Ep 380: Grace Stanke - Miss America, 2023
Bret Kugelmass [00:00:00] So we're here today with Grace Stanke, who is Miss America 2023. But what I think is more important, an undergrad research assistant at the Reactor Technology Integration Lab. You've been working at the co-op at Exelon Constellation, and just like generally as an up and coming nuclear engineer. Just so excited, so excited to have you here.
Grace Stanke [00:00:20] Yeah, it's been super exciting. I've worked in two research labs at UW Madison on the campus there. One was the HSX stellerator, so I did some fusion research and then the other was that Reactor Technology Integration Lab. So I did some work on desalination plants. Otherwise, I worked with Constellation as a co-op for a little over three semesters where I was able to do a lot of work with their vendor independent methods group. But now, I'm kind of stepping into a different role within the nuclear community as I became Miss Wisconsin and now as Miss America, where I get to do some really fun advocacy work and work with the general public on nuclear topics.
Bret Kugelmass [00:00:57] That's so cool. But we're not going to gloss over your technical achievements. I want to actually go through each of those and get into actual real detail because I think like, just as you being a high profile figure now, your ability to inspire people to go into this discipline I think is actually pretty important. And so I want to have this as an opportunity for people to be able to refer to your experiences more broadly and inspire people to join there. But it's just so funny, I think you're our second Miss America, maybe... Actually is there a difference between Miss America and Miss USA?
Grace Stanke [00:01:29] There is. There is, yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:31] Did you know we had Kára McCullough on the show?
Grace Stanke [00:01:34] Oh, I didn't know she was on the show. I do know of her and everything. She's a wonderful young woman. But yeah, Miss USA and Miss America are two separate organizations.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:42] So we've had both now. We've covered both our bases. How cool is that? Something as like niche as nuclear engineer has now been represented on both. That is so cool, right?
Grace Stanke [00:01:51] Yeah, it's really exciting. It's really exciting having that. And it goes to show that nuclear is a growing field and a growing industry. I think it's awesome.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:59] I don't think it's growing that much, which I think is just even more impressive. It's just so cool when people are able to do things from this multifaceted approach. I even think just bringing a different lens, like being super good at one thing in one space, I don't care what it is... Like, you could be a part time EMT or something and also be a nuclear engineer and there's going to be a tremendous amount of new things that you're able to bring into both spaces, just lessons learned, cultural perspectives. So I just think that's so cool. Take us through... Can we just go like, earlier childhood? How'd you become an engineer to begin with and why nuclear?
Grace Stanke [00:02:38] Yeah, so engineering in general, I kind of always knew about. My dad was a civil engineer. So I grew up, he would take us to construction sites and I'd see bridges get demoed overnight and things like that and watch the videos and things like that. So, growing up I always knew engineering to be a part of my life and I always enjoyed math and science. I was a kid that, I strived for a challenge. I personally, this might be a hot take, but I don't believe in having a 4.0. I think if you've got a 4.0, you should be in some harder classes. So it's a weird take, but that kind of started in sixth grade. I was doing really, really well in all of my classes to the point of boredom. And I'll fully acknowledge, when I get bored I cause trouble in the classroom. So I was like, "Okay, I need to be in some harder classes here to not be in trouble." And I ended up talking to administrators in middle school and I skipped a grade then after some discussion. So I did 6th and 7th, all in one year. Then, I wanted to push more on math moving forward at that point, and I ended up taking algebra one in 8th grade.
Grace Stanke [00:03:44] That desire to push further with math and science, specifically, continued through high school. I started taking dual enrollment courses at the local college as a sophomore in high school. So by the time I graduated high school, I had the equivalent of an associate's degree at that point, because of the dual enrollment courses I had taken. I never actually got the degree because to get the degree, you have to have graduated high school first and I graduated high school a month after college graduation happened. So super, you know, I'm totally not salty about it still, but it's fine. But it was something that I think contributed a lot to my interest in math and science, that strive for a challenge and that strive to have that ambition and that challenge moving forward.
Bret Kugelmass [00:04:29] Before we move on, did you have any mentors that helped guide like, your energy? Because I know that if I were in your shoes... Like, I got into trouble. I didn't have someone to like help me to focus on just taking on harder classes, I just like, did what I needed to do and then spent my time, you know, just getting into trouble with other stuff. So, any mentors that pushed you in the right way?
Grace Stanke [00:04:52] For me personally, there were a couple of key teachers throughout my childhood that really, really knew how to channel that energy and support me. And good teachers are so important. And that's why I fully support, you know, my sister's going into teaching right now, and it's so important that our teachers, one, should be getting paid more, in my opinion, because they're literally shaping the lives of all of these children's futures. So I had a couple of teachers... I had a math teacher, I remember I told him explicitly to his face, I'm like, "This class is too easy for me and you're not providing me enough of a challenge." And like, I was a freshman in high school, right? So like, that's kind of a weird thing to say to your teacher. But he was willing and was like, "Okay, I understand that this class is not at a high enough pace for you." And he stood in the meeting with the principal with me, and he stood in all of those meetings necessary and he said, "No, this needs to happen." So having that support from teachers and also from my parents... My parents were a crucial part of pushing, not necessarily pushing, because I was very self-motivated throughout this whole process, but they were also willing to support and stand in that back of the room to give me the qualifications and validation that administration needed to be like, "Oh, this 12 year old actually knows what she's saying."
