This Morning.”
Scientists have taken notice. In November, General Electric Co. invited her to speak at its laboratories in New York. “From one scientist to another, you’re doing us women in STEM proud and inspiring a whole new generation of female scientists,” Fiona Ginty of GE Research told Schrier in a video inviting her to the labs.
Schrier, a Pennsylvania native, said she was an athletic kid, never a “girly-girl.” She attributes her love of science and nature to an eighth-grade science class. When she was 14, she became interested in pageants as a creative outlet.
The process taught her more than she expected, she said. “It taught me a lot about being professional … in terms of just being able to prepare a resume, go into an interview confidently and how to prepare for something like that.”
Schrier participated in pageants from age 14 until she started college four years later. She graduated cum laude from Virginia Tech in 2018 with degrees in biochemistry and systems biology. She entered VCU’s Doctor of Pharmacy program last year.
Lauren Caldas, Pharm.D., an assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy, taught Schrier in a challenging first-year pharmacy foundations course.
“In a class where a lot of students can become very stressed, she shined and was just a wonderful person to be around,” Caldas said. “She was always an example of professionalism.”
Around the time Schrier started pharmacy school, she learned that the Miss America competition had been revamped — eliminating the swimsuit competition and emphasizing professionalism and social impact. That, and the possibility of scholarships, reignited her interest. The Miss America organization says it is the nation’s top provider of scholarships for young women.
Building on her pharmacy education, Schrier decided she would make her platform “Mind Your Meds: Drug Safety and Abuse Prevention from Pediatrics to Geriatrics,” focusing on drug safety and abuse prevention. Since Schrier did not have much performing experience, she realized she would have to find an entertaining way to highlight her talents.
After looking online for science experiments for kids, she came across an experiment sometimes called “elephant toothpaste” that demonstrates the rapid decomposition of hydrogen peroxide using potassium iodide as a catalyst. The result is a dramatic burst of foam.
She acquired some industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide and practiced the experiment in the driveway of her apartment complex, adding food coloring to the foam. When she tried it at an outdoor car wash, the foam shot out so violently it hit the ceiling, staining it. (She scrubbed it clean with bleach.)
We need to show that Miss America can be a scientist and a scientist can be Miss America.
Her science experiment helped her win a regional title, Miss Dominion, making her eligible for the Miss Virginia competition. Because the Miss Virginia competition was held in a large space, she made her experiment bigger, with larger flasks and even more dramatic jets of brightly colored foam. She won the competition’s preliminary talent award.
“I expected to hear some feedback saying that my talent wasn’t really a talent,” Schrier said. “But I will tell you, I was overwhelmed with messages saying how cool my talent was, how refreshing it was and how everyone was impressed that I was able to tie education and science into something that was also entertaining.”
Schrier also has a personal reason for her interest in medical science. She is living with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic condition that affects body tissue, joints and blood vessels. She was diagnosed when she was 11.
“It definitely got me interested in science and medicine because there’s no treatment for this right now,” Schrier said. “There was a lot of genetic information regarding EDS and genetics was something I was always really interested in. This was a further interest, in terms of genetics, for me to look at and think about how that could help us diagnose people.”
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