Microscopist by Day, Roller Derby Queen by Night

To the students and researchers who rely on her expertise, she's Leslie Gunther-Cummins, electron microscopist and research technician in Einstein's Analytical Imaging Facility.  But this suburban mother of two has a secret identity.  At night, she straps on her skates, dons a helmet and kneepads, and assumes the role of roller derby queen. 

Prom Queen
Prom Queen
Sporting no bruises or broken limbs, Ms. Gunther-Cummins certainly doesn't fit the stereotypical roller girl image dramatized on TV and in the movies. Nor does she fit the description in Jim Croce's hit song "Roller Derby Queen," who was "built like a 'fridgerator with a head."  And although the nicknames and the costumes are still evident, "the roller derby we do now isn't quite as campy as it was then," she explains, adding, "There are rules, including no elbowing, no biting, and no fighting. If you engage in any fighting at all, you're ejected.  It's very strict; this is now a real sport."    

In fact, roller derby has undergone a grassroots revival in the last decade, evidenced by the new film Whip It, starring Juno's Ellen Page.  (Coincidentally, one of Page's teammates in the film, "Bloody Holly", is a medical technician.)  

Ms. Gunther-Cummins skates for Westchester's Suburbia Roller Derby, which has "bouts," both at home in Yonkers, and on the road.  For the fun bouts at home, the league is divided into two teams, such as the "Killers vs. the Prom Queens," that battle each other. Players use old-school "quad" skates (no roller blades here) and skate on a flat, as opposed to a banked, track.  Suburbia Roller Derby recently became a member of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, which sets rules and promotes competitions among the leagues.  

Not exactly a sports novice ("I was a springboard diver as a kid, all the way through college"), Ms. Gunther-Cummins was dropping her older son off for hockey practice when she spotted a flyer for roller derby tryouts.  "I carried it around for three weeks," until finally trying out, she recalls. Within a month, she was skating alongside a diverse group that included "lots of moms, lawyers, teachers, you name it," ranging in age from 22 to 50.  

At the microscope bench
At the microscope bench
Practices are three times a week and might involve everything from "off-skates practice to mixed martial arts.  These women are athletes, they're not [participating] just to beat each other up," she says.  

In August she made her derby debut. "I was excited, thrilled, and a mess of nerves all rolled into one. But the thrill of actually jamming for your team, and getting points that really count, is a great feeling." 

While still relatively new on the track, Ms. Gunther-Cummins is a 16-year Einstein veteran, and has seen "the technology change dramatically" over that time.  "A lot of what we do has gone to cryoelectron microscopy , which enables a sample to be viewed in its natural state, so you don't have to do any chemical processing before viewing it," she explains.  "We also do tomography, which lets us view the ultrastructure of the cell in 3-D."  

Jammin' at the arena
Jammin' at the arena
Ms. Gunther-Cummins also has done electron tomography on the nematode for Dr. David Hall, professor of neuroscience at Einstein, helping with HPF (high pressure freezing) procedures for his "Worm Atlas" (visit www.wormatlas.org or read the feature on the Einstein website).  "Leslie's skills at operating specialized equipment are outstanding," notes Dr. Hall. "She's the principal operator for the most advanced electron microscope on our campus, the Tecnai 20."  

Because of her specialized skills, Ms. Gunther-Cummins was a member of the teaching team Dr. Hall assembled for a course taught at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing this past April.  

After two weeks teaching, she got to explore the country for a week, which she highly recommends. "If you go on a tour, don't let them feed you the tour food," she cautions. "Instead, pick a place from a guidebook and head there to avoid the "Americanized Chinese food" you'd get on a standard tour."  

She also encourages others to strap on some skates.  "Roller derby has got to be one of the coolest things I've ever done," she says. "We're always looking for new skaters, somebody with potential, who can skate forward and backward and isn't afraid to fall."   

For more information, or to find out about Ms. Gunther-Cummins' latest bout, go to www.suburbiarollerderby.com .  Or, for assistance with microscopy needs, contact her at Einstein's Analytical Imaging Facility/

Posted on: Thursday, November 12, 2009