Bret Kugelmass [00:06:12] Was your mom an engineer too? You said your dad was a civil engineer, right?
Grace Stanke [00:06:15] So my dad was a civil engineer. My mom was always a communications person. So that's kind of how... She was a stay at home mom, actually, and raising me and my two siblings, there was a focus on communication as well. So that's kind of led to me becoming the person who I am today as this blend of engineering and having this love and passion for communicating, this high science-engineering world, specifically nuclear, to the general public to break down those misconceptions.
Bret Kugelmass [00:06:42] That's so cool. All right. So was it when you went to college for the first time that you got introduced to nuclear? When did nuclear become of interest?
Grace Stanke [00:06:48] So this is a really great story because I wish I had a cool and inspirational story as to how I got into nuclear. I got into nuclear purely out of spite. I learned about it because I was at Texas A&M touring the college as a sophomore or junior in high school. And you know, there's the Department of Nuclear Engineering, and I was like, "Oh, this is really cool." And I talked with the department head and it went way over my head; I had no idea what they were saying. But I was like, "Ahh, it sounds neat. You know, whatever. We'll see what it is." And when I got back home, I was talking to my dad about majors and what I was thinking as I was getting closer to figuring out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. And at that point in time, I had narrowed it down to aerospace or nuclear engineering. And I remember talking to him about it and he looked at me, and I'm 16 years old at this time. He goes, "Grace, you shouldn't go into nuclear." He's like, "There's no future there. Everything's shutting down. It's not a good career." So 16 year old me literally goes, "Watch me." And I did. That is what started me in this field. I wish it was a cool story, but you know...
Bret Kugelmass [00:07:51] No, that is a cool story. And I actually think there's a lesson learned there. Someday when I have daughters, I'll love to just do a little reverse psychology there.
Grace Stanke [00:08:02] Yeah, well I mean, it's the teenage sassiness, right? But it's more than that that kept me in this field. I started out in this field because of that, but what has kept me here is learning about how... My dad went through cancer twice. He's alive today because of nuclear medicine. And that's something that... He is fully pro-nuclear now, like super team like "you rah rah, let's go nuclear." And learning about how it exists all around us, and also on a personal ambition and career note, it's something different every day. I talked about how I love that challenge, how I love that difficulty, and nuclear is definitely something that I wake up and... Every day when I was working at these previous jobs, some days I was doing mechanical work, some days electrical, some days chemical. It was a little bit different every day, and I love that about nuclear. I kind of call it the melting pot of all different types of engineering.
Bret Kugelmass [00:08:53] Yeah, well, you do need so many different types in order for the whole system to come together. Your dad's still around, right? Can I ask a little more on the cancer side?
Grace Stanke [00:09:00] Yes, he's still... He is. He's around. He's good. He's great. He's healthy. He just got cleared this month during his yearly checkup. So he's good.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:07] And so you were studying nuclear engineering when he was going through some sort of radiation? Well, actually, what nuclear technology actually was it?
Grace Stanke [00:09:16] It was radiation treatments and then a combination of the iodine tracking.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:22] Tracers. You were able to help explain to him how it all worked.
Grace Stanke [00:09:25] Yeah, exactly. So I didn't know at the time... So he went through cancer once when I was in about 4th grade. So I was really young; I didn't understand it at the time. And then again when I was a freshman in high school, approximately. So by the time I actually was choosing to go to college, he had been cleared at that point and was a survivor and everything and still is to this day. But it's really funny because now we look back at the treatments and I look at him going in for an MRI scan, that's nuclear technology. And all of those things that it's still prevalent and still something that's very used in society.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:59] And all the equipment that's been sterilized at the hospitals, that's nuclear technology. There's so much, there's so much. Okay, so now you're a nuclear engineering major. What were some of those early either co-ops or labs that you participated in where you got a deeper technical understanding?
