A University of Wisconsin-Madison student from Wausau will be the first nuclear engineer to compete in the Miss America pageant Dec. 15. Grace Stanke, who was crowned Miss Wisconsin in June, is using her platform to advocate for nuclear power by showcasing women. Can be successful in male dominated industries.
Stankey’s interest in engineering runs in the family. Her father was a civil engineer and she grew up on construction sites in and around Wausau. In high school, she took dual credit college courses and became interested in nuclear engineering. Stanke tells his skeptical father about his plan to enter controversial territory.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Grace, there’s no future, there’s no way you should be doing this,'” Stankey told Wisconsin Public Radio. “And I was a precocious 16-year-old. I said, ‘Look at me.'”
As an undergraduate at UW-Madison Stanke, now 20, works with the university’s HSX Stellarator facility, one of three magnetic fusion experiments on campus.
Stanke designed test procedures to ensure a superconducting magnet that heated materials in a containment vessel, called a stellarator, was working properly. She said the work taught her about computer coding, chemical analysis and the mechanical operation of control panels.
Stanke said, “It’s got a little bit of everything.” “And I’m a person who likes to wake up and do something different every day, and this nuclear industry is certainly conducive to that.”
Stanke said she sees nuclear power as important for reducing emissions from fossil fuels. It has launched a social impact initiative called “Clean Energy, Clean Future”, which aims to promote social acceptance of nuclear power.
“We are in a time where our society is focusing more and more on getting to zero carbon, but we are also in a time where we are really running out of fossil fuels as a planet,” Stanke said.
Stanke said she strongly supports other zero-carbon energy sources like solar and wind power, but sees nuclear power as the cleanest method to fill in the gaps when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
Stankey’s path to this year’s Miss America pageant dates back to a failed violin competition when she was 13. She said she had forgotten her music, was shaking with nervousness and “was a mess.”
So she doubled down, researched other talent contests and learned about the Miss America Outstanding Teen organization, which secured scholarships for college.
In 2017, Stankey won the Miss Wisconsin Outstanding Teen title. In June, Stankey was crowned Miss Wisconsin.
The full-time job has brought Stankey to speak at cultural events in Wisconsin and abroad. In September, she was the keynote speaker at the Women in Nuclear Canada conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
“One thing about being in both of these industries is sometimes you’re put in this box,” Stanke said. “Sometimes you get caught up in this one thing that people see you as Miss Wisconsin or a nuclear engineer, and they think you’re everything. But the thing about it is that we are women who can Huh. We are women who can step up and really achieve anything they set their mind to,
Stanke said she has already received a job offer related to nuclear power, but is waiting until after Thursday’s Miss America pageant to decide what her next step will be.