Encouragement doesn’t always come with a pat on the back.
As a student at Eastern Kentucky University, Tracie Prater’s career plans were constantly changing. She filled out a change-of-major form several times, but ultimately stuck with physics because of her undergraduate adviser, retired Foundation Professor Dr. Jerry Cook.
“In one of his courses, I was suffering from a bit of burnout toward the end of a semester and made a poor grade on a test,” Prater recalled. “Dr. Cook handed it back to me and asked me if I had been the person who had really taken that test, and he told me he knew I could do better.
“Sometimes you need someone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself,” Prater added, “and that describes almost every professor I had” at EKU.
Prater, who went on to graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 2006, is now living out her “sci-fri dreams” as materials discipline lead engineer for in-space manufacturing at the NASA Marshall Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She will return to EKU on Monday, Sept. 11, to deliver the alumni lecture as part of the University’s celebration of Science and Mathematics Week. The newly established College of Science Alumni Lecture Series is designed to honor alumni who have distinguished themselves and the college through their professional accomplishments.
Prater will speak to students at Model Laboratory School at 2 p.m., then deliver a public lecture titled “The Role of Advanced Manufacturing in NASA’s Space Exploration Initiatives” at 7:30 p.m. in Room 3104 of the Science Building. (For a full list of the week’s events, visit scienceweek.eku.edu/events.)
To those who know her, it should come as no surprise that Prater is now part of a team tasked at NASA with developing the processes, skill sets and systems needed for manufacturing off-planet.
She was always the kid asking “why,” probing for answers to hard questions.
In kindergarten, her first science fair project involved the effects of light on plant growth.
In elementary school, she was a proud member of the Young Astronauts, where she learned about space and related careers.
In middle school, she was awestruck watching the movies “Apollo 13” and “Contact.”
At Perry County Central High School in Hazard, Kentucky, an “incredible” math teacher, Tony Melton, helped Prater build a skill set to be successful in college. And Governor’s Scholars introduced her to the possibility of an engineering career.
From Eastern, Prater went on to earn her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt. “I think it’s a testament to my professors, who wrote many a recommendation letter, and to EKU’s program that I was able to get a full fellowship for graduate school and seamlessly transitioned into engineering courses without having an undergraduate degree in the field.”
Aside from family members (her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother are all Eastern grads), teachers and EKU faculty, Prater’s career choice was met with some skepticism, sometimes because of her gender. It’s why she takes such pride in mentoring students today, especially females.
“I want to make sure girls are exposed to engineering at a young age,” she said, “and I do a lot of STEM outreach talks for various programs I support at NASA. I feel like some of the gender gap in engineering can be closed by just making girls aware of these fields at younger ages, and I want to actively help do that.
Prater said many women in STEM fields suffer from imposter syndrome. “You have to believe that you’re as good as anyone in the room, and you most likely are. Sometimes that’s hard because you really don’t feel like you belong or deserving of your position or role, but always remember that your gender alone does not determine your capabilities. At some point in my engineering classes, I started to realize that almost every guy in my classes had to work just as hard as I did.”
Prater envies NASA employees who in their lengthy careers have worked on a variety of projects, including Skylab, Space Shuttle, International Space Station, Space Launch System (NASA’s next rocket for deep space exploration) and science payloads.
“I hope to have a career like that, where I can work on multiple, diverse programs and ultimately feel like I’ve done work to really advance technology forward, both in space and on earth, and make space flight more frequent and accessible. I’m really happy to have any small part in making humanity a space-faring species.”