Grace Stanke [00:10:18] So the HSX stellerator, I got involved in my freshman year of college, and I cannot thank them enough because they are the group that made me fall in love with nuclear engineering, really. That's something where I learned that melting pot kind of idea that it's something different every day. You know, I worked on 3D modeling, then I worked on coding, then I worked on data analysis. I did a little bit different things every day. And it was just the community and the people involved in that group as well that I was able to have some really valuable conversations. You know, I was 17 years old at the time, a freshman in my undergrad degree, and I'm sitting there with all these Ph.D. students like, "Wait, can you explain to me what fission is?" I know nothing at this time. But the patience and the willingness to help and guide people throughout that was so important to me. And it really made me feel not only included but valued as somebody on the team. And it was exciting to see the work I was doing even as a freshman. I was working on developing testing procedures for a cryogenic magnet and things like that, which is super exciting. For a freshman to be like, "Oh, liquid nitrogen..." You don't get... Of course I'm going to love that. So they made it really fun and awesome and it continued to grow my love for nuclear and the nuclear industry as a whole from there.
Bret Kugelmass [00:11:35] Yeah, you're giving them a lot of credit, but something makes me think that you weren't afraid to ask questions.
Grace Stanke [00:11:40] No, I certainly am not. I always firmly believe that there is no stupid question because I am willing to bet there's someone else, especially in a classroom setting, there is someone else that is thinking the same exact question. And you know what, the worst that happens is you ask the question and if it doesn't get answered you're still at the same spot you were before you asked the question.
Bret Kugelmass [00:12:03] That's why love the podcast stuff.
Grace Stanke [00:12:05] Yeah, exactly. So I certainly encourage a questioning attitude and that's something that was even promoted throughout my time when I worked at Constellation. That was always promoted.
Bret Kugelmass [00:12:15] Yeah, so let's get through that. So first you joined a lab, like a research lab that had some experimental equipment and was getting data. Then, was there another lab or did you go to Constellation at that point?
Grace Stanke [00:12:29] So, I started working on HSX in the spring of 2020. We're going to lay out the timeline here. So spring of 2020, we all know what happened, a wonderful global pandemic hit. I actually had an internship lined up for that summer that ended up being canceled, but I ended up staying with HSX part time through the summer. During the beginning of the summer after I learned my internship was canceled, I panic applied to anything and everything that had the word nuclear in it. It didn't matter if they were like, "Oh, this is a full time position." I'm like, "I don't care. Here's my resume."
Bret Kugelmass [00:12:58] Funny, I didn't see a resume come in on our website. Interesting.
Grace Stanke [00:13:01] Oh, my gosh. Well, I must have missed that one. It's something that I think, at that point in time, I just really wanted to be in the industry and working somewhere. So I ended up staying with HSX throughout the summer, though, as a part time employee. And I got a call in July from Constellation and they said, "Hey, do you want to interview for a co-op?" And I was like, "Well, I never really actually considered a co-op before," because I wasn't super interested in delaying my graduation or having anything along those lines happen. So I was like, "Oh, well, you know, yeah, I'll interview." What's the worst that can happen, I get interview practice, right? So I interviewed and it went well and I moved on with my life. And then like a week later, I get a call and they say, "Hey Grace, we'd really love to offer you the position." And I went, "Well, crap." I had to sit back and I really evaluated it and it really just made sense from not only a financial standpoint to help me pay for school, but from an experience standpoint as well. This was a four semester long co-op and I really valued that that hands on work experience. For me, I struggle in classrooms when I'm learning just theory or just, "Okay, imagine this reactor." Like it's so hard to just imagine a reactor, right?
Bret Kugelmass [00:14:13] I can't believe that hands on physical work isn't part of every engineering curriculum, period. Like, I don't even care if it's science. There's got to be some lab experience to make people a more well-rounded product at the end of their undergrad.
Grace Stanke [00:14:26] Exactly. And there certainly is, but I struggle with comparing the UW Madison Research Reactor to... When I spent some time with the outage in 2020's spring at Byron. Like, two totally different experiences in terms of... I took the research reactor operating class so I actually operated the research reactor on campus at UW Madison. And you know, it's a totally different...
Bret Kugelmass [00:14:51] What is that? Is that like a TRIGA or something?
Grace Stanke [00:14:52] Yeah, a TRIGA reactor. So a totally different experience operating that versus an actual commercial power plant.
Bret Kugelmass [00:15:00] And what's Byron? Is that a PWR? Which one do they have?
Grace Stanke [00:15:02] Byron is a P, yeah.
Bret Kugelmass [00:15:04] Okay. And do you know who the vendor was, how many loops? What was the configuration?
Grace Stanke [00:15:11] Oh, that one specifically, I believe they're Westinghouse out of Byron. I wouldn't know the exact loops and things like that. I was just there for the outage and that was it, because I worked at the corporate level with Constellation. So I did a lot of work on all of the nuclear power plants, just a little bit everywhere. Byron was more of... I was there to actually be able to see the plant, for one, for the first time in in my life, really. I had seen Braidwood prior to that which is Byron's kind of sister power plant. But seeing Byron in person and seeing that refueling outage was really exciting because that's one of those crucial points of a nuclear power plant's life cycle. And that's why I was like, "Oh, this is really neat to be able to see it," as a 19 year old kid that has never touched a nuclear power plant before other than walking through it to just see. So that was really exciting.
