Mercedes Cornelius was the kind of child who ended up in the principal’s office once in a while—but at the same time she was smart. She loved to read and spent hours at the library finding every reason she could to stay there, even working there for a time. She was very good at arguing, and so, when people told her that intelligent people often become doctors or lawyers, she decided she would become a Supreme Court justice. At the age of 13, she worked in a federal attorney’s office reading and filing cases.
Her home was in West Palm Beach, Florida, in a small house guided by God and filled with laughter from her single mother. This is where her sense of humor comes from—it’s how the tight-knit family got through some tough times.
“It wasn’t exactly Cheaper by the Dozen,” Cornelius says. She’s a movie buff, quick with Hollywood analogies. She means that they were not all living at home at the same time. Cornelius’ older siblings have been out of the house for a while, so she’s often been in the position of the oldest child in the household, helping out and giving advice.
She knew she wanted to go to college, but getting there was going to be another story. No one in her family knew much about college. If she managed to get there, she’d be the first member of the family to do so. No one could tell her how to prepare; she took it upon herself to figure it out and even convinced her mother to let her try different schools with the hope that one would offer the right match of discipline, academics, and opportunity.
Cornelius tried a military school for discipline. She got the idea from Cadet Kelly, a Hillary Duff, Private-Benjamin-type comedy about a wealthy fashion conscious teen. The reality turned out to be far from what she had imagined. “It ended up being more like the movie Holes,” she says. Every girl at the school had been sent by the courts, she only had supervised letter-written contact with her mother, and she saw rats in the cafeteria. Soon after Cornelius left, the school was shut down. She tried a school in a rough neighborhood that she had heard had a good law program. Socially, it didn’t work out, and, unhappy, she decided to leave even though she was in the running for valedictorian. Cornelius ended up at a school in her own neighborhood, back with her old friends.
When she asked her guidance counselors about college, though, she didn’t get much help. “It just wasn’t the type of high school where they were preparing students to go off to college,” Cornelius explains.
Eventually, she made a big decision, especially for someone her age from such a close family; she chose to move to California.
She had an uncle out there, and Cornelius didn’t know much about her uncle, except that he lived in Riverside and had a Ph.D. degree. She knew she could learn from him, and she believed she would be more disciplined in California. There were too many distractions for her in Florida. “You’ve seen the Fresh Prince of BelAir?” she asks with a laugh. “That was my life.”
A Fresh Start
Her uncle’s house was big, if not Fresh Prince big. It was a long, rambling house set back behind a gate on an unpaved road, and there was more space than Cornelius knew what to do with. There were other similarities, too. Cornelius was always joking around, while her uncle was serious, and this put them at odds the very day she moved into the home. Her uncle was conservative and very stern, too. “He didn’t want me to go to prom, because he’d seen American Pie, but I snuck out and went anyway,” she recalls. Cornelius ended up as one of the finalists for prom queen.
There were gardens to tend in the back, and while there, she helped her aunt and uncle build a waterfall, dog house, pond, and bridge. She’d ask him how to be competitive, and he would tell her, “If you want to be competitive, you need to sign up for as many AP [advanced placement] math and science courses as you can.” She needed to take physics—his own field— he told her.
“Physics,” she said, “Okay, what’s that?” They didn’t teach physics where she came from. She’d heard of Einstein, but she couldn’t have told you anything about him except that he was smart and that he had crazy hair. So Cornelius, who came to California to be a judge or maybe an actor, signed up for a physics class. And she loved it.
“I loved it so much,” she says. “I never even knew about it, and I loved it.”
Her teacher was a real character— “kooky,” she calls him. Physics is hard to teach, and so she says that she didn’t learn much physics from him, but she did catch his love of science.
She got into the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She forgot all about being a Supreme Court justice and is studying biophysics, biochemistry, and applied math. Cornelius is in the fourth of a five-year physician scientist track, which means she’ll be researching diseases and doing clinical work. She wants to focus on pediatric and general oncology.
Up for a Challenge
One of the things she loves about physics is the challenge, but it’s more than that, Cornelius enjoys the application, the beauty that comes with it, the way it can describe nature, and how she is able to communicate with nature through physics.
“It’s sometimes like my heart feels what physics is telling me before my mind does,” she explains. “And when I’m in class and the professor is writing all these equations on the board and explaining them to us, it’s like I’m engulfed in this beauty that I’m trying to be worthy of understanding. In a way, it’s like another way of talking to God, where instead of me speaking, I’m trying very hard to listen.”
As soon as Cornelius arrived at UCLA, she set to work on another dream. She founded the National Society of Empowered Youth, an organization that tutors underprivileged children in the physical sciences. She had been thinking for a while about how to do what her uncle had provided her—taking children from underrepresented areas who have never heard of physics and showing them its beauty.
“If someone had told me about math and physics and chemistry in high school, I probably would’ve stuck with that instead of ever wanting to go into law,” she says. “Growing up, all I heard was ‘doctor’ and ‘lawyer’. No one told me about science.”
Everything comes at a cost. She’s misses her family back in Florida, especially her baby sister. Cornelius didn’t want to leave her, but she knows that it will pay off in the long run. Not only did Mercedes figure out how to go to college, but she’s inspiring many others—maybe even her own sister—to follow her lead. “God makes it seem magical,” she says.
This article first appeared in IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine December 2017.