Caribbean Engineer Energizes Cornell

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Caribbean Engineer Energizes Cornell

Sigma Pi Sigma alum (Adelphi University Chapter, Class of 2010) Malika Grayson, a PhD candidate at Cornell University, invigorates rooftop wind turbines and students

Photo courtesy of Malika Grayson.

How did you get your start in science?

I come from a large family in Trinidad and Tobago, with 10 aunts and uncles on my father’s side (you can only imagine my cousin count). Growing up with such a huge family exposed me to many different careers in service, nursing, and education. But the one common thing my family members have always shared has been a passion for helping others. When I was young I knew that no matter what I chose to do, I wanted to have an impact.

I have always enjoyed taking appliances apart and putting them back together. On one occasion, when I was no more than 15, my mother and I began to leave the house only to discover the car had a flat tire. It took me a while, but I changed the tire (with my mother directing me with what she calls “moral support”). When the time came for college, I knew I wanted to use my hands. So I went to Adelphi University to get a bachelor’s in physics with the intention of majoring in engineering. During my last summer at Adelphi, I applied for a summer undergraduate research program.

That program would become one of the key reasons I remained in STEM. Being exposed to research and seeing that you can learn so many things in such a short period, as well as come up with your own conclusions, was fascinating to me. One of my professors at Adelphi suggested that I get a PhD to help develop my engineering experience and figure out what exactly I wanted to do. After visiting Cornell University and meeting the kind people there, including the person who would turn out to be my advisor, I knew this was the place for me.

Who supported you at the start of your research?

One of my biggest supporters was my late advisor. He was an advocate for every person in his life and always told me not to settle for any less than I deserved. When I think about the impact he made on me and on others, I first wonder how he did it. Then I am in awe of the fact that one mere person could draw in so many people. It has made me realize that while a career path is important, it is who you help along the way that counts.

What has been the subject of your research?

My research is inspired by my island in the Caribbean. Imagine if we could take our “island breeze” and use it to supply energy!

I focus on optimizing building geometry to increase potential wind energy yield in the built environment. Specifically, I design structures to concentrate and guide wind for energy harvesting devices placed on rooftops in order to decrease external electricity demand. City areas have the highest electricity demand. Therefore, designing the buildings with wind energy in mind can have a tremendous impact in the long run.

As a Rudd Mayer Fellow, I had the opportunity this year to attend the American Wind Energy Association Conference. Other awards I have received include the Zellman Warhaft Commitment to Diversity Award from the Diversity Programs in Engineering at Cornell University, the Mike Shin Distinguished Member of the Year Award from the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and being selected as Cornell’s Engineering Hometown Hero.

Tell us about the work you have been doing with students, the work that led to your Hometown Hero award.

When I first started at Cornell University, I became a member of our collegiate NSBE chapter. I was in admiration of the members of the chapter. Young, black, and educated, they encouraged me to continue my membership. Now I participate on the executive board level. I became the community service chair in 2012, which was fitting for me because of the passion I have always had for giving back to the community. We have volunteered hundreds of hours over the past few years.

In 2014 I took on the role of pre-collegiate initiative chair, a position that, among other responsibilities, serves as liaison to the NSBE Jr. chapter (usually a local high school, in this case Ithaca High School). We had not had an active NSBE Jr. chapter in years, but I felt that it was important we reactivate the chapter so that high school students could be exposed to engineering, just as I had been when I started college.

Together with the assistant principal of Ithaca High School, we made a list of all of the students who were interested in STEM. We held a meeting with students and parents in which the collegiate chapter offered to sponsor the membership of any students who were interested. Before we knew it, the junior chapter was up, running, and self-sufficient. As a joint venture, we hosted an engineering day at one of the local middle schools. The NSBE Jr. chapter has also held fundraisers and information sessions for interested students. Most recently, they completed a computer programming course to prep members for future competitions at the national level of NSBE. At the last national convention they won Pre-Collegiate Chapter of the Winter, which is a big feat for a new chapter. I am very proud!

So far two of the students from NSBE Jr. are attending Cornell in the fall, which means they are going to be great additions to the NSBE collegiate chapter.

What work have you done with the Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE)?

Currently I am the co-director of GradSWE, which falls under SWE. Unlike our undergraduate membership, GradSWE’s membership is very small. This is because the number of females in engineering is very small.

Women are a minority in engineering. Some, like myself, are double minorities, and this can weigh heavily on an individual. As female engineers, we sometimes feel as though we need to work twice as hard in order to be taken seriously in the male-dominated field. I am the only female PhD student in my lab and the only black female PhD student in my department (as well as only the second black female in Cornell’s history who will graduate with a PhD in mechanical engineering).

Fortunately, I have the support of my lab colleagues and my advisors, who have reassured me during tough times. Not many of us have that. This is why GradSWE is of such importance and needs to be nurtured as it continues to grow. We have to nurture our female undergraduate engineers so that they feel that passion needed to go to graduate school. Engineering academia needs to become a place where women are not a minority. It’s 2015!

We regularly invite female speakers to do workshops on topics such as salary negotiation, elevator pitches, dressing for success in the workforce, and speaking out in the workplace. Our organization also holds social events that allow women to network with each other and talk about their interdisciplinary experiences. We often forget that we are just as deserving as our male counterparts, so we need to own who we are as brilliant engineers.

What would be your advice to other Sigma Pi Sigma alumni who would like to support the younger generations?

Mentoring is really important. After the final years of undergraduate or graduate school, students often have no clue where to go, what to do, and in whom to confide. Just talking about your experiences to another student is helpful. Remember what it was like for you at that stage in your career and the steps you took to overcome your fears. It could be as simple as getting involved locally with a STEM group on campus at a nearby university. There are connections everywhere. Do not stop when you have gotten to where you want to be in life. Pull up and support others behind you along the way.

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