Bret Kugelmass [00:15:58] Yeah, let's actually double click on that experience for a second because the outages are something that I think the nuclear industry has really excelled at over the years. I mean, I'm quite critical... Having interviewed so many people across the industry, I'm quite critical as to how the industry has evolved, but not when it comes to outages. They just keep getting better and better. So, what did you get to see? Did you get to see them shuffling fuel or what?
Grace Stanke [00:16:21] So I got to see... I was able to sit in and watch as the fuel was being moved and being loaded into the core. So I was sitting with the reactor engineers and they were going through verifying the serial numbers and verifying the location, and I was helping and more of shadowing along with that process and watching it because reactor engineering is something I was interested in. I was starting to think about graduation and things like that. So I was able to help out with that process and moving all the fuel in, which was exciting. They had a little livestream for the company that, I don't know how I got the link, I don't even know if I was supposed to have the link, but I got the link. And it was really exciting. So I was back up in Madison with my friends and I'm like, "Guys, look at this! Look at that. There's the fuel, look at it!" It was just so exciting. But it's the little things in life that, you know. I feel like there's a lot of excitement in the youth that if we channel it onto these onsite locations and start seeing more of nuclear, that's just going to fuel that excitement even more because it certainly did for me.
Bret Kugelmass [00:17:18] Yeah, I mean, I think one of the biggest challenges or self-imposed problems the nuclear industry laid on itself was making it harder to do tours of nuclear facilities. Same thing with like, France. France had the highest public approval ratings, and you can see in the data, you can see when they stopped doing tours, the public approval just started going down, down, down. People are afraid of things that they're not exposed to, so we've got to figure out a way to get people more exposed to something. Of course, as you're articulating, that has so many disciplines involved in it. There are so many opportunities for people to match their interests to the actual industry.
Grace Stanke [00:17:50] Exactly, exactly. I love that you say that, because that's exactly what I communicate to people all across America with being Miss America right now. There are a lot of different ways to be involved in nuclear. You don't have to be an engineer to be involved in the nuclear industry, that's for sure.
Bret Kugelmass [00:18:04] So when did you start doing... What do you call it? Do you call them beauty pageants or what is the whole industry called?
Grace Stanke [00:18:11] So, Miss America is typically... We go by scholarship competition. Because at this point in time, I've earned now $70,000 in scholarships. I had never considered going to grad school before a month ago. Well, now I'm thinking about grad school, I'll tell you that much, when I can do it for free. So I started when I was 13, actually, just to help out with my violin skills because I'm a violinist and I was struggling performing. So I competed for two years in the Teen program and I took some time off because... Teen is for 13 to 18 and then Miss is 18 to 28 now. So I competed as a 13, 14, 15 year old for two years and then waited, grew up, spent some time just being me and being a kid. Then I returned as a Miss to help pay for school because those scholarship dollars, like I said, is truly...
Bret Kugelmass [00:19:03] And what kind of time commitment is it? What do you have to do? Like, how many events do you go to.
Grace Stanke [00:19:07] It depends; it really varies. Miss America is a full time salaried position. This is my job for the year. I am still able to do school part time. But like this week alone, you know...
Bret Kugelmass [00:19:17] Are you in school? Have you graduated or are you still in school?
Grace Stanke [00:19:19] I still have one semester left. I've got 17 credits left right now, so I'll still graduate this year.
Bret Kugelmass [00:19:24] Okay. So you're like wrapping up classes while doing this full time. Okay, cool.
Grace Stanke [00:19:27] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Bret Kugelmass [00:19:34] And two of those years were like, with COVID and everything, I can only imagine what it's like being a student. It sounds awful.
Grace Stanke [00:19:42] That's part of the reason why I took that co-op, because I knew online school wasn't exactly ideal. So I actually got really lucky where I skipped most of online school. Nuclear is a small program at UW Madison, as I'm sure it's relatively small at many other schools. So we were lucky in a sense that once we started having some restrictions lifted, nuclear classes are under 20 people, so we were able to fit in classrooms that we could social distance and we could still go in person. So it was really nice where I think throughout the past two years I have only done a few classes entirely online. Maybe two, I'd say. And it's because they're not nuclear engineering courses. Now as Miss America, I'm very thankful for online classes because that's how I'm going to finish my degree this year. But it was something that I avoided up until this point.
Bret Kugelmass [00:20:36] I want to come back to the time commitment and what goes into it. In most competitions, I mean, I can do nothing but call you an elite performer because you won, so it's like, what do you do? How do you practice these scholarship competitions? How do you get better? I understand how like a swimmer gets better, they swim more. How do you get better at being a scholarship competitor for the Miss America?
Grace Stanke [00:21:00] So Miss America is all about who the woman is and what she represents. So a lot of the preparation in a sense is...
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:09] Just being awesome in normal life, you're saying?
