After dedicating nearly 45 years to Mines and being the longestÂ serving female faculty in Mines history, itâ€™s safe to say that CatherineÂ Skokan â€™70, MS â€™72, PhD â€™75 wasâ€”and still isâ€”an important leaderÂ in the Mines community. Although she retired at the end of theÂ 2014-2015 academic year, she is still very involved with Mines andÂ its students. â€œRetirement means that I donâ€™t have a paycheck fromÂ Colorado School of Mines, and I donâ€™t have an office. It doesnâ€™tÂ mean anything else,â€ says Skokan. And her connection to Mines isÂ something she is not ready to give up.
Skokan first came to Mines as a student at age 17, receiving herÂ degree in geophysical engineering inÂ 1970. She was one of only a dozenÂ or so female students, but that didnâ€™tÂ bother her. She was very involved inÂ the Mines music program, playingÂ the bassoon in the marching bandÂ and singing in the choir. Despite theÂ challenges associated with beingÂ one of the few female students onÂ campusâ€”such as when a professorÂ assumed that a chemistry experimentÂ explosion was hers when it reallyÂ belonged to the male student sittingÂ next to herâ€”she pushed through andÂ did what she wanted to do. â€œI did justÂ fine by myself, thank you very much,â€Â she says.
Skokan went on to make historyÂ when she became the first womanÂ to receive a graduate degree fromÂ Mines, receiving her masterâ€™sÂ degree in December of 1971 and herÂ PhD in December of 1974. AlthoughÂ her achievements are importantÂ marks in the Mines history books,Â Skokan didnâ€™t even realize that she was Minesâ€™ first female PhDÂ recipient until about 10 years after she graduated. â€œThat shows youÂ how much anybody paid attention,â€ she says. â€œWe were just tooÂ busy doing it.â€
While it was never Skokanâ€™s intention to teachâ€”she originallyÂ thought she wanted to work for the U.S. Geological Surveyâ€”sheÂ soon found herself back at Mines teaching linear systems at theÂ insistence of Dr. George Keller, then the head of the GeophysicsÂ Department. She discovered that she enjoyed teaching, even thoughÂ she disliked linear systems as a student, and continued in theÂ Geophysics Department for nearly 20 years.
In 1996, Skokan moved to the Electrical Engineering andÂ Computer Science Department as a tenured associate professor.Â Over the years, she was recognized many times for her teaching,Â receiving distinctions such as Outstanding Professor in Geophysics,Â Excellence in CollegeÂ Teaching from theÂ Colorado Association ofÂ Science Teachers, theÂ Alfred Jenni FellowshipÂ Award for EducationalÂ Scholarship, and theÂ Gold Award fromÂ the Engineering andÂ Environmental GeophysicsÂ Society. In 2010, SkokanÂ became a research facultyÂ member, regularly workingÂ on educational outreachÂ projects with the Trefny InstituteÂ for Education Innovation. â€œIâ€™veÂ enjoyed working with teachers andÂ trying to get them excited aboutÂ science and engineering,â€ sheÂ shares. â€œItâ€™s a really fun thing to do.â€
Skokanâ€™s involvement withÂ the university goes far beyondÂ the classroom. After earningÂ her degrees, she continued herÂ activities with the music program,Â becoming a temporary string conductorÂ (until the orchestra becameÂ too large). Despite her recent retirement,Â she still plays violin in theÂ orchestra, the bassoon in the band,Â and the urhu in the Chinese band.Â â€œIâ€™m not going to give up the orchestra,Â nor the marching band, nor theÂ Chinese band,â€ she says. â€œThe bestÂ thing about the school is, of course,Â the students, so this way I still get to have fun with the students.â€
Skokan also travels frequently and organizes trips for the MinesÂ music program, including the upcoming trip to Dublin, Ireland,Â during spring break in 2016. She also spends much of her timeÂ lecturing on cruise ships, educating passengers about geology andÂ geophysics. In February 2016, she will travel to Indonesia to lectureÂ on the countryâ€™s earthquakes and volcanoes.
Skokanâ€™s â€œspare timeâ€ remains dedicated to what she loves,Â and she has no plans to give any of that up in the near future.Â Although she was the first woman to receive a PhDâ€”or any sort ofÂ graduate degreeâ€”from Mines, she says itâ€™s not about the accolades,Â but about doing what she loves. Her advice for students followingÂ in her footsteps? â€œDo what you want to do and enjoy it. Because itÂ is fun.â€