We ask Haley Kalil about her love of medical biology and her new social media campaign encouraging STEM among young women.
Your parents were both mechanical engineers. Were you pressured into the subject, or were you naturally drawn to it?
I wouldn’t call it pressure; I would call it a nudge. They saw that I was naturally drawn to the human body and biology, so they encouraged me to pursue that. Normally, women are pressured to get out of those fields because they think ‘Oh, you’re a girl, you should be doing this instead.’ When I was younger, I was in upper-level physics classes, and I was one of only a few women in my class. There’s nothing more powerful than an intelligent woman, so I’m glad my parents encouraged me.
If it weren’t for your parents’ involvement in the field, do you think you still would have had an initial love for STEM?
It made classes more accessible, but I’ve always had a love for it. They encouraged me to persevere, though. In elementary school, everyone is learning the same things at the same time so taking science and math didn’t mean anything. But in high school and college, I noticed the gender disparity more clearly as we were able to choose our classes. In upper-level physics, I was one of four women in a class of over 50. I remember my organic chemistry professor sitting me down in his office and telling me “I want you to know that you can do this. You are one of the most talented people in my class.” From someone outside of my family and friends to tell me they were proud of me and believed in me, it helped me to believe in myself and keep going.
Tell me about the Nerd Herd and the idea behind it. Where is it now, and where do you see it in 10 years?
I’ve faced many stereotypes in my career as a Sports Illustrated model. There’s an expectation that if you have a career focused around your looks, you can’t also be intelligent. I wanted to show young women that you can be both things. You don’t have to shun femininity to be a nerd, and you don’t have to act dumb for the sake of femininity. I have photos of me in a bikini and me graduating summa cum laude. When I listed my academic degrees and achievements, so many women flooded me with messages telling me that they couldn’t post this or that on social media for fear that their male coworkers would judge them, and they would lose respect at work. Who do you talk to about that feeling? That weird pressure to not even be able to post a vacation photo for fear of being simultaneously sexualized and shamed. The Nerd Herd is all about showing that duality and embracing your intelligence. We want to empower women to love and embrace their bodies and their minds.