Class of 2014
“If you’re an engineer, you can make dreams a reality,” says Stephanie Locks ’14, a mechanical engineering student with a passion for turning unique ideas into solid science.
In high school, she showcased her inventions at science fairs and competed at statewide events. At Cornell, the 21-year-old applies her creativity to her studies and volunteer activities—from helping design clean and efficient cooking stoves for communities in developing countries to showing children how to have fun with colloids by concocting what she playfully calls “dino-slime” out of cornstarch, water, and green and yellow food dyes.
Robots for the future
But, her true passion is robotics. Currently a research assistant in the Laboratory for Intelligent Machine Systems, she experiments with McKibben actuators—mechanical “muscles” that have important uses for exoskeletal prosthetics as well as assembly line automatons.
“You can do so much with robots,” Locks explains. “You know how the car and the cellphone changed the world? I feel that the next big thing is the robot.” Unlike the clunky humanoids in science fiction movies, the robots Locks envisions are smart machines that blend in with existing necessities and creature comforts of daily life. She points to the dishwasher as an example of a simple, task-oriented robot and talks excitedly about more complex possibilities, including her own vision for the school desk of the future: an interactive center that could illustrate difficult concepts or even demonstrate how to play musical instruments.
“I want to develop this idea that’s still fuzzy right now,” she says. “I know I love working with children and I want to help change things in the educational system, but I also know I love robotics and that I am an engineer through and through.”
A co-chair of Cornell’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Locks is especially invested in galvanizing the scientific interest and imagination of young women. With members of the SWE, she volunteers every semester to take Girl Scouts on tours of engineering labs and classrooms. She enjoys observing the girls’ wide-eyed reactions and answering their often-surprising questions.
Nine years ago, Locks experienced the same wonderment and curiosity, when she accompanied a group of NASA scholars on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The young scientist talked to astronauts, touched a space shuttle, and gazed skyward as a communications satellite was launched into orbit. “I just fell in love with the technology and realized that we can do whatever we set our minds on doing,” she says.
“Engineering and the sciences bring society forward,” Locks explains. “They give us opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.” She points to the power of innovation helping people connect beyond the limits of time and space. “The fact that I’m from Florida and that I can go to school in New York and still see my family back home is due to technology. I didn’t have to take a horse and carriage all the way up here, or write letters that would take two weeks to arrive,” she says, laughing.
With her sights set on graduate studies in mechanical engineering, Locks aspires to be “an engineer who builds something that’s used and that helps people,” she says. She also dreams of bringing the magic of new technology to everyone. “You can do theory all day, but at the end of the day nothing is going to wow someone like seeing science at work—touching and feeling it.”