MaryKate Hanchett works to do things her own way, from her obsession with math and science to “being a female engineer.”
But Hanchett insists this is only one part of her personality. Her mother, she said, worked hard to instill in her a drive to create positive change. When her mother told her to choose a career in which she’d be able to say she bettered others’ lives, she knew she wanted to be an engineer.
Today, she is doing her best to live out this advice.
Hanchett’s hometown was not particularly diverse.
“We had a pretty great public education system and relatively safe neighborhoods. For this reason, I felt I had an obligation to not be ignorant [of problems faced by those with less privileges], and to not let these opportunities go to waste,” she said.
To this end, Hanchett was a very serious, studious, quiet teenager. Most of her time was spent studying, practicing guitar and piano, taking dance classes, and doing science-based after-school programs. Of particular note to her was the Rochester-based NASA-HUNCH program she founded at her high school, which allowed students to design experiments that send objects into zero gravity.
In high school Hanchett found what would be her lifelong passion: chemical engineering. She had long known she wanted to major in engineering or a STEM subject, and had contemplated pursuing architecture or mathematics. Chemistry had always been a passion of hers, and she had been a strong student, with encouragement from her high school science teachers.
“That my science teachers were women mattered a lot. They too encouraged me to do more and showed me that chemistry could be fun,” she said.
The pivotal moment for her came when she landed an internship with the Laboratory for Laser Energetics in high school, and placed in a chemical engineering research position. During her experience, where she learned about ways to ‘aide the fuel recovery process’, Hanchett decided she would pursue chemical engineering. She would soon apply to (and be accepted into) UR’s GEAR program.
At UR Hanchett wears many hats. She is a member of the Native American Students’ Association, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and served as an executive member of Alpha Phi sorority. Most central to her, however, is the work she has does, in both official and unofficial capacities, promoting initiatives related to sustainability. Unique to Hanchett is the origins of her passion for sustainability. Not only does she see it as her moral responsibility, but she has leveraged the knowledge of her chemical engineering degree to fulfill her mother’s advice.
After considerable work finding an ‘“industry” summer experience, Hanchett found herself shipping out to Kansas State University to participate in NSFREU, the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates. In this position, she was assigned research responsibilities regarding different forms of alternative energy. Hanchett would spend her summer working on biofuels, and studying their economic costs, and speaking at town halls, trying to persuade Kansans of the importance of climate change and alternative energy.
“I learned two things that summer,” she said. “First, how to talk to people who are either very anti-science or whose lives are deeply intertwined with the current energy economy. The second, that I was capable of changing the minds of people who didn’t at first care about climate change.”
Following that summer, Hanchett would come home with both published research on biofuels and a renewed focus and passion to make similar changes back at home.
Now, back in Rochester, Hanchett has become something of a sustainability champion.
“I realized that if I can convince [someone] who doesn’t have as much interaction with science that sustainability is important, I’m sure I could the same for Rochester,” she said.
Hanchett has made it her mission to push the campus into adopting sustainable practices. She has become a leader of this movement in her own right.
Of her advocacy work, Hanchett shared that the hardest part was being a woman.
“I’ve encountered a lot of degrading behavior. Because I’m a woman talking about sustainability, people think you’re just being cutesy or just following a social trend. They often will write you off, even when you can discuss in depth the chemical and economic rationale,” she said.
She added that this discrimination was not confined to her work advocating for social change: “It also happens when I tell some people I am studying chemical engineering. I’ve had more than one person ask me if I was in it for the money or to find a husband.”
People don’t stop to consider that she’s studying the subject because she’s genuinely interested in it, she said.
But Hanchett has persevered. She is proud of the minds she has changed.
“It’s important, I’ve learned, not to write off people who disagree with you,” she said. “Instead, see where they’re coming from. You don’t have to change their views, but you gain more by seeing their perspective.”
The science for her is the most exciting part.
“I want to use my skills to solve our nation’s energy crisis,” she said. “I love the competitive spirit of being the first one to break through the energy and climate problems plaguing our world.”
She hopes she can have a part in solving them.
Correction (4/11/17): The original version of this article reported that Hanchett helped found the Native American Students’ Association. She is actually just a member. It incorrectly reported the name of the NASA-HUNCH program as NASA-Hutch and incorrectly reported the name of the Laboratory for Laser Energetics as the Rochester Laser Lab. It also incorrectly reported that Hanchett had walked door to door in Kansas; she did not, and spoke at town halls instead. These factual errors have been corrected, as have minor misquotes, which have been paraphrased.