Breaking rules to build a sustainable future
Malika Grayson has never been one to have a back-up plan. “I know everyone always says you should have something to fall back on, but that is just not me,” says Grayson during a conversation in the Duffield Atrium. She is an island of calm focus in the middle of the swirling activity of students coming and going. “When I decided to go to graduate school for mechanical engineering I applied to MIT, Cornell, Columbia, and Georgia Tech,” says Grayson. “I did not have a safety school. My approach has always been to go for it—what’s the worst that could happen?”
As it turns out, Grayson had nothing to worry about; she got in to all four programs. The reason she chose Cornell back in 2011 had a lot to do with the late Professor Ephrahim Garcia. “My visit to Cornell is what made me want to come here,” says Grayson. “I went back to Trinidad and I told my mom ‘I met with this Cuban professor and he is crazy’. I want to go to Cornell.” Grayson’s mother encouraged her, saying “This is a great opportunity and you should go for it.”
Grayson’s first year in her doctoral program was a struggle. Her undergraduate degree at Adelphi University on Long Island had not involved much research. “I got a BS in Physics, but it was mostly theoretical,” explains Grayson. “But then I went and did a summer program at Georgia Tech in mechanical engineering. I was in the wave lab and looking at muscle injuries. It’s where I got my first exposure to MATLAB and the whole experience changed my life.”
Much of the material in Grayson’s first year at Cornell was new to her. “My first year here was tough. I met with Professor Garcia a lot. He reassured me,” says Grayson. “He told me that if I stuck with him, we would find a project together and he would help me through it.” Sadly for Grayson, (and for the larger Cornell community as well), Professor Garcia suffered a stroke and died unexpectedly in September of 2014. “The academic loss has been hard for me,” says Grayson, “but the personal loss has been much harder. Our lab is different from most labs—we pride ourselves on being a family. With Ephrahim around we would have lab lunches and we all shared one big office. We all really miss him.”
In addition to her “family” in the Laboratory of Intelligent Machines at Cornell, Grayson has an actual family that has also been very supportive of her decisions every step of her academic career. “Growing up, I always loved working with my hands,” says Grayson. “I was always taking things apart, helping to fix flat tires, and trying to figure out how things work. I come from a huge family—my dad has ten siblings and my mum has seven, so I have a lot of cousins. When things were tough in my first year at Cornell my cousin, who is a professor at Johns Hopkins, encouraged me to stick it out. He told me that graduate school is the hardest five or six years of your life, but it is worth it. I am glad I took his advice.”
Grayson grew up on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and many of her friends and family still live there. “One of my friends came to visit last October and she calls Cornell Hogwarts. When we talk, she’ll ask me how Harry and Hermione are doing,” says Grayson with a chuckle.
Even though he will not be here to see her receive her Ph.D., Ephrahim Garcia did help Grayson find a project for her doctoral thesis. “I am looking at how we can design buildings to optimize the amount of wind power that can be produced by rooftop turbines,” says Grayson. “My research is showing that by altering building designs, we can increase the amount of wind energy available.” Zellman Warhaft, professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is now Grayson’s advisor. Her dissertation is titled “Urban Wind: Impact of building geometry on potential wind energy yield,” and she is still on track to graduate in 2016.
In addition to her research and dissertation writing, Grayson spends many hours each week involved in various forms of outreach. “Anything you do, you have to have a passion for,” says Grayson. “And I am passionate about helping others.” This passion is obvious in her past and current work as co-director of the Graduate Society of Women Engineers, as Board member of the National Society of Black Engineers, and as a member of CU Empower. “It is important to me to give something back,” says Grayson.
Grayson’s efforts to give something back have been noticed not only on campus, but also nationally. She was recently awarded the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Mike Shinn Distinguished Member of the Year award for her “high scholastic performance, dedicated service to the society and other organizations, and professional promise.” One of her big accomplishments with the NSBE was helping to reactivate an NSBE Jr. Program in Ithaca. “That is one of the things I am most proud of in my time at Cornell,” says Grayson. “It is so exciting for me to see the NSBE Jr. members from Ithaca take it on and just run with it. They won an award this past winter as Pre-Collegiate Chapter of the Winter.”
It should come as no surprise that Grayson has a strong sense of what she would like to do after she receives her Ph.D. in 2016. “Getting a position in industry is my top choice,” says Grayson. “That or some sort of non-conventional post-doc. I don’t really have a back-up plan.” If the past is any indication, Grayson won’t need much of a back-up plan.