Grace Stanke [00:21:11] Well, not necessary. I mean, kind of. But like, being confident in who you are. I think there are a lot of young women, especially in STEM fields, that struggle with confidence and struggle with that journey. So it's becoming comfortable in talking about difficult subjects or being able to articulate technology.
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:27] Do you practice that? Do you practice being confident when you speak? Like, do you take courses, or do you just do it a lot?
Grace Stanke [00:21:34] Well, you just kind of do it. That's what I was going to dive into next here is... I did mock interviews leading up to Miss America and things like that. Everyone has different versions of prep. I know there's a former Miss Wisconsin that she just, instead of doing mock interviews she went through and she treated every conversation like what we're doing right now as an interview. So it really varies from each role to figure out what process works best for them. But even with stuff like my violin, right? For the talent portion of the competition, I got to have fun with it because I got to play something that was not classical or I was able to modernize a classical piece, which is what I did this year. I've played Thunderstruck by AC/DC on my violin. I've done a ton of fun stuff that you typically don't get to do as a violinist, so I really enjoyed that aspect of it. But it's the little things of just like... I'm 5'11", so I'm naturally just a very large woman, and being able to learn how to stand up tall is a very powerful skill, not only in the context of Miss America, but also, as much as I hate to say it, in the engineering world it's a powerful skill. To be able to walk...
Bret Kugelmass [00:22:39] You mean literally, right? Because I have heard that some taller women like hunch down.
Grace Stanke [00:22:45] Exactly. So it's something that... Growing up, in high school, most of my friends were shorter than me and things like that. So I would be kind of be shrinking myself to get to their level. But there's a lot of power in your body language. People read a lot more into body language than what you're actually saying. And then on top of that, Miss America Prep, like I said, includes things like preparing your social impact initiative and thinking about how do you serve your community best? How can we make a difference, and what is that plan? What is the course of action? Is it written down, or is it just in your head? What does that actually look like?
Bret Kugelmass [00:23:19] You said something interesting there because I've often thought this. When they teach kids to play classical instruments, how come they teach them on classical music? How come they don't just do something that's more contemporary so people, as they develop, love it more because it's like a beat that they're friends know and that they listen to? Why isn't that the curriculum from the get go?
Grace Stanke [00:23:37] You know, that's a great question. I had a really unusual violin upbringing. I would say most... I'd be willing to bet that most professional musicians went through what's called the Suzuki program. And the Suzuki program is this world renowned idea of how to teach a young child, and all the way up through high school, a certain instrument. So it's just this world recognized way of teaching and that's, you know, it's like a textbook, and it includes all the classical pieces. You're learning different styles of playing different things. But I think as time goes on, people start to branch off and become more interested in specific... Maybe they've got a taste for just Irish compositions or something like that, and that's what they want to play as a musician. For me, I was like, "Yeah, I'm going to go play some classic rock." So I think it grows as people learn the skills because you still need the skills to be able to play those things. For me personally, I actually did not start out in the Suzuki program. I started off with a different violin teacher. I was actually one of her first students. So, for the first two years she kept it really fun and interesting for me, which was really great because I don't know if I could have played "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" for two years like they do in the Suzuki program. I think my eight year old self would have lost their mind.
Bret Kugelmass [00:24:54] Yeah, seriously. Have you gotten a chance to play on any famous violins just because now you're at another level?
Grace Stanke [00:25:03] No, I haven't. In the violin world, I'm an okay violinist.
Bret Kugelmass [00:25:08] You're high profile, so you should be able to access some cool violins, right?
Grace Stanke [00:25:14] Oh, my gosh, that'd be cool. That'd be really awesome. Like, go find a Stradivarius.
Bret Kugelmass [00:25:18] Yeah, I think we have a connection we can work in for you, somewhere. We'll follow up on that.
Grace Stanke [00:25:22] I love that. I love that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:25:23] Oh, that is cool. All right, so now you are Miss America for this year; that's your main thing. What do they do? Do they like fly you around to high schools to talk? What are the platforms that they provide for you?
Grace Stanke [00:25:37] So I have a huge variety of events. Obviously, as Miss America, I bring in my social impact initiative, which for me is talking about nuclear energy and breaking those misconceptions, snaps for that. But there's also sort of the traditional Miss America things. Like this weekend... I just flew back in from Connecticut last night. I was at the Celebrity Chef Dine Around at the Sun Food and Wine Festival at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. So things like that, something where I got to meet a bunch of chefs that are on Food Network and I got to eat a bunch of really great food. And I'm not complaining.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:12] Do they send you around the world too? Are there, like, international...
Grace Stanke [00:26:15] Yeah. So I do have international bookings. So that's where nuclear comes in, which is really exciting. You know, I've got bookings in Germany to speak at conferences about nuclear energy and in Canada, and that's continuously growing. So it's exciting having those international opportunities come in and across the country. I'll be at the Waste Management Symposium in Phoenix at the end of February and things like that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:37] Is that where they do the golf tournament? There's like a big golf tournament there too, right?
