Meet Ashley Cook: Utah Alum & Professional Engineer


Ashley Cook (BS, '10) from Robinson, Illinois came to the University of Utah in 2005 looking to become a biomedical engineer. After completing two semesters she switched to Materials Science & Engineering. Wanting to get away from Illinois for a few years she not only found a program that challenged her academically, but she found lifetime friends that made Salt Lake City a home away from home. After graduating in 2010, Ashley now works at Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois as a Senior Associate Engineer and Plastics Support Engineer. 

We recently interviewed Ashley about her experiences here at the U and in the workforce. Meet Ashley Cook our November Alumni Highlight.

Q: Why did you choose the University of Utah

A: I wanted to get away from Illinois for a few years and the University of Utah had an excellent biomedical engineering program, which is what I was originally interested in.

Q: Why did you choose Materials Science & Engineering as your major? What factors played into your decision?

A: After completing two semesters in biomedical engineeriing, I realized it wasn't for me, mainly because I don't like biology. After meetiing with the College of Engineering advisers, they setup another meeting with the adviser for MSE. I talked to her for about an hour and thought this program might fit me better. She explained how MSE was much more chemistry based, which I enjoyed. After taking a semester of classes in MSE, I knew it was a perfect fit. It had the best of both a small and large university: small classes, but excellent, friendly professors and exciting new research. 

Q: What was the toughest class you took in the MSE program? What did you learn from it?

A: It's a toss up between 'Intro to MSE' (MSE 2010) and Electronic Properties of Solids (MSE 3210). 'Intro to MSE' was so much information and so much work, but it was an EXCELLENT and extremely fun class. It was almost fun to work through the homework and put together the answers. 'Electronic Properties of Solids' was very similar, probably because Dr. Cohen and Dr. Cutler were very similar teachers. I felt like most of the semester, I had a very vague idea of what was happening in the class and I wasn't fully grasping everything. I was continuously asking questions and working hard at the class, much more than probably any other class. When I got to the final, I realized that I knew almost everything on the test and it finally "clicked." I ended up doing very well on the final and very well in the class. I was beyond excited and happy. I had worked extremely hard and it had paid off, in both classes. 

Dedicating the time and energy to what you're working on really goes a long way. Asking questions is a big part as well. Whether they were to the professor or another students I studied with, don't be afraid to ask. That's going to help you the rest of your life. If you don't understand something, try to figure out what's holding you back from putting all the pieces together. I know that it's usually one small thing for me and once I get past that, I'm working even harder to solve the problem.

Q: What were some of your favorite memories from your time at the University?

A: The football games come immediately to mind. It was great to get tickets with your friends, tailgate before the game and then go in and watch them do well and win. I was there at a great time for the football team and we did very well, which made it even more fun. Hanging out with friends, even when we weren't doing anything was a blast. We would come up with some crazy ideas, but it was a great way to get to know your group very well. I'm still friends with them today and when we get together, it's like we've never missed a beat and I talk to them still almost every day, Bugging Ashley and taking up like an hour of her time almost every day was also a lot of fun!

Q: What organizations, clubs, etc. were you involved with while at the University? What did you enjoy about them?

A: I was involved with SWE a little bit and heavily involved in the Student Advisory Council (SAC) for MSE. I really enjoyed being on SAC, it was great to see how the department actually functioned and have a say in some things that were going on. It was rewarding to take what the students were saying and actually put results into action to help make it a better department. SWE was also a lot of fun to work with the younger girls and show them how fun and exciting engineering can actually be. 

Q: Upon graduation from the U, what was the job search process like for you?

A: It was rough ... I applied to multiple jobs almost daily for about 2.5 months. I ended up getting a few interviews and was able to pick the best position for me. Planning ahead and applying for jobs while still in school is the best advice I can give someone. It did work out well in the end for me though.

Q: Where are you currently working? What is your title?

A: I am working for Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois. I have two titles. I'm a Senior Associate Engineer in a rotational program within the metallurgy/materials division, however, my actual job title is Plastics Support Engineer.

Q: What do you enjoy about your job? Where do you see yourself within five years?

A: I love being able to interface with many different groups. Currently, Caterpillar has a very small group of people working with plastics, so there is a lot of room to grow. I get to work with many different machine types where plastic is used, not to mention a number of suppliers.

In five years, I still see myself working at Caterpillar. I have another four years left in the rotational program, so I hope to be a Senior Engineer by then. I'm not sure which division I'd like to work in, but I think working with cabs would be very interesting. 

Q: What kind of opportunities have you been able to have at Caterpillar? 

A: I have had a lot of excellent opportunities here at Caterpillar. Being a part of the rotational program, I am required to take a number of classes to learn more about basic metallurgy/materials science, heat treatments and failure analysis. Since these are the main areas that Caterpillar focuses on, they are provided for free and are extremely beneficial. I've learned a lot more from those classes than I did in college. I have also been able to see how many different machines and components for the machines are made. I've learned about the heat treatment of steels, which is very, very interesting. I've also learned about different manufacturing options of plastic and how to pick the best option for the application. 

Being in the rotational program, I have two 18 month positions and then a 2-3 year "graduating position," which is more of an extended rotation. The length of the rotations are EXCELLENT because you really get to know the job and are able to make changes for the better. Also, the rotation are in different areas within Caterpillar in order to see what the company has to offer. The rotations available include failure analysis, quality control, heat treatment, production, metallurgical lab supervision and many others. 

Q: What advice would you give other women interested in the Materials Science & Engineering field?

A: Stick to it! It's really not that hard and it's a blast once you're finished and working in the field. I know that within Caterpillar the metallurgy/materials people are considered to be more of a club than anything else because we're a very close knit group and very helpful to each other. When you're in it though, it definitely feels like an elite club, not so much a job, because people are always asking materials type of questions and it's fun to be able to answer them. I've never had any problems being a woman in engineering. 

But, take a metallurgy class while you're in the department. It's a great benefit. You never know when you'll be working with steel and I think it would have been extremely helpful to have taken a basic metallurgy class while still in college.

Q: Anything else you would like to share with interested students in the MSE field?

A: It's a great program, especially if you like chemistry and engineering. I think my favorite part is thinking that just a small change in the microstructure or a small addition of another material can really change the macro properties of the material. It's fun to learn how the micro and macro properties work together and against each other. It's a challenge and lots of fun to figure out the best material for the application. 

Those wishing to contact Ashley may do so by e-mail