Faces of Research: Meet Leigh F. McCook

Leigh McCook

The Institute for People and Technology, or IPaT, is one of Georgia Tech’s 10 interdisciplinary research institutes (IRIs). It brings together researchers from across Georgia Tech to support world-class research, engage students, and collaborate with industry, government, and nonprofit partners. Its goal: Maximize Georgia Tech’s societal impact through people-centered innovation.

This installment of the Faces of Research Q&A series is with Leigh F. McCook, IPaT's interim executive director.

What is your field of expertise and why did you choose it?
I’ve spent most of my career in research translation and outreach — moving research and technology from the university into practical uses to solve tough problems for the people who need practical and achievable solutions. This includes working with end-users including the police/public safety, emergency medical services, fire, and communities impacted by manmade and natural disasters — and even with teachers and students in our K-12 classrooms. 

After earning my undergraduate degree in business at the University of Georgia, I went straight into the Master’s of Science in Management degree program at Georgia Tech (now known as the Scheller Business School MBA). I am a third-generation Georgia Tech grad — my grandfather and father graduated from Georgia Tech, and I grew up as a Yellow Jacket fan. I knew I had to come to Georgia Tech for graduate school after getting my degree at UGA — and now the fourth generation of my family (my nieces) are here at Tech. 

My educational experience, along with my job as a graduate research associate in GTRI, helped me to bridge the knowledge and education I had from business school, with my experience working with scientists, engineers, and technologists. After graduating from Georgia Tech, I joined the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) as part of the technology transfer team for a newly funded Environmental Protection Agency Center — The Hazardous Substance Research Centers (HSRC). My job was to help move the research from university labs into the field, and to work with those communities impacted by environmental contamination to understand their concerns, fears, and needs and to take those into account as we researched and developed solutions to mitigate those pollutants. We were also charged with working closely alongside those community members and clearly communicating our research processes and findings by presenting the work in a meaningful and relevant form to them that addressed their questions while developing solutions that worked for them and respected their cultures and communities. Eventually, I became the technology transfer director of our HSRC multi-university consortium and was able to work with researchers and scientists from more than 22 universities in that role. 

What makes Georgia Tech research institutes unique?
Georgia Tech bridges the gap between basic and applied research, and strives to solve tough challenges to improve the lives of people in our community, state, and nation. One of the things that make Georgia Tech research so unique is the ability for close collaborations between GTRI and the colleges of GT, the interdisciplinary nature of how we approach problems, and how we form partnerships and sustain involvement with the very people who need our solutions. We work hand in hand to understand the problem from their perspectives before we develop a solution, and we work to understand the impact those problems and solutions may have. 

I currently serve as the interim executive director for the Institute for People at Technology (IPaT) — a role I thoroughly enjoy. As one of the IRIs, IPaT is unique in that these interdisciplinary research units bring together researchers and faculty from across multiple colleges, schools and GTRI labs to work within a single IRI. The other element that differentiates all the IRIs is we are encouraged to — and we do — work together across our research focus areas. That comes from having-forward thinking leaders who encourage and support collaboration, and from working with researchers from across Tech who are curious, want to work across disciplines to solve tough challenges and make a difference, and are open to trying new things.

What impact is your outreach having on the world?
As one of my other fun roles, I am the director of the STEM@GTRI program, GTRI’s K-12 outreach program. One of the greatest impacts I get to experience is working with our K-12 future STEM workforce. When I see a Georgia Tech/GTRI researcher explain and demonstrate their work to a classroom of elementary, middle, or high school students or experience students of all ages interact with our researchers through questions and discovery — I am thrilled to witness students have that “ah ha!” moment and think “this is cool stuff! I want to study to learn to be a (fill in the STEM field here),” or even “Oh, now I know why I’m having to learn this topic in my class — someone really does use this stuff in the real world!” Every summer we run a five-week, high school internship program, and at the end of it, the students present the work they’ve done all summer. That’s one of the most impactful parts of the program to me because as I get to hear about their research experience, see what they’ve achieved, and hear what they plan to pursue in the future and how this internship may have influenced that in some way.  And this is another reason Georgia Tech research is so unique — we are diverse — in our research, in our backgrounds, through our people, in our beliefs, through our jobs, and more.  When we get to bring diversity to Georgia’s classrooms across the state through our outreach, we open worlds of awareness of possibilities and opportunities for our K-12 students.

What do you like to do in your spare time when you are not working on your research or teaching?
I love to read. My grandmother was a librarian and she instilled in me the love of reading. I carry a book with me everywhere I go, just in case I get stuck somewhere and have an extra few minutes (I still prefer the old-fashioned books on paper)! And I’ve recently taken up pickleball — great for developing community, meeting new people, and getting exercise. Are there pickleball courts at Georgia Tech? Maybe that can be the next project. *smile*