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Best not tell Lindsey Yoder to choose between two things she wants to do, no matter how difficult or disparate they are.
On workdays, that’s her, a 2009 Oregon State graduate, in a white, head-to-toe cleanroom suit or a Merck & Co. uniform polo shirt, wearing no makeup because it’s banned in the facility, watching over the complex process of making vaccines for chicken pox and MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) at a state-of-the art production plant in Durham, North Carolina.
On Sundays, there she is wearing quite a bit less, her hair and makeup professionally done, dancing with the other TopCats in front of television cameras as she helps 70,000 screaming fans cheer on Cam Newton and the rest of the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
If there’s another woman in the nation who is a working chemical engineer and an NFL cheerleader, it’s a secret. But to those who know Yoder, including the Oregon State alumna schoolteacher who taught her in first through third grades in Vancouver, Wash., it’s not much of a surprise that if one woman in the country is doing both of those things, it’s Lindsey Rucker Yoder.
“I’ve never had another student like Lindsey,” says Chris Hutchinson Christianson, a 1982 Oregon State education graduate. “She was a phenomenal student when she was here, and now she’s a phenomenal 25-year-old woman. It says a lot about Oregon State that she has turned out the way she has and it says a lot about how she was raised. For as smart as she is — and she’s very smart — Lindsey just kind of lives in Lindsey’s own little world. She has not let others limit her. I talk about her often to my students.”
Ellen Momsen coordinates the College of Engineering’s efforts to help minority and female students thrive. She says Yoder was and still is one of the best examples of how — despite the sometimes crushing challenges of an engineering education — a talented student who works hard can have a rich, well-rounded life before and after graduation.
“She’s a great example for everyone, men and women,” Momsen says.
Lindsey was born the second daughter of Susan and Steven Rucker, a teacher and a salesman who was on the road a lot.
“My dad wanted a son really bad so he kind of treated me like a son,” Lindsey says with not a hint of complaint. “I didn’t get Barbie dolls and things like that when I was young, I had train sets and Legos. I loved math and I was always building things. So I think you could kind of see the engineer in me when I was very young.
“But I was also very outgoing, with this huge personality. I started dancing when I was 4. I wanted to be a superstar. My friends and I would dress up like the Spice Girls and we would sing and put on performances (she laughs at the memory). I also had vocal lessons and we had performances. And I’ve always loved crowds. I would rather be dancing out there in front of 70,000 fans than in front of one or two people.”
It didn’t take her long to see that some of her schoolmates had trouble with the combination of Lindsey the brainiac and Lindsey the wannabe Spice Girl.
“I think I kind of kept the good-in-school part of me hidden early on. I never talked about it. My friends would be complaining about a test, and I never said, ‘Oh, I got an A on that test.’ I challenged it more when I got into high school. I was a cheerleader and I saw that the perception of cheerleaders was so primitive and I thought, ‘Why not embrace your inner nerd?’ and I embraced it.
“From then on, there was never a time when people didn’t want to hang out with me because I was a nerd. I think young girls need to know that.”
She liked writing, hated history and loved science, but it was math that got her excited.
“Math, to me — OK, so here I’m really going to sound like a nerd — math is so beautiful! There’s always an end, a definite end to it, whereas with art and literature there isn’t an end. I like that closed loop, probably because I’m a little bit OCD.
“One of my science teachers in high school mentioned that her son was a chemical engineering major at Washington State. I’d never even heard of engineering. I was one of those people who thought they just built roads and drove trains and stuff like that. When I looked into it, I knew instantly.
“It was my sophomore year of high school and I was like, ‘I am going to be a chemical engineer.’ I was definite about it. It was very odd, but I just knew it.”
She had the grades, and her family had the means for her to attend almost any engineering school in the nation, but as her college choice approached, her father suffered a life-threatening medical emergency — from which he has since recovered — that made her want to stay relatively close to home. Once she looked around the Pacific Northwest, she quickly settled on Oregon State.
“I absolutely loved OSU,” she says. “My mom and I visited on a beautiful fall day — with the oranges and the yellows and the reds — and we knew that I was going to go there. I love the small-town feel of Corvallis. And the engineering program — they do a great job of giving you a glimpse of everything you can do with engineering.”
At first at Oregon State, Lindsey was caught a little off guard by being in a program where the ratio of males to females runs about six to one.
“It was even more odd to be one of the few blonde girls,” she says. “I’ll always remember when I showed up the first day in Dr. Skip Rochefort’s class. I was in my sorority sweatshirt, and I was all happy, and people just kind of turned around and stared at me.”
She made it through the chemical engineering curriculum — one of the toughest undergraduate majors at Oregon State — in four years and was on the Oregon State Dance Team that performs at athletic contests.
Today, when she’s not working at Merck or making the two-hour drive to Charlotte for TopCats practices or Panthers games, or cleaning the house or making lunches for herself and her husband — “I’m very traditional that way,” she says. “I do all the cooking and the laundry, and I’ve never pushed the lawnmower or taken out the trash.” — she co-leads a women’s advocacy and assistance group on the Merck campus and volunteers at a local grade school.
Her husband, John Yoder, is a 2007 Oregon State engineering grad who also works at Merck. He tutored her when she was a sophomore, and they met again while attending an engineering conference as students. They would marry in 2009, but the relationship was not love at first sight.
“I wasn’t embracing everything that Oregon State engineering had to offer, and John challenged me on that,” she says. He urged her to pursue engineering more as a profession and to get more involved in engineering-related activities. “I didn’t like that at first. I think a lot of girls are used to relationships where they don’t have someone who challenges them and tells them they can be better and do better than they are doing.”
Today she credits John’s support and their mutual Christian faith for her ability to meet her many commitments.
“It’s so important to have that support in your life,” she says. “My parents were very supportive and I’ve always had great mentors, from Mrs. C. in elementary school and on through OSU, where my professors never told me, ‘No, you can’t be a Chem-E and be on the dance team!’
“It all goes back to someone just telling you they believe in you. There are so many young girls out there who — well, no one ever tells them they believe in them — and that’s just horrible. You should never let someone tell you that you should quit a sport, or something else that makes you happy, because they are intimidated by your success.
“If you don’t follow your passion, if you don’t find a way to do what makes you happy, you’re going to go insane.”