Outstanding Alumna-Tracie Prater

Tracie Prater, who graduated from EKU in 2006 with a BA in Physics answered our questions about her career, ambitions, and women’s leadership.

Can you tell us a little about what you’ve been up to since you graduated from EKU?

I graduated from EKU with a B.S. in Physics in 2006. I went on to obtain my master’s and Ph.D., both in mechanical engineering, from Vanderbilt University in 2008 and 2012, respectively. While a grad student, I received a NASA Graduate Student Research Program (GSRP) Fellowship to fund my dissertation research on joining advanced materials (lightweight, high strength composite alloys) for use in aerospace structures. As part of this program, I got to do several summer rotations at NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, working with their Materials and Processes research group. I currently work as a Materials and Processes Engineer at United Launch Alliance (ULA) in Decatur, Alabama. ULA is a Boeing-Lockheed merger responsible for design, manufacturing, mission planning, and launch of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). The three EELVs in our current fleet (Delta IV, Delta II, and Atlas V) launch American national security and science payloads.

I plan on getting a second master’s degree (in aerospace engineering) and eventually obtaining my professional engineer (PE) license.

How and when did you realize your career ambitions?

I had always been interested in science (and particularly). As a child, I voraciously everything about space. One of my elementary school teachers, Ms. Anita Hamilton, started a Young Astronauts club at my school. The activities I participated in as part of that group (culminating with a trip to a NASA center in the summer) did a lot to foster my interest in science.

I initially decided to study physics after taking calculus in high school. I think my “a-ha” moment came when we began to work on applied problems. I remember being absolutely amazed that if you knew the position of an object as a function of time, you could determine its velocity and acceleration at any point along its trajectory. There’s truly something incredible about being able to understand and predict the behavior of a system using mathematics. It really transformed the way I thought about the world.

How do you feel that your experiences at Eastern have influenced you?

Eastern was really the first time I felt like I was part of an academic community. The professors were incredibly accessible and passionate about teaching. I remember I would often eat lunch with Dr. Bruce McLaren and Dr. David Sefton in the cafeteria. I never had a bad professor or a class where I didn’t feel like I was learning valuable things.

I often tell this story when people ask about my EKU experience. Throughout my academic career, I have been consistently plagued by self-doubt. In high school, I had mentioned to someone that I wanted to study physics and eventually work in the space industry as an engineer. I think this person assumed that since I was from Appalachia that such a career path was highly unlikely and asked me if I really thought that was possible. From that point forward, I didn’t share my career ambitions with many people – I even started to think they were a bit ridiculous Years later, I was interviewing to be an orientation leader at EKU when the interviewer asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. I told her that I wanted to go to graduate school in engineering and work in some aspect of aerospace, but I added the qualifier “if possible” to the end of my answer. She simply said to me “why wouldn’t it be possible?” That was a watershed moment for me –that someone (aside from my parents) really believed that I could do exactly what I wanted to do.

My EKU education gave me a broad, solid foundation in science and mathematics. I was initially worried about how prepared I was for engineering graduate coursework because I didn’t have an undergraduate degree in that field, but I was able to make the transition seamlessly. My statistics background (I was a statistics minor at EKU) also proved invaluable when it came to research. Design of experiments and data analysis were key to my dissertation work, and those were both skills I first learned at EKU.

I also had the opportunity at EKU to do an intersession study abroad (between the end of fall classes and the beginning of the spring semester) in London. Prior to that experience, I had never been outside the United States. It definitely gave me the travel bug — I’m now on a lifelong journey to see as much of the world as I possibly can!

What advice would you give to young EKU students hoping to get into a similar career field?

Physics (and engineering) presents an immense academic challenge. For me, there were many late nights spent in the library or my dorm room wondering if I was ever going to understand entropy or electromagnetism. I always compare physics to playing the piano: it’s incredibly frustrating at first, but it you practice long enough, eventually the skills you have worked to develop will start to emerge in a big way. That happened for me sometime during my junior year. Science is tough, but as President Kennedy said in his speech at Rice University, sometimes we must choose to do things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept.” The best advice I could give is simply “persevere.” Use the resources available to you – the professors at EKU are amazing and very focused on teaching. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or stop by a professor’s office to talk about a concept that you are struggling with.

I also recommend getting a minor in a field that is removed from your major. Becoming a well-rounded scholar should be the focus of undergraduate education and you have a great opportunity at EKU to do just that. I always loved literature and writing, so I got an English minor for fun. I would argue that those English courses were just as helpful to me in my Ph.D. work (which requires a great deal of writing) as any math course!

How do you think a women’s leadership scholarship might influence aspiring female leader at Eastern?

I think it’s incredibly important to foster the development of women as leaders, particularly in fields like science and engineering where they are underrepresented. I can’t remember where I read this, but I recently came across a statement that said “sometimes you don’t know you can do something until you see someone who is like you do it.” It’s so important (I know it was in my case) to give a young woman a vote of confidence, a sense that someone believes she can achieve whatever she sets her mind to. This scholarship represents a great way to do that.

Categories: Alumni Spotlight

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2 Comments on “Outstanding Alumna-Tracie Prater”

  1. August 20, 2012 at 5:18 PM #

    I love this post! I welled up over her EKU experience story – it’s wonderful!

  2. February 18, 2013 at 6:09 AM #

    I remember her mother bringing her to elementary school. This lady is an amazing person with a super heart.

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