Recent CALS Alum Developing New Generation Technology

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sarah Cook landed a job with a world-class company developing cutting-edge technology – all before graduating from the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/College of Engineering in May 2012.

Cook, 29, who received a bachelor's in Biosystems Engineering, is using skills she learned at UA to develop new generation harvesters for John Deere. As a hydraulics engineer in research and development, she is based in East Moline, Ill., and is teaming up with John Deere counterparts in Brazil.

The hands-on experience she received at CALS and the College of Engineering prepared her for the professional world, Cook said. Her senior design project, in which she led a team of students in developing a portable aquaponics system, helped her to build leadership and teamwork skills that are critical in the workplace.

"Everyone has to work together on the job, coordinating between departments," Cook said. "You are not just working in your own little bubble."

When Cook and her husband moved to Tucson, where she became a member of the 162nd Fighter Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard, she knew she wanted to further her education. Cook explored engineering programs at UA, and her choice was clear after meeting with Don Slack, professor of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering at CALS.

"It seemed like a department where you wouldn't just be a number," Cook recalled. "It's a family environment and I was looking for something close-knit. If you are going to spend that much time in one place, you might as well enjoy it."

Cook hit the ground running. She became president of the local chapter of the American Society of Agriculture and Biological Engineers, reenergizing the organization. She took part in a summer internship on a sugar plantation in Florida, studying the benefits of using sugar cane in ethanol.

She led her team in the senior design project with the goal of creating a more efficient aquaponic agriculture system, combining aquaculture and hydroponics. It is currently being used as a demonstration project for middle school students.

"Sarah pretty much does well at anything she undertakes," Slack said. "She was very much a leader of her team."

The design project helps students develop the skills to be successful in their chosen field, he said. "They build on communication skills, ethics and professional development. I think we do a good job preparing our graduates for jobs."

Cook agreed that she learned the science, engineering and other skills required to be successful.

"There are so many opportunities at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to prepare yourself for any job," she said.

Her work as a hydraulic engineer "is definitely cooler than what I thought I would be doing. It's is something different every day."

One thing she was unprepared for?

"The amount of meetings I sit in on in a day is shocking," she said.

Cook has advice for other CALS students: "Build up your soft skills – time management, team work. Embrace the team work. Everybody has to cooperate in the workplace."

She recommends spending as much time in the machine shop as possible, working with tools. Her experience in basic code writing in Excel has been critical to her success, as well.

"Express your ability to think like an engineer. Think analytically. They want someone with an engineering mindset."

Market yourself enthusiastically, Cook recommended. "There are jobs out there. You have to know what your strengths are and market yourself to an employer."

She is proud to be an engineer.

"Women engineers bring a different perspective to design problems and processes," Cook said. "It is important that the unique experiences women have are included in the development of design solutions.

"I was once told that if you are going to be the only women in the room – which is often the case in many engineering environments, whether that be in classes or the workplace – make sure you are the women in the room," she added. "It made me realize that trying to act or think like a man to fit in in the engineering world does no service to anyone. We have unique perspectives and it is our responsibility to ensure they have a voice."

Cook is bringing her perspective to John Deere, backed with her CALS education and life experiences that help her to tackle any challenge.

"I definitely felt prepared for the world of work as an engineer," Cook said.

Written by Gabrielle Fimbres for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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