Shelley Cooke: Defying Gender Roles

Shelley Cooke is an extremely talented PhD candidate and graduate teaching assistant at Virginia Tech. She attended Cal Poly as an undergrad studying materials engineering and was also a founding member of her chapter of Chi Omega sorority. Basically, she is a well-rounded role model for many girls like myself.

You know those women who are such strong figures, you just feel empowered speaking with them? Well Shelley is one of those women, and I was lucky enough to have her as a professor and now a mentor. She joined me at Starbucks this past week to discuss major topics of the life of a successful young woman.

What is engineering?

I first asked Cooke to define engineering for all those who may want to know, “To me engineering is problem solving. We take a big picture problem and determine the best way to solve it. There is never just one way to solve a problem but many different ways which allows for thinking outside of the box and collaborating with new people to solve new problems.”

Misconceptions For Female Engineers

Cooke suggested misconceptions for female engineers might be the main culprit behind the lack of females in engineering.

According to Cooke, “Everyone thinks engineering is so math and science focused and male dominated. A lot of people are intimidated since this is all preconceived to be a guy thing.”

Cooke did point out that, on a positive note, companies are starting to make new kids toys including pink legos, which are definitely a step in the right direction. Disney is also doing a great job of creating stronger role models in princesses, designing characters who are leaders rather than girls who just need saved.

Cooke also pointed out that reaching out to girls at a younger age is vital to their career choices. “Girls are pushed in a different direction in middle school,” said  Cooke,  “Even if they don't know it's happening.”

How have you experienced inequality as a female in engineering?

One of the main ways Cooke has recognized inequality is her lack of mentors.

“There are so few female engineers in students and faculty,” said Cooke, “So it is harder to find a good female mentor to encourage you and push you to finish and move forward.”

Cooke knew she wanted to work with a specific professor at Virginia Tech before even starting school. Since she did summer research with this professor, she knew she would get attention and mentorship from her.

Cooke continued, “With fewer mentor options, it’s easier to feel unrecognized. The worst kind of bias is feeling alone without anyone relatable to talk with. This is a problem for engineering students in general including guys and girls. Some people think engineers have to be singular genius and do it all on their own which isn’t how the real world works.”

What would you say is the biggest inequality issue in engineering today?

Cooke prepared a well-worded response,”I think a big problem is the retention of diversity students, which I think will get even worse with the bans from Trump. I think another problem is some of the teaching styles... there really needs to be a move toward more project based learning and hands on activities. Just having a capstone project is not quite enough hands-on engineering and I think there are better ways to teach some topics than straight lecture.”

For me, I have to admit many difficult topics make so much more sense when you are learning through experience or lab, rather than simply trying to picture a complex problem based on your professor’s description.

What was it like being an engineering student and a sorority girl?

“From an outside perspective,” said Cooke, “If you're an engineer, people will often think the wrong thing if you're in a social sorority and not the engineering sorority. You definitely get surprised looks from people when you walk into a room and people realize you're an engineer; people will ask if you're in the right place. It is becoming more common to be an engineer and to be social. I love being in a sorority because you get to be friends with people who have different schedules and backgrounds, even though there are also times when it's hard to juggle.”

For me, being an engineer and a sister can be a lot to balance but the reward is definitely worth it. I joined a sorority because I was missing the selfless-drop everything to help one another-relationship I had with my best friends at boarding school, and I did find this sisterhood within a sorority. I became best friends with sisters who are not engineers, and I am so glad my college experience is one where I can respect girls in other majors, and recognize how hard my sisters work to balance jobs with multiple majors and organizations.

What research do you do here at Virginia Tech?

“My research is a mix between biomedical engineering and materials science,” said Cooke. “I look at the way therapeutic radiation and varying dose rates alters a material. Specifically I work with biomedical grade polymers.”

What advice do you have for a female engineering student?

For all of us searching for any guidance we can get, Cooke says: “I think one of the best pieces of advice I was given was to get involved outside of my class. Whether it's a club, society or sports team. As engineers, communication is a valuable part of our jobs and learning to communicate with people completely different than you is a great skill. Also, always think of new ideas and don't be afraid to share even it it seems extremely far-fetched. Sometimes I think females shy away since we are part of a fairly male dominated profession but everyone's ideas should be shared.”

What is the best class you have taken and why?

“Hmm well I took a pretty fun bowling class but I don't think that's what you mean! My favorite class was my senior year engineering project. I worked with a good friend of mine who was an industrial systems engineer to create our own project with a company in LA. We got to develop a new system for their processing and analyze the materials for their bottling.”

Finally, how do you hope to impact the world as an engineer?

“Overall, I just want to help someone in the world," said Cooke. "I went into the biomedical field to help people whether that ends up being in industry or academia.”

Cooke’s brains and perseverance will certainly lead to a meaningful contribution to the world. Little does she know, she also makes a large impact on the world through her contribution to the community at Virginia Tech. Cooke was right in saying that having a mentor really aids a female engineering student in achieving success. By serving as a mentor to students at Virginia Tech, she opens new opportunities for students and aids them in shaping their goals for the future. Thank you Shelley Cooke for sharing your experiences with all of us, and acting as a great role model for college girls!