Scholar Spotlight: Malika Grayson

Systems Engineer, Future Technical Leaders Program,
Northrop Grumman

Sloan Scholar PhD in Mechanical Engineering,
Cornell University






What is the ONE piece of advice you would give to Sloan Scholars on the cusp of graduating?

Once you submit your dissertation, you would have completed a significant chapter of your life. Even if you read it 100 times, read it for the 101th. It is easy to get discouraged in the final stretch especially when everything seems to go wrong but take a moment to enjoy it and observe your hard work. 

When I first started in my PhD program, I was the only person of color in my class and for the five years I was completing my PhD, I was the only Woman of Color.

What kind of skills did you learn while in graduate school that have helped you move into industry? And, what have you found to be one of the main differences between industry and academia?

One of the key skills I learned that I have been able to take with me to the industry has been problem solving using a holistic approach. In graduate school when it came to research, I experienced Murphy ’s Law all too often. It is important to learn how to cope under pressure and be able to still brainstorm and arrive at a solution under those circumstances. Academia definitely has more flexibility in the projects you decide to work on and you are able to execute your vision. Industry is stricter with what needs to get done and how involved your contribution can be but you are able to explore different projects to arrive at the one you enjoy the most.

Who is the mentor in your life—at any point of your education—that has had most had an impact on your success, and why?

I have had mentors at different points on my education journey who have impacted me in one way or another. My mentor from my summer undergraduate research experience was the first person to expose me to research and the benefits of a PhD. He was one of the driving factors in me applying for the PhD program. My advisor was also a great mentor for me. He was both a mentor and a sponsor. I was able to be honest with him and how I felt in my progress at the early points of my journey.

You actively promote diversity in STEM through your motivational speeches and online, including tips on self-care and stress management, how-to write a personal statement, etc. Was there a particular moment that drew you to advocate for this cause? What other initiatives do you believe could have a lasting impact on STEM diversity?

When I first started in my PhD program, I was the only person of color in my class and for the five years I was completing my PhD, I was the only Woman of Color. When I graduated, I was only the 2nd black woman to do so with the 1st black woman to graduate the year I began. This meant that I had no one who looked like me who truly understood what I was feeling during my time there. I often felt alone and luckily for me, I had a circle of friends I could depend on but that is not always the case. There are many women who begin programs and wished they could ask someone what they did in a certain situation. That is why it was important for me to use my experience to educate, guide and mentor others.

Some initiatives include mentoring high school students to create the interest in STEM, seeing more minorities in leadership positions is important and ensuring that their stories are shared so that early career minorities know that it is possible. In general, those of us who have been there must be willing to help the others behind us so that they are motivated to get to the finish line.

How did the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Minority Fellowship impact your graduate education?

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Minority Fellowship impacted my graduate education by giving me the support I needed to truly apply myself without the pressures of funding. During my second year, I would have had to TA but thanks to the Sloan Foundation, I was able to focus on only my qualifying exam. The foundation also impacted me by opening avenues to a network and support system filled with other Sloan fellows.

What research project are you currently focusing on?

I am currently in a three year rotational program where my role changes once a year for three years. This benefits early career engineers who would like to explore different parts of the company. For my first rotation, I focused on the thermodynamics of launch systems.










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