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Engineer vying for Miss America uses platform to show women can succeed in male-dominated fields

Grace Stanke won Miss Wisconsin in June. Now she's raising awareness about nuclear power and other zero-carbon energy sources.

2022 Miss Wisconsin Grace Stanke.
University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate and 2022 Miss Wisconsin Grace Stanke pictured with the HSX fusion experiment at UW-Madison. Stanke participated in undergraduate research at the HSX Lab. Joel Hallberg/UW-Madison

A University of Wisconsin-Madison student from Wausau will be the first nuclear engineer to compete in the Miss America contest Dec. 15. Grace Stanke, who was crowned Miss Wisconsin in June, is using her platform to advocate for nuclear energy while showing women they can succeed in male-dominated industries.

Stanke’s interest in engineering is familial. Her father was a civil engineer and she grew up on construction sites in and around Wausau. In high school, she took dual credit college courses and became interested in nuclear engineering. Stanke told her skeptical dad about her plans to enter the controversial field.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Grace, there’s no future there, there’s no way you should do that,’” Stanke told Wisconsin Public Radio. “And I was a spiteful 16-year-old teenager. I said, ‘Watch me.’”

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2022 Miss Wisconsin Grace Stanke.
Grace Stanke won the Miss Wisconsin title in June and will compete for the Miss America crown on Dec. 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Denise Watrous Photography

As an undergraduate at UW-Madison Stanke, now 20 years old, worked with the university’s HSX Stellarator facility, one of three magnetic fusion experiments on campus.

Stanke designed testing procedures to ensure a superconducting magnet that heats up materials in a containment vessel, called the Stellerator, was working properly. She said that work taught her about computer coding, chemical analysis and mechanical operation of control panels.

“There’s just a little bit of everything that goes into it,” Stanke said. “And I’m a person that loves to wake up and do something different every single day, and this nuclear industry is certainly accommodating to that.”

Stanke said she sees nuclear power as key to reducing emissions from fossil fuels. She’s launched a social impact initiative called “Clean energy, cleaner future,” which aims to boost social acceptance of nuclear energy.

“We’re at a point in time where our society is focusing more on zero carbon, but we’re also at a point in time where we’re quite literally running out of fossil fuels as a planet,” Stanke said.

Stanke said she strongly supports other zero-carbon energy sources like solar and wind power, but sees nuclear power as the cleanest method for filling in gaps when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

Stanke’s path to this year’s Miss America pageant traces back to a botched violin competition when she was 13 years old. She said she’d forgotten her music, was shaking with nerves and “was a mess.”

So she doubled down, researched other talent competitions and learned about the Miss America Outstanding Teen organization, which netted scholarships for college.

In 2017, Stanke won the title of Miss Wisconsin’s Outstanding Teen. In June, Stanke was crowned Miss Wisconsin.

The full-time job has brought Stanke to speaking engagements at cultural events around Wisconsin and abroad. In September, she was a keynote speaker at the Women in Nuclear Canada conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

“The one thing about being in both of these industries is sometimes you get put in this box,” Stanke said. “Sometimes you get put in this one thing that people see you as Miss Wisconsin or as a nuclear engineer, and they think that’s all you are. But the thing about it is we’re the women who can. We’re the women who can step up and really achieve anything they put their mind to.”

Stanke said she’s already gotten a job offer tied to nuclear energy, but she’s waiting until after Thursday’s Miss America competition to decide what her next steps will be.