By Joan Killough-Miller
Fresh out of high school, Stacey Cotton dreamed of becoming an astronaut and designing the spaceships of the future. A strong student who enjoyed mathematics and science, she was steered toward engineering, although she knew little of the field. She chose WPI for its top-notch reputation and its small size.
The young woman from Norton, Mass., daughter of a nurse and a plumber, didn't know much about how one set out to become an astronaut. At WPI she found people who could point her in the right direction. She joined the Air Force ROTC and selected aeronautical engineering as her major; she excelled in aerospace science courses, maintaining an A average in her major.
Her academic performance and outstanding leadership qualities won her membership in three honor societies, numerous awards, and a ranking as one of the top five Air Force ROTC cadets in the country.
After four years at WPI, Cotton was well on the way to fulfilling her dreams. She graduated with the gold bars of a second lieutenant on her sleeve, and tuition for graduate school in her pocket from an impressive number of military and athletic scholarships. She earned a master's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Stanford University, working with a team that published research looking toward a joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. mission to Mars.
During a summer internship at the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Cotton got "totally hooked" on flying. She applied for pilot training, then worked for two years at Rome Laboratory in upstate New York. She made captain in 1994 and earned her pilot's wings in 1995. To her delight, she was assigned to fly the F-15C, a single-seat fighter considered superior to anything in the sky. Stacey Cotton was flying high, on her way to becoming the third woman in the country to go into F-15C training.
Last year a medical problem grounded the young pilot and sidetracked her hopes of going into orbit. But Cotton's career has taken a new direction. As a public affairs officer, she reaches out to America's youth and inspires them to careers in aeronautics and the military. She is most in her element when organizing educational programs and career days for middle school and high school students.
The WPI Plan offered opportunities to this aspiring astronaut that would not appear in the catalog of any other college. She did her MQP at NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The project, called "Microwave Powered Lunar Rover: Feasibility Study," investigated the possibility of using satellites to relay power to a remote module to explore the surface of the moon.
Her IQP gave her the opportunity to go abroad for the first time in her life. Working at the London headquarters of Ferranti International, an electronics and computer firm, her team explored the feasibility of establishing local work sites where employees could work by computer and avoid driving in London's horrendous rush-hour traffic. Cotton says the project was a terrific confidence builder.
"When you're 20 years old, going overseas, working in a major corporation right beside the president, executing his project... that was cool." The project called for an array of interpersonal skills‹from the poise to conduct door-to-door and telephone surveys, to the self-assurance to make presentations before the president and board of directors. "It builds your confidence and lets you know you're going to be ready when you get out of college. I think that's really important.
"The IQP was the first time I worked with a small group on such a big project on a day-to-day basis. It taught me how to deal with people, even when difficulties come up. I don't know if students realize it's going to be like that when they get out in the real world. You can't get away from it‹you're always working with people, no matter what job you're in. I use those skills everyday as an officer."
The WPI curriculum puts a lot of responsibility on its students, but Cotton says those challenges helped her develop self-reliance. "WPI treats you like an adult. The responsibility for the project rests on the student, not the professor. My professors were always there for guidance and help. But the professor doesn't just sit you down and tell you what to do. You have to come up with your own ideas, and work out your own game plan."
Perhaps the best learning experiences come about when things don't go as expected. When progress on a project runs into a brick wall, says Cotton, it's up to the student to find a way around it. "I think the WPI Plan has a unique way of teaching you how to problem-solve and think in a logical way. You learn how to stop for a second, analyze the problem, come up with Plan B, and go for it."
So when a medical problem threw a roadblock in Cotton's career path, she was able to chart a new course. Although she is aware that the Air Force is strict about the physical condition of its pilots, she hopes to fly again. But if that is not possible, she wants to stay in public affairs. Accepting that reality was one of the hardest things she's had to deal with.
"Dreams die hard," she says. "But there are other dreams. It's just a matter of latching on to a new one."
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