Promoting STEM at the Miss America Pageant

Miss Virginia, a pharmacy student, presents a roof-raising science experiment as her talent.

Miss Virginia does a science experiment
Photo credit John Herzog

Camille Schrier took an experimental approach to this year’s Miss Virginia pageant.

Traditionally, contestants put on sparkly gowns and sing, dance or play an instrument. Schrier, who’s pursuing a doctoral degree in pharmacy, instead donned a lab coat and protective eyewear. Then, she mixed hydrogen peroxide, food coloring, dish soap and potassium iodide, a catalyst. Together, they exploded into “The Elephant’s Toothpaste,” a visual demonstration of an extreme chemical reaction.

The potassium iodide causes the hydrogen peroxide molecules to decompose into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. When the compounds mix, a lot happens very quickly. As the oxygen gas gets trapped in the dish soap, the mixture heats, expands and shoots out of the top of a flask. The plume of hot, steamy foam resembles a huge stream of toothpaste. As Schrier’s fountains of orange, blue and green foam soared high toward the stage’s lighting grid, she told the audience, “Keep an eye out, because science really is all around us.”

Schrier would know. She already has a double degree in systems biology and biochemistry from Virginia Tech. With the science demonstration, she won both the talent portion of the state pageant, the Miss Virginia crown and earned over $20,000 in scholarships. Schrier is already using her platform to advocate for public health by supporting “Mind Your Meds.” The Medicine Abuse Project campaign aims to teach the public to use medication only as prescribed by physicians.

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The PharmD student is also encouraging kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She’s been repeating her Elephant’s Toothpaste demonstration at elementary schools throughout Virginia. In a recent interview, she said, “[I want] to be able to break those barriers and to really inspire young women and men to follow this path if that’s something that they’re passionate about.”

It’s a good time to be a scientist in the Miss America pageant. The next Miss America will be competing in an overhauled event that organizers are calling been “2.0.” The pageant, usually held at the end of summer in Atlantic City, will move to Connecticut and will air in December, ABC News recently reported.

While pageants of the past may have elevated beauty over personal accomplishment, “Miss America 2.0” will put less emphasis on the contestants’ physical appearance. The swimsuit competition has been nixed in favor of interviews with judges. The evening gown portion of the event has been replaced with a red-carpet-styled catwalk, giving contestants a chance to express their personal flair while answering questions about their social impact platforms. The talent portion remains. Schrier won’t share the particulars, but she does confirm she will once again dazzle with science.