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Interview with Denise Cooke, TBG Volunteer


Long-time Techbridge Girls (TBG) volunteer Denise Cooke has been donating her time, brilliance, and mentorship to Techbridge Girls for more than a decade!

In this interview, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity, Denise explores how she leads fearlessly, reflects on her STEM journey as an engineer, and explains the importance of volunteering with Techbridge Girls.

Thank you, Denise, for your dedication and commitment to ensuring that our girls and gender-expansive youth see themselves represented in STEM role models.

How did you first get involved with Techbridge Girls?

I’ve been a volunteer for 11-12 years. I remember going to a meeting in Emeryville with all women engineers, and they were talking about this program they’re doing here, and they want to launch it in the Bay Area. So I just said, “yeah, that sounds right. Let’s do it.” At that time, they would let me know that this school wanted someone to come and speak about what you did as an engineer. It would be intermittent... and I guess at some point I ended up at West Oakland Middle School.

There was another role model who had come to talk about engineering. And the little girls were asking the questions. Well, she was just talking about her life -- she went horseback riding and she did this and that. And the girls were like, “horseback riding?” I mean this is West Oakland, what is that? A horse? What are you saying? And then they asked her a question about walking home. And she said “well, I walk home alone,” and they were all aghast. “How can you walk home alone? It’s not safe.” And she looked at them like, “what are you saying?” So at that moment, it was like, "okay I need to be at this school.” So I decided to adopt that school and I just stayed there.

How do you define “leading fearlessly”? What are you doing now to lead fearlessly?

Leading is fearful, I mean just, the whole false evidence appearing real, but it still is a little bit unnerving, but you do it anyway. Because that’s what faith requires, that you anyway expecting the best, plan for the worst.

But I like the word, leading fearlessly. I’m looking at my notes, as I wrote that down, I thought, “well, how is that in your life, Denise? How are you leading fearlessly?” and so I came up with three things.

I’ve been diagnosed with MS, multiple sclerosis, back in ‘95. I have started my own beverage, which I’m trying to bring to market. I've also been involved with Bible Study Fellowship, an international organization, for 12 years. And this past year, they asked me to be a group leader, which you can't apply for. I was more shocked than anybody else. But I’ve learned so much and these are things that I had to lead fearlessly because every week I teach a class. I’m nervous on Tuesday night because Wednesday I teach a class. I have 14 women, women who know more than I know, but I’m to shepherd them. That’s the word they use. That scared me.

So, I’m leading fearlessly, not that I was trying to, not that I signed up to, but it’s happened. Whether it's the MS and knowing right now there is no cure, it’s progressive, it’s progressed, but I lead on fearlessly. Might be a little nervous, but just moving forward every day says you’re doing it fearlessly. That statement is so Techbridge to me when you think about these young girls, that can’t have, necessarily, the conversation at home because their parents think engineering is like, “you run the train?” So things like that or their idea of science may be “computer science.” I just look at it in terms of me being involved, “I am a Techbridge Girl.” If there was one, I’d have been in it, and it didn’t exist in my time. I can relate, I grew up in a single-family household. So the same things those girls are dealing with every day, I understand. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Oh my gosh, it’s like West Oakland.

How did you get interested in STEM, and why is it important that your perspective is in the STEM field?

It’s important that those children see someone like themselves. I was at a program at Cornell University for two summers, where they sent 30 kids from Newark, New Jersey to Cornell University for the entire summer. We took classes the entire time.

So I got to meet a scientist who looked like me. I didn’t know they existed. I mean, I walked away my first year saying, “I’m going to be a nuclear physicist,” because I met a Black man who was a nuclear physicist teaching at Cornell University. I didn’t know who Cornell was. I was just a kid from Newark. We were somewhere having fun as far as I was concerned. But that stuck with me, all that time.

When I did get to college, I thought, “well, I’m gonna be a nuclear physicist,” and then I hit physics and I was like, "I am not gonna be a physicist." I could not wrap my head around physics, but chemistry was a breeze. So that’s how I got into chemical engineering.

But seeing that man who looked like me doing that work, trajected me that way. I say to myself, “where would I have been had that not occurred, had I not met him?”

The only other person I knew, in my family, was my Uncle Marvin. All he had was an elementary school education. I don’t even know if he got to 8th grade, but he was so talented, he should’ve been a mechanical engineer. He could fix anything. And the company he worked for was an engineering firm and the engineers would come to him with their designs. He could implement it, he could figure it out.

So those are my two influences of getting into engineering and I think that’s the part that’s important. That's why I feel like I’m gonna be there. Those girls need to see another woman who looks like them, to see that it’s possible.

When the going gets hard, what is one strategy you use to keep on going? Who motivates or inspires you?

Denise Cooke Journal AwardThis is what I keep in front of me, to remind myself that during this COVID time when you feel like you’re not doing anything, you’re not helping anybody... but you have! So that picture was me receiving a journal award in my work at Kodak. I had come up with some technology things, whatever, and I wrote it up.

And then it got submitted to Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and it got published. So I was all excited -- I wrote something they want to publish? Really? I was just doing my work and then it won the outstanding technical journal for the year. I was totally, “what now? I just wrote what I did and that was it, y’all think it’s worth that?”

But it was a huge deal. No female of color had ever won that award. It was huge, but at the time I didn’t think of it like that at all. I was just more like, “you wanna publish my paper?” That's what I keep here, in front of me, to remind myself, when I’m feeling not so fearlessly leading. I have the picture up to remind myself, you have done things, you have accomplished things. It’s not a wrap, it's never too late.