Grace Stanke [00:26:39] Yes, there is. There is. I don't think it's the same time. That's like the Waste Management Open, I think is what it's called. But the Waste Management Symposium is kind of like a nuclear related conference, so that's exciting. I believe, I mean, unless they just mistyped it in my calendar. We'll see. We'll see.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:55] Okay, well that actually brings up another question. How much of this is on you, logistically, or do they have a staff that makes your life easier?
Grace Stanke [00:27:03] There's a staff. So, I have a booking manager. So honestly, it's really great because all I have to do is look at the appearances and say like, "Okay, so I fly to New York City tomorrow. Okay, what do I need to pack? I'm going to be gone for the next two weeks. So what do I need to pack for these next two weeks? What speeches do I need to have prepared?" And throughout the day, you know, today is a day where...
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:22] And do you have a speechwriter you can bounce things off?
Grace Stanke [00:27:25] No, I write my own speeches, but I do have people from my personal life that I'm like, "Hey, can you just read this over? I'd love some feedback," and things like that. Both people that are familiar with the nuclear world, if it's a nuclear related speech, because I've got people that are outside of the nuclear world that are more than willing to give feedback on a speech, but they don't know what I'm saying when I talk about something nuclear, right? So it's awesome because that's one thing about this organization. There just an incredible network of people that are cheering you on and willing to support you if you just ask for help. And that comes back to that questioning attitude, right? All you've got to do is ask.
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:01] And how many people do you come across that like don't even know what nuclear is? They're just like, "What?"
Grace Stanke [00:28:07] I think everybody knows what nuclear... Everybody has heard the word nuclear. It's the idea of if they actually have the correct knowledge of what nuclear is. That's the thing I run into a lot.
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:18] Sometimes I come across audiences, because I've given talks too, but sometimes I've had people come into audience as like college students, and I don't think they're dumb, but they just never knew that it was an energy source, like a power source. They were just always like, "Oh, nuclear, yeah, it's for weapons." And no judgment, but they just didn't know it was a power source.
Grace Stanke [00:28:35] Exactly, exactly. And that's what I'm saying, there's a lot of people that don't necessarily have the correct or... I don't want to say the proper or the correct because it's my image of nuclear that I'm trying to convince them to see and things like that. You know, I sit there and I look outside and I'm like, "Okay, every time you step out into the sun, that's radiation. Don't be afraid of radiation, people. You experience it every day," and things like that. I have a lot more of those conversations. When I say the word nuclear to people, I've never had anyone go like, "Oh, what's nuclear?" Except for 1st graders and 4th graders and things like that, so.
Bret Kugelmass [00:29:11] Yeah, very interesting. And then when you write your speeches, do you get to know exactly who's going to be in the audience, like how big a crowd is, how many people? Because I feel like you've got to tailor the speech a little bit to the environment, to the audience's background knowledge. Do you get prep information on that?
Grace Stanke [00:29:28] Yes, I do. Like earlier this month, I gave a speech to... I believe it was 450 7th and 8th graders that were girls interested in going into STEM. But that was a very different speech than when I gave a speech in Canada to the Women In Nuclear chapter at their annual meeting, right? Like, two very different speeches. So I do get that information, and I typically tailor the speech to each event because I want to give them the best experience. I want to make sure that I'm communicating something that these people care about, and I want to deliver my message in the most effective way possible.
Bret Kugelmass [00:29:59] And you're based out of Wisconsin right now. Is that where you're going to live for this next year or can you live anywhere?
Grace Stanke [00:30:04] Yeah, kind of. I mean, I'm home a little bit, but the thing is, I'm traveling so much that... Like, yeah, my items are in Wisconsin. I do my laundry in Wisconsin, but it's also difficult to say that this is where I'm going to be because of just the amount of travel. I'll be doing about 20,000 miles a month on average, so it's definitely keeping me busy.
Bret Kugelmass [00:30:24] And for grad school, I'm going to assume that you're going back. Whether or not that's true, maybe it's just wishful thinking. Do you know where you'd like to focus and maybe which school you'd want to go to? If you were to keep advancing with nuclear, specifically, do you have an idea of a grad school?
Grace Stanke [00:30:41] So here's the hot take. I don't know if I'm going to get another engineering degree.
Bret Kugelmass [00:30:45] Really?
Grace Stanke [00:30:46] Yeah. I love engineering, but the route that I see my career going, I plan on engineering for the early part of my career. I love it and I will always enjoy it, but I feel like you get to a point as an engineer where you either choose to go down a technical track or you choose to go down a management track.
Bret Kugelmass [00:31:04] Can I push back?
Grace Stanke [00:31:06] Yeah, please.
