ROLLA — More than 30 years later, the insensitive remark from a dim-witted professor at Valparaiso University still stings.
Cheryl Schrader would go on to earn a doctorate from Notre Dame, help build rocket ships for McDonnell Douglas Astronautics and lead engineering programs at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Boise State University in Idaho. But the new chancellor at Missouri University of Science and Technology still vividly recalls a time when teachers in male-dominated fields could derail a young student's passion with impunity. Even worse, it was her older brother's struggles in the thermodynamics class they shared that prompted the caustic comment.
"He said, 'It's too bad you're the one getting the good grade, because it's your brother's life, but it's just something fun for you to do,'" Schrader said in an interview at her Parker Hall office. "It was very hard to ignore that I was in the minority, and different, and was likely going to run into situations like that."
Schrader, 50, took the top job at Missouri S&T in April 2012, the 21st leader at a 143-year-old school that began as the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy and from 1963 through 2007 was known as the University of Missouri-Rolla. Her leadership agenda is wide-ranging, but tantamount is a desire to not only increase the number of women on campus in both student and faculty ranks but also to offer those prospective scientists and engineers a more nurturing environment.
"There really wasn't anywhere for me to (turn)," Schrader said of her undergraduate experiences. "What we try to do here is provide those support mechanisms."
In 2005, Schrader was honored at the White House with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. She was nominated for the prize by former student Dawn Roberson, who herself earned an engineering doctorate under Schrader's guidance and later taught at Texas-San Antonio, her alma mater.
"She listens," Roberson said. "She's been through some of the same experiences. And she showed it was possible."
Schrader has her work cut out for her in Rolla, where total enrollment has increased from fewer than 5,500 students in 2003 to more than 7,600 in 2012, but women still account for just 23 percent of the student body. Schrader said she wants to increase that figure to at least 30 percent. In this case, she knows the precise number of female students: 1,732.
"I hope we get to the point where I don't know what that number is, where it's so large that we're no longer worried."
The Missouri S&T faculty is even more lopsided. Of the school's 205 tenured professors, just 31 are women. The proportions improve when tenure-track professors and non-tenured teachers are added, but not by much.
"We have a lot of work to do there," Schrader said, noting the particular challenges of recruiting dual-career professional couples to a small town such as Rolla.
Her own academic journey began in suburban Chicago, growing up with a father who worked as a minister but whom also subscribed to Popular Mechanics and incessantly tinkered in the garage. As a preteen, Schrader thought she would become a math teacher until her father urged her to consider a career path with more opportunities to not only advance, but to also tap into her fertile mind.
"Engineers are extraordinarily creative people," she said. "I got caught up in the idea that you could create things that other people could only dream about."
From her presidential office where university rock samples originally displayed in the 1904 World's Fair share space with a bust of the cartoon character Dilbert bedecked in a Missouri S&T miner's hat, Schrader describes several ongoing and new initiatives to make the campus lab and classroom populations in Rolla more closely resemble those in the real world.
Some are seemingly modest, such as new outreach and recruitment efforts with all-girls high schools. There are talks of adding new majors and degree programs seen as more female-friendly, from social entrepreneurship and biomedical engineering to an elementary education certificate program for aspiring math and science teachers that would build on a similar program in secondary education.
A more ambitious effort involves a federal grant designed to bolster students' visual thinking skills in the required freshmen engineering courses — research shows that such techniques can improve female students' comprehension, Schrader said.
The chancellor said her leadership style reflects the engineer's mindset — a perspective that's not always embraced in the more deliberate halls of academia.
"Engineers are doers," Schrader said. "So my style is much more active. I probably operate at a faster pace than many academics might be comfortable with. ... I've always wanted to fix things. Sometimes, that's not what people want. They want a sounding board to work out their thoughts themselves. So over the years I've learned to temper that."
In her own household, Schrader's mentoring efforts seem to have worked. Her son, Andrew, studies mechanical engineering at Valparaiso, while daughter, Ella, just 6, has already determined she wants to be both an engineer and a university chancellor. Just like Mom.