BAKERSFIELD — On some days, Bakersfield native Alayna Westcom makes appearances around the state, wearing a Miss Vermont sash and crown in full makeup, dress and jewelry.
Other days, the petite 24-year-old, now a Sheldon resident, is in scrubs and a ponytail, working either as a medical technologist at Northwestern Medical Center or as an autopsy technician at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Yes, you read that right. Miss Vermont sees dead people.
And she likes it.
“I want to be a medical examiner,” Westcom said this week. She added of pathology, “It’s just so fascinating. I can’t imagine doing anything else for my job.”
Putting her two interests together, Westcom said, astonishes many. “When it comes to pageants, people are so intrigued,” she said. “Not many people are an autopsy technician.”
Surprise is a reaction Westcom is becoming accustomed to in her time as Miss Vermont. At the Miss America pageant last week news coverage of her wowed the country. She had performed a science experiment for her talent segment of the competition. That was a first for the pageant.
But science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are interests Westcom wants to see better represented in the pageant world, which largely attracts communications and theater types.
As a scientist, Westcom noted the Miss Vermont and Miss America contests are ultimately scholarship programs – they paid for her undergraduate program at Bay Path College and post-baccalaureate education – and they should encourage whatever scholarly path young women are interested in.
“There are so many young girls who could benefit from the scholarship money,” said Westcom.
Westcom was just a young girl when she began envisioning herself in the pageant world.
“When I was eight years old, I dressed up as Miss America for Halloween,” she said, laughing as she sat and remembered during the interview at Traveled Cup on Thursday. Several years later, she met Sarah Jo Willey, the last Miss Vermont from Bakersfield, in 2002.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to be Miss Vermont,” Westcom said.
After seven years of trying, she was finally crowned this past April at the pageant held in Barre. She stood out in all parts of the competition: evening gown, interview, on-stage question, swimsuit and finally, talent.
The talent portion evolved over the years, Westcom said.
“I’ve sang and danced for many years,” she said. Her first five years in the Miss Vermont pageant, she chose to dance for her talent, and she also took lessons in the attempt to sing.
“I realized that nobody wants to hear me sing – I’m not very good,” she said, laughing. “I was dancing because I thought you had to be a dancer or a singer to win a pageant.”
But after five years, Westcom and those around her thought about trying something different – something that actually interested her.. “We came to the conclusion that doing a science experiment or science demonstration was the way to go,” she said.
It won her Miss Vermont, and it put her in the spotlight at the Miss America Pageant.
Miss Georgia won the entire contest last Sunday, but Westcom, who was eliminated after the top 15 were chosen, has had a flurry of local and national press after she demonstrated Elephant’s Toothpaste, or the exothermic reaction between hydrogen peroxide, potassium iodide, and soap in beakers.
The result? A giant, exploding foamy mess.
She added of the entire, week-long pageant, “It is a very overwhelming and exhausting experience. [But] we are treated like royalty while we’re there.”
Police and SWAT teams followed the 52 young women. Westcom roomed with Miss Arkansas, and said that was a blast.
“You meet some of your best friends,” said Westcom.
When jokingly asked if it was like the film “Miss Congeniality,” Westcom said she received that question a lot, down to comparisons between her “explosive” experiment and the movie’s main plot.
But, she said, it was pretty different. Scholarships are the focus, and Westcom walked away with $9,000 for her further education.
Science is not just Westcom’s pageant talent but is her entire platform. As a competitor for Miss Vermont, she had to create a campaign, which she called “Success Through STEM.”
Prior to winning the state pageant, competing in the Miss America pageant and continuing today, Westcom visits public schools statewide and teaches science to kindergarteners through eighth graders “in a fun, inquiry-based way,” she said.
With Elephant’s Toothpaste as an example, Westcom said her goal is to introduce students to science and peak their interest in it as a career path.
“Students will stay in STEM education if they’re intrigued by it, if they’re imagination is running, and if they’re excited about it,” she said. Westcom remembers her Bakersfield Elementary and Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans science classes building rollercoasters, dissecting animals and competing – and winning blue ribbons – at science fairs.
The dead & pageants
STEM in the classroom stuck with Westcom, and she pursued science studying forensics in college. After graduating she interned with the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, where, on the first day, she took part in an autopsy.
“I hadn’t seen a dead body before,” said Westcom. “It was hands on.” While she said it took some getting used to, she handled the experience fine. Her fellow male intern, however, did not.
“I felt so bad because he almost fainted everyday,” she said. Westcom added that it was especially difficult for him because of the time of year. “You see a lot more gruesome things in the summer,” she said.
The internship ended, but Westcom liked it so much she stayed on as an autopsy technician at UVM Medical Center, and she also got a medical technologist job at NMC. Westcom wants to pursue pathology in medical school. Her goal is to take the MCAT exam and apply to UVM Medical School.
Before that, though, she’s got to finish her year as Miss Vermont and work her two jobs, switching between crown and scrubs day to day. The two came briefly together for a photograph in the NMC lab this week, where Westcom wore her sparkly sash and tiara. While smiling for the camera, the pageant competitor discussed her work schedule, including her next shift: the late one on Friday night.
When asked what her Miss Vermont duties would entail, Westcom said, “The next eight and a half months are geared towards visiting the rest of the 251 cities and towns I have not visited yet, and showing my love for math and science in anyway possible.”
Westcom added that with all the attention paid to her Miss America scientific experiment talent, she feels she’s accomplished a lot of her goal already.
“To have everyone so excited about it, it’s an amazing, amazing feeling,” she said. “That means I’m making a difference.”
Part of it, too, is breaking down stereotypes about who pageant contestants can be. “I always get told I don’t look like an autopsy technician or a scientist,” said Westcom. “I’m not sure what an autopsy technician really looks like.”
She added of pageant participants, “We’re real people.”
When asked if she thought more pageant participants would bring STEM into the mix, Westcom said, “Hopefully someday, we will.”