Bret Kugelmass [00:31:07] Yeah. Because it's like, I got told a lot of things growing up also, some like career advice, and that's one of the ones I heard too. But I think people tend to generalize what the world looks like, especially our parents' generation. There wasn't just such a variety of different opportunities. There wasn't so much, like, you can pave your own path, you can go into a company and create your own role. There was just like only so many companies and only so many things people did at those companies. And so if that's the problem you're trying to solve it, that you don't like those two different paths, neither of them really resonate with you, I would offer you my career advice and just say you can create whatever path that you want. And I would also... Man, I don't want you to give up, just because you said you loved math and science, I don't want you to give up on getting a Master's Degree in Engineering.
Grace Stanke [00:31:54] Well, I'm not giving up on a master's.
Bret Kugelmass [00:31:57] I know, but I know where you're going with this. It's going to be like, "I'm going to do policy," or something. And don't get me wrong, these are great, these are amazing as well. But I feel like you can probably teach them. Like, you can probably teach the grad level course on communication, on policy. Like, there's no teacher that you're going to go to school with that is going to be better than you are naturally on the soft skills. But on engineering, to get that... Doesn't have to be a Ph.D., but just like even just a one year master's program to get just like a little bit more technical in something, I feel like that's like a sledgehammer of power you can carry around with you for the rest of your life.
Grace Stanke [00:32:35] Yeah, yeah, For sure, for sure.
Bret Kugelmass [00:32:36] Unsolicited advice.
Grace Stanke [00:32:38] That's okay, that's okay. I will gladly listen any time, any time. It's always just interesting, though. It'll be interesting to see where my career goes because I kind of agree in a sense where I see those two tracks and I don't see myself fitting into either one of those tracks, just because I love communication but I also do love the science and the math part of it. I do want a blend of some sort. For me right now, I'm like, that's later in life to figure out whether it is some sort of front end advocacy or, as much as you hate to say it, policy sort of role or whatever it might be, finding that blend in that healthy middle. But I think number one priority, happiness and quality of life and all that good stuff, so.
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:19] Yeah, do you know this term ikigai? Have you heard of this? Ikigai.
Grace Stanke [00:33:23] I have not, no.
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:24] Oh, you should look it up at some point. It's like Japanese philosophy and it's like to achieve not just happiness, because I think happiness isn't even the right goal. I think it's like, fulfillment, like spiritual fulfillment, I think is more of the right goal. And there is this blend... Ikigai is the blend of, I'm going to get this wrong, but it's like what you can do that is valuable to other people, what you can do that is valuable to you that makes money, what you can do that you're good at, what you can do that you enjoy doing. And when you blend all these things together, if you find that, and by the way, you can't find it, you have to create that, but once you get there, I should say, that's ikigai and that's like another level of spiritual satisfaction that I think we should all be aiming for. I think the word happiness is just too blunt a sword and doesn't even describe what the outcome should be.
Grace Stanke [00:34:17] I would agree with that statement. I think there is a lot of validity in fulfillment. Now, the question is, does happiness come from fulfillment? You know, where is that source of all those things?
Bret Kugelmass [00:34:27] Okay, now we're getting philosophical.
Grace Stanke [00:34:29] And that's where there are a lot of other questions of like, "Okay, what does that lead to?" So I don't know; it's interesting, it's interesting. I always say in another world I might have become a psychologist, but I don't know if I could do that now.
Bret Kugelmass [00:34:41] Yeah, that's one of the ones that I don't think people... That's one of the things, I've got like friends who I think are better psychologists than psychologists, but like the credentialism there, many, many years of investment.
Grace Stanke [00:34:55] Yes, exactly. Exactly.
Bret Kugelmass [00:34:55] What are some of the hot takes that you have? Any other philosophies that... Because obviously, you're not afraid to speak your mind, that's one thing I figured out from you so far.
Grace Stanke [00:35:04] I hope that's okay.
Bret Kugelmass [00:35:06] No, it's preferred. Cuts through the bullshit. Are there other things that you see when talking to people that might be the common wisdom, but you have almost like a heterodox perspective on it?
Grace Stanke [00:35:21] I would say like in general, for specifically nuclear professionals... So first of all, I want to strongly encourage any sort of nuclear professionals to go out in their community and do this same sort of grassroots advocacy of just having the conversations. I think it's important. So the North American Young Generation in Nuclear, I'm sure you know, they told me about this really awesome thing that they did that I loved where after Three Mile Island they got a bunch of nuclear professionals to organize an event at their local hometown bar where people could come in and just have a beer and ask that nuclear engineer questions about Three Mile Island and what happened. And I love that. I think that's a great way to talk to the general public in a relaxed, friendly setting. But I think the biggest thing is, one, as a professional, establish the connection with the people first. Because as much as I love to go into places and be like, "Oh, my gosh, let's talk about nuclear..."
Bret Kugelmass [00:36:15] Yeah, so this is why you should be teaching the master's courses and not taking them when it comes to communication. Come on, you're two steps ahead.
