When people meet University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Grace Stanke, they’re often surprised to learn she’s a nuclear engineer.
She doesn’t fit the stereotypical image in a field where men far outnumber women.
“The first question a lot of people ask is, ‘Are you going to build bombs?’” Stanke says.
In her role as Miss Wisconsin, Stanke aimed to help change people’s views on the notion of “nuclear” though her social impact initiative, “Clean energy, cleaner future.” Now, as Miss America 2023, she’s taking her clean-energy solutions message—with, of course, a strong focus on nuclear energy—onto the national stage.
On Dec. 15, 2022, the final day of the Miss America Competition, Stanke became the first nuclear engineer, and only the third Miss Wisconsin, to earn the Miss America title. She also won the competition’s preliminary night 2 and took home the top talent award for her violin performance of Vivaldi’s “Storm.”
While her message advocating for clean energy solutions includes technologies like wind and solar, she focuses mainly on promoting nuclear energy because it faces the biggest hurdles in social and political acceptance.
“My main goal with this initiative is to help change the public perception of nuclear energy and increase awareness of the many benefits of nuclear technology,” Stanke says. “So when I tell people that I’m a nuclear engineer, they’ll instead think that I generate clean energy or help treat cancer—the highly valuable things that nuclear engineers do. We have the science and technology, but we need more acceptance socially and politically to really advance our use of nuclear energy.”
She believes nuclear energy will play a crucial role in addressing climate change. “Nuclear energy is safe and able to produce electricity no matter what the outside weather conditions are, unlike wind and solar,” she says. “It’s the kind of reliable power source that we need to meet our country’s energy needs as we transition to a clean energy future.”
A native of Wausau, Wisconsin, Stanke came to UW-Madison planning to study engineering. As she was going through the application process, the nuclear engineering major stood out. “Honestly, nuclear engineering just sounded really cool, so I selected it and figured I could change my major if it wasn’t a good fit for me,” she says.
As a freshman, she took the initiative to explore undergraduate research opportunities and ended up working on nuclear fusion research in the HSX stellarator facility. The HSX stellarator is one of three major magnetic fusion experiments at UW-Madison, which is world-renowned for its plasma and fusion research program.
That experience provided an engaging, hands-on introduction to fusion science and research—and confirmed for Stanke that nuclear engineering was what she wanted to pursue.
During her time at HSX, Stanke helped create tests for the superconducting magnets used in the stellarator, and she built a graphical user interface that helped analyze data from the experiments. The experience also fueled her passion for science outreach, and she worked on establishing relationships with high schools and revised the HSX website to communicate to a broader audience about fusion.
“Working at HSX was a really great opportunity,” she says. “It allowed me to participate in cutting-edge research as a freshman and showed me how nuclear technology is evolving and being used right now. It opened my eyes to the capabilities of the nuclear industry and how it can benefit society.”
Stanke had an internship lined up for the summer after her freshman year, but then the COVID-19 pandemic began and the internship fell through. She scrambled to apply for other opportunities in the nuclear field, and was offered a co-op with Constellation, a company that operates 11 nuclear power plants and is the nation’s largest producer of carbon-free energy. She started her nuclear fuels co-op with Constellation remotely in fall 2020.
Throughout her undergraduate career, Stanke spent three semesters on co-op with Constellation, where she worked with a team of about 20 on a variety of company projects. Stanke contributed to projects ranging from low-power physics testing to creating models of the reflectors used in nuclear reactors to redirect and contain neutrons.
“I learned a lot during my co-op, and one of the things I really enjoyed was seeing my work put to use and have an impact,” she says. “It also provided an opportunity to apply what I was learning in my courses to real-world challenges, which was exciting.”
In addition to her co-op and engineering coursework, Stanke served as president of the UW-Madison chapter of the American Nuclear Society and has been an active member of the Wisconsin Waterski & Wakeboard Team. She also plays violin, which is her talent for the Miss America competition.
In June 2022, Stanke won the title of Miss Wisconsin. Being Miss Wisconsin is a full-time job, and her schedule was full of speaking engagements and public appearances around Wisconsin and beyond. For National STEM Day, she spoke to classrooms about nuclear energy. She also was the keynote speaker at the Women in Nuclear conference in Niagara Falls, New York, and she participated in a panel about nuclear energy at the Wisconsin Energy Cooperative Association’s annual meeting.
“As Miss Wisconsin, I feel grateful for the opportunity to get out into many different communities and embrace Wisconsin culture while also promoting my message,” she says. “I’ve been able to meet and connect with a lot of people and talk about clean energy, which has been a ton of fun.”
As Stanke prepared for the Miss America Competition, she also was excited to bring her message to an even larger platform.
“In addition to helping change public perception of nuclear energy and technology, I hope to inspire youth, especially young girls, to explore STEM and to see that going into these fields, including nuclear engineering, is an option for them,” she says.
Featured photo caption: Grace Stanke pictured with the HSX fusion experiment at UW-Madison. Stanke participated in undergraduate research at the HSX Lab. Credit: Joel Hallberg.