Recently I sat down with Grace Stanke, the current Miss America and a student at the University of Wisconsin in nuclear engineering exploring subjects like nuclear fuel enrichment and reactor performance (as well as being a virtuoso violinist, for good measure).
This year she’s touring the country advocating for clean energy in a cleaner future and for America to reach net zero with the help of nuclear power, while correcting misconceptions and improving communication about nuclear science and encouraging young women to pursue STEM careers.
We talked just after she had finished visiting the Hanford Site while she was on her way to appear at Town Hall Seattle at the request of grassroots pronuclear group Friends of Fission Northwest. I was impressed with the depth of her knowledge and her ability to communicate difficult issues in a concise manner that didn’t require any deep background to understand. I mean, who knows the intricacies of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant? I was tempted to ask her to run for president.
James Conca: What made you want to run for Miss America?
Grace Stanke: I first started in the organization when I was 13 to improve my violin skills. I wanted to become a better performer. I got over that quickly and competed for two years in team, but I took some time off. I came back into competition in the ages 18 and up category. My primary reason for that, honestly, was to earn scholarship dollars since I was in college. College is expensive, and Miss America is a scholarship organization. So now at this point I’ve earned just over $68,000 in scholarships, thanks to the Miss America Organization.
JC: When did you first become interested in science in any form?
GS: Science was always a big part of my life. My dad was a civil engineer, so growing up I saw engineering firsthand and would go with him to construction sites, watch bridges get demolished overnight, that sort of thing. I was lucky in that sense. There were tons of opportunities for hands-on learning throughout elementary, middle, and high school that I wanted to capitalize on.
JC: Why is it important to promote STEM careers for females?
GS: I talk about STEM, and obviously I am a woman in STEM, but I don’t necessarily promote going into STEM. I promote finding your passion and finding your own path to seek something you’re passionate about. A lot of time that can fit into a STEM field.
I’m a violinist. I know that the music industry has jobs that rely on electronics and on STEM to make music happen, and that happens also in art and in so many fields. At the end of the day, what I talk about is working with women to find their passions and a role within the STEM field, because that is something we need in the nuclear industry. We need communicators, writers, PR people, and legislators, not just scientists and engineers. There’s a place for everyone in STEM. No matter what your passions are, it’s about finding a place for you.
JC: Why are you passionate about clean energy in a cleaner future?
GS: I’m biased as a nuclear engineer. I started this program because as a nuclear engineering student, I would tell people I’m a nuclear engineer, and there were always so many misconceptions about what nuclear science actually does.
I see nuclear energy as the obvious path forward, and it confuses me as to why everybody else doesn’t. That’s the primary goal with my Miss America policy platform of “clean energy, cleaner future.” Nuclear energy has the biggest nonscientific hurdles to overcome. We have the biggest obstacles to face, and that’s why it’s my primary focus throughout this year.
JC: What’s the biggest challenge you face with nuclear advocacy? What myths are you trying to bust?
GS: The most common myths are, “What about the waste?” and “Isn’t it dangerous? What about Chernobyl?”
My main advocacy goal is to spark curiosity in people so that they go home and do computer searches on their own. They’re talking to their families about it on their own because I can’t always be there as a nuclear engineer. Simultaneously, the other big challenge with advocacy work is, how do you reach out to an audience—a room full of people who have different learning styles, different interests, different stories—and spark that curiosity in them? I’ve been told I sound like I’m ad-libbing with everything I do, whether it’s Miss America, nuclear engineering, competitive water skiing, violin. Sometimes it just takes that relatability and finding a common shared interest to spark that curiosity.
But I can’t do that for everyone. So, for anyone in nuclear reading this right now, I recommend going out and sharing your story, because each person has that ability to spark that curiosity. It has to be personal, because if it’s not, then it’s just noise. It’s so much easier to convince people to support nuclear energy if they like you. Ask them what their name is. What are their hobbies. Do they have kids. What’s their family like. Get an idea of who they are as a person. For me, then, when I talk to them, I can tune what I’m saying to their specific interests. I think that’s something that we often forget to do when we have a goal in mind with a conversation.
JC: Can you envision roles for traditional media and social media to play in dispelling these myths?
GS: Oh, 100 percent. I think we’ve seen climate change become a more pressing issue. I grew up with it. Gen Z grew up with climate change. It’s something that’s in the media every day. Nuclear energy fits right into climate change. We just need to bring nuclear energy to the table in the discussion in the traditional media and social media about climate change.
The science is there when it comes to nuclear. Right now, we have the technology to figure this out. What’s holding us back is our policy and the fact that we don’t have enough people working in the industry. We’re losing people to retirement. So that’s one of my biggest focuses, recruiting people to work in this industry at all levels.
I’m getting a degree in nuclear engineering, but we don’t need only nuclear engineers. I was at Hanford yesterday, and most of those people are not nuclear Ph.D.s; they’re mechanical engineers, they’re electrical engineers, they’re workers of all types. You don’t have to be a physicist or get your Ph.D. to work in the nuclear industry.
I’ll be honest—as someone who is going into it, I was worried that I had to get a master’s or a Ph.D. to work in this industry. But that’s not true at all. And I think that’s something that, on behalf of the industry, we need to have more of a conversation about with prospective employees. You don’t need to go through 20 years of school.
JC: Now that you’ve graduated, what are your next plans?
GS: Well, I finish out my year as Miss America, which goes until January—this is my full-time job. After that concludes, I’m going to go to Africa, going to climb a mountain, take a break. But then in March I’m looking at starting full-time work in nuclear. Ideally, I’m looking for a hybrid engineering and advocacy role. I still want to further my technical skills, so I want to pursue the engineering side, but I think with the momentum that I have right now, it’s really important to maintain the advocacy side.
JC: This question came from a high schooler: What is the most glamorous thing about being a nuclear engineer?
GS: I think the most glamorous thing is the people. You know, I think that one of our biggest problems is that we need to get more people into the industry. But the people who are already here are really, really incredible. I love to sit down and talk with people who have been in the industry for years. The stories they have, the lessons they have, are so important and so fascinating. And something that I think is fantastic about our industry is the culture that we have of safety, of delivering the best product possible, and everyone feeling part of a team.
JC: It was wonderful talking with you today.
GS: Thank you, this was fun!
James Conca is a scientist in the field of earth and environmental sciences specializing in geologic disposal of nuclear waste, energy-related research, planetary surface processes, radiobiology and shielding for space colonies, and subsurface transport and environmental cleanup of heavy metals.