Dancing to a Different Tune Continually raising her personal ‘barre,’ Leigh Cumpston is ‘en pointe’ for success. It doesn’t take long into the conversation before you discover that Leigh Cumpston was just a bit different from the other children.
“When I was little,” she recalls, “I really liked butterflies. So we got the eggs and grew them. And one year in sixth grade I read a book about the Battle of Hastings, and that just fascinated me.”
OK, little girls and butterflies? Not so unusual. But the exploits of William the Conqueror? In the sixth grade? “I got to see a lot of things I might not have gotten to study in-depth had I gone to a public school,” Cumpston casually concedes.
Now, if you’re wondering just which private school the Des Moines-area native attended, cease wondering: until her little brother joined her, Cumpston studied battles and butterflies in a school with a total enrollment of one. And the fact she was home-schooled from the first through twelfth grade is all the more ironic when you consider that both her parents taught in public schools.
“Education was always a very high priority in my household,” Cumpston relates. “My father was a high school math teacher and currently he’s a vice principal at a middle school. My mother taught family and consumer science, but quit after I was born.”
Cumpston’s home schooling was not grounded in any religious, philosophical, or political objection to public schools, but in her parents’ recognition that their young daughter’s broad interests and voracious appetite for knowledge could not be fulfilled working at the pace of 25 or 30 classmates. And so she would spend twelve years apart, gobbling up coursework prescribed by the Des Moines Public Schools’ nationally recognized home schooling program while pursuing her own pathways to enlightenment.
“We would get our textbooks around the end of July, and I always wanted to start right away and get through it as quickly as I could,” says Cumpston. “Sometimes I was done by February or March, so I could spend the rest of the year learning about something that really interested me.”
While her peers were muddling through math and English, Cumpston would tear through advanced texts in chemistry and physics, in addition to her reflections upon early English history and the metamorphoses of butterflies. From her uncle and cousin, both mechanical engineers, she developed a fascination for technology and applied science. And to hone the hard edges of her solitary pursuits, Cumpston cultivated a different kind of discipline as a ballerina in training, first locally, then as a paid apprentice with the Tulsa Ballet, and most recently as artist-in-residence with the Festival Ballet of Greater Houston.
A ‘perfect fit’ at Iowa State - Her single-minded application across a broad range of pursuits left Cumpston poised for success wherever she chose to go to school, and she had her choice of several, including ultra-competitive “A-list” destinations such as the University of California at Berkeley. But at the top of Cumpston’s own “A-list” was Iowa State. “Iowa State has such a good engineering school that I just couldn’t imagine going anywhere else,” Cumpston says. “It just seemed like the perfect fit for me.”
Despite encouragement from her uncle and cousin to consider mechanical engineering, Cumpston came to Ames as an undeclared engineering major, deferring selection of a specialty until she had time to test the waters. But she soon discovered that, in addition to engineering, she really enjoyed a chemistry course she was taking. So the choice became obvious when, as she says, “you love both chemistry and engineering.”
True to her history of dancing to a different tune, however, Leigh Cumpston chose to emulate many CBE faculty by working both within the department while simultaneously seeking research opportunities across disciplinary lines. It was in the Freshman Honors Program that she found her first mentor in Dr. Donald Beitz of the Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology. Working with Beitz under funding from the Honors Program, she studied hormones in adults with different Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) on controlled diets.
Recently, Cumpston further expanded her academic focus by adding an economics minor. “I’ve always been thinking about some kind of a managerial track once I graduate, and at least want to have that option open,” she says. “It’s just so different from all my engineering classes.”
Pushing beyond the limits - Beyond the classroom, Cumpston has sharpened her leadership skills in a variety of roles. In August of 2006 she was selected for the Lockheed Martin STARS Leadership Training program, and that fall served as publicity chair for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. A member of engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi, Cumpston has been especially active with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), serving as membership chair and, in both 2004 and 2006, as Iowa State’s student delegate to the SWE national convention. In August 2006 she was one of 19 members nationally to be selected as a “SWE Future Leader.”
It was through SWE, in fact, that Cumpston landed her current alternating-term co-op with Dow Chemical in her freshman year— characteristically, ahead of the curve of her fellow students once again. She is now in her third term with the industry giant at its Midland, Michigan headquarters, where she works in the production of styrene polymers and helps to implement plant improvement projects. And though she may one day continue her studies at the graduate level, she is eager to jump into a career track when she graduates in 2009.
Whatever path she chooses, Cumpston has never doubted the path that has taken her to success thus far. “Going to Iowa State and being in the CBE department has been a great experience for me,” she says. “It’s really challenged me to push myself beyond my limits both academically and in leadership roles.”
Coming from someone who throughout her life has pushed beyond the limits of what many would consider stellar achievement, that’s high praise indeed.