Grace Stanke [00:36:22] Well, and it's something that there's a lot of power in... There's like a lot of power in just... If you get someone to like you, it's going to make it a lot easier to convince them to support nuclear, to invest in nuclear, to become a part of the nuclear industry or whatever your end goal is. And that goes really a long, long ways. So that's one piece of advice. But I would say also, on the flip side, there is a certain value of your time, right? We've got a lot of people and a lot of work that we need to convince to support nuclear, and I think that is happening at a more progressive rate and a quicker rate than it has been in the past. But for the guy that's sitting there and just won't listen to you, save your time. Save your time.
Grace Stanke [00:37:06] But overall, ultimately, I'd say that, sometimes an engineering degree, and I think that this kind of comes through. I can get an engineering degree, I can do the math, I can do the science. But sometimes it's the communication that's really, really needed. And I hope that schools, as degree programs continue to develop and continue to change over time, I hope communication is enforced more because I think that's one of the fatal flaws of the nuclear industry right now. We have this huge knowledge gap between all of the brilliant, intelligent and just amazing people working in the nuclear field and then the general public. And that comes to like... The amount of times I talk to people about nuclear waste and they honestly think it's green goo that's depicted by "The Simpsons." It's shocking how many people actually believe that. So that's where we need more of these communicators and more of these people not afraid to just go out and talk about it and answer those questions.
Bret Kugelmass [00:38:00] Yeah. And then just back on that grad school point, because I'm just not going to let this go. There are technical master's degrees that aren't so pigeonholed into just doing that. Like for instance, the master's degree I got at Stanford, my main core curriculum was on need finding. Literally, they teach you how to solve the right problem. It's not like courses on circuit design. And I think that helps in communication too, like understanding what problem am I actually trying to solve here? Okay, I'll leave it at that.
Grace Stanke [00:38:32] No, that's okay. I'll let you know that I am considering a master's degree. I just don't think it's going to be...
Bret Kugelmass [00:38:38] A Master's in Engineering. Master's in Engineering.
Grace Stanke [00:38:40] I don't know. I don't know about Master's in Engineering, though. It's such a struggle.
Bret Kugelmass [00:38:46] I'm going to send a couple programs.
Grace Stanke [00:38:48] You're going to be sending me the links and saying like, "All right, so this program..."
Bret Kugelmass [00:38:52] No, I'm going to be sending you professors' email addresses, is what I'm going to do.
Grace Stanke [00:38:55] I would love that. Hey, I'm all in for that. No, it's something that I'm just really... I'm really passionate about specifically that communication. I would love to do a thesis about how to effectively communicate this high level of science, how to actually develop public support and things like that. But now the question is, is that an engineering degree? You know, that's where it's like...
Bret Kugelmass [00:39:15] That's what I'm saying. The world is not what it is, it's what you make it. So if you want an engineering degree... I would go to Todd Allen, who runs Michigan's nuclear department. You could talk to him about what opportunities are there to like, craft the path. But I don't even think it has to be nuclear engineering that your master's is in, I just think any engineering. And then you find the right professors that are going to help you build your own curriculum. Oh, man. I'll leave you alone on that.
Grace Stanke [00:39:41] Send me some emails. I got you.
Bret Kugelmass [00:39:41] Trust me, I will. Okay, I'm going to let you wrap up on a note of your choosing, but I'm going to force it to be optimistic and speak about the future.
Grace Stanke [00:39:51] Oh, I hope I've been optimistic.
Bret Kugelmass [00:39:53] You are optimistic. It's like, just in case.
Grace Stanke [00:39:56] I would largely say, one... As someone who speaks a lot, and people ask me a lot about what the youth perspective is and what the youth experience is like, I'd just like to say there are so many people that are so excited to get involved and thrilled to be a part of this industry. And we're excited to learn. You know, nuclear is a very advanced and technical subject. We're excited to learn. I just ask that everyone who has the knowledge, who has that power and that skill, share it with the young people. Don't be afraid to talk about that one super niche thing about that one BWR you worked on in 1972. I want to hear about it, okay? There's a lot of power in the story, so I ask that you make sure to reach out. Talk to your local ANS chapter, talk to your local WIN chapter, whatever might be in that area. And don't be afraid to be that mentor. I think there's a lot of power in mentorship and having someone to look up to in the industry and someone to just ask the stupid questions to. You know, I encourage that questioning attitude, but there's always going to be a scenario where I know there's many people out there that will be like, "I can't ask this right now, I'm going to look stupid." So having that trusting relationship with a powerful mentor is a good thing. And I think that, this generation coming up, I'm excited to be a part of it. I think we've got a lot of really awesome, exciting things to offer. We're not afraid to speak our minds and we're not afraid of change either. And, you know, maybe it's time that the nuclear industry has a little bit of change.
Bret Kugelmass [00:41:23] Grace, thank you.