Metro

Full-time scientist, part-time Patriots cheerleader

Theresa Oei, a researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, is one of the new Patriots cheerleaders.
Dwight Darian
Theresa Oei was on the field at Gillette Stadium for a memorable season.

Theresa Oei fell in love with science as a kid. But she was also a talented ballet performer and could kick up a storm as an Irish step dancer.

Those childhood passions have paid off for her as an adult.

On Sunday, Oei, a researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, will briefly set aside her lab coat and slip on her dance shoes to root for the New England Patriots as one of the team’s newest cheerleaders.

Maria Nemchuk/Broad Institute
Theresa Oei spends her days developing genome editing technologies at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
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“It’s going to be a little crazy,” she said. “But I think we are going to have a wonderful time, and I’m excited to be down there and a part of it.”

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Oei, who studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry as an undergraduate at Yale University, began working in 2015 at the Broad Institute, a biomedical research facility in Cambridge.

She spends her weekdays there developing genome editing technologies in the lab of Feng Zhang, a core institute member and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Theresa is a talented scientist and a great contributor to our lab,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “She has a promising future ahead of her.”

Oei said she is working on a “crazy project,” then rattled off biology terms like “cilia,” “microorganisms,” and “Oxytricha trifallax,” which she described as a pond-dwelling, single-cell organism that undergoes a complex genome rearrangement process during development.

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That’s the organism she’s studying now.

“What happens is, [the cells] take their genome and break it into hundreds of thousands of pieces, and then have to stitch it back together in a precise manner,” she said. “So what we want to know is, could we understand that mechanism and process and use that in human cells?”

Oei, who describes herself as fully “entrenched” in New England, grew up in Connecticut, and has been a longtime fan of the Patriots.

With a background in Irish step dancing — she is known internationally and is now studying for her certification so she can teach others — and ballet, the 23-year-old decided to try out for the team’s dance squad in March, even though she had never been a cheerleader before.

If a dancer has a good foundation in ballet, she can easily adapt to other techniques and styles, she said. With Irish step dancing, the rhythm and energy translates nicely to cheerleading.

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“I was looking for an opportunity to dance and do something different,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect. I was kind of clueless, to be perfectly honest.”

But she survived the various tryouts and boot camp training, all the while working diligently in the lab.

Oei was on the field at Gillette Stadium for a memorable season, one that at times has given her chills.

There was the time quarterback Tom Brady came charging onto the field after serving his four-game suspension. That same day, the dance squad met with cancer survivors, one of the many community events the team has participated in.

“It was an emotional moment,” she said. “There was something special about this season.”

As much as she has enjoyed cheerleading, Oei’s future with the team remains unclear.

She is planning to attend graduate school and has interviews lined up at Rockefeller University, Stanford University, Yale, and Harvard.

Since she doesn’t know where she will end up, Oei has not committed to trying out for the Patriots dance team for next year. (Open auditions are coming up after the Super Bowl.)

She has decided to put her scientific research first.

“I’ve enjoyed cheerleading for the Patriots and have learned so much from this team,” she said.

“But in the end, I see science as my vocation.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.