A Work in Progress

Nov. 1, 2008
Derrick Cherry does not believe in taking shortcuts especially when it comes to his education and career. Instead, the 31-year-old electrical engineer devotes

Derrick Cherry does not Believe in Taking Shortcuts — especially when it comes to his education and career. Instead, the 31-year-old electrical engineer devotes many hours working at Alabama Power (Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.), finishing his doctorate degree and researching ways to fulfill his dream of establishing a youth outreach center.

"I grew up in the small town of Friars Point, Mississippi," said Cherry. "Over the years, Mississippi has been experiencing many challenges with health care, high school retention and an increase in crime rates, due in part to the lack of recreation available for young people. A long-term goal of mine is to start several nonprofit recreational centers."

One component of the center will be a mentoring program. Cherry, who earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees from Mississippi State University (MSU) in Starkville, Mississippi, and is currently in the process of obtaining his Ph.D. from the college, credits Professor Noel Schulz for his belief in the power of mentoring.

"Professor Schulz has been my advisor since my senior year of undergrad, and I've been her research assistant for several years," said Cherry. "She has been very influential in my career path and with how far I've gone in power engineering."

Indeed, this engineer has come a long way from days in Friars Point. After graduating from high school in 1995, where he excelled in science and math, Cherry received a scholarship to Alcorn State (Lorman, Mississippi) and entered the school's pre-engineering program. He transferred to MSU two years later and proceeded to obtain his BSEE. During his senior year of college, an engineering professor's comment brought Cherry to a crossroads.

"The professor told our class that engineering students today ‘know nothing’ — that we just use calculators and formulas to figure out answers," he recalled. "I got to thinking and decided he was right. Because we have so much technology, we typically don't take the time to learn the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’ While I knew a lot of information after completing my undergraduate degree from MSU, I wasn't confident with what I knew. I felt like I was missing something. That's one of the things that sparked me to get my master's degree."

After earning his MSEE, Cherry still did not feel ready to end his formal education, choosing instead to remain at MSU and pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. To fund his doctorate work, the engineer was accepted into the Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB) Doctoral Scholars Program. The SREB is part of a nationwide initiative whose goal is produce more minorities with Ph.D.s and encourage them to seek faculty positions.

"The SREB is a good program, and I plan to someday be involved in academia, although I can't say for certain in what capacity," said Cherry. "I would first like to work in the industry for some years to gain practical knowledge before I consider entering the classroom, because I want to be the most effective instructor I can."

One way he is gaining real-world experience is from his job at Alabama Power in the protective equipment and application group. He is also a member of the IEEE and the National Society of Black Engineers. Before joining the utility this past July, most of Cherry's career focused on his research into distributed generation, protective relaying, renewable energy, power markets and the optimization of power systems using artificial intelligence. "One major research project I worked on was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy," said Cherry. "We examined how to capitalize on Mississippi's renewable energy sources while maintaining system integrity and building a sustainable market."

When he is not working at Alabama Power or finishing his dissertation, Cherry enjoys spending as much time as possible with wife Hillary who, like her husband, holds multiple degrees, one in biology and one in nursing. He also likes listening to all types of music, exploring economic opportunities — Cherry's undergraduate degree includes a business minor — and traveling back to his hometown to visit family members, who he says are extremely proud of his accomplishments.

"My mother, dad, brothers and sisters have always been supportive of my career," he said. "Growing up, I didn't have pressure to go into a particular field. As long as I was doing something I enjoyed and it was legal, my family was content. As a matter of fact, I could've picked up cans for a living, and my family would have been just as proud — although they probably would have encouraged me to start a recycling business."

Real estate, politics and following the stock market also interest Cherry. Despite his numerous accomplishments and pursuits, the engineer tries to keep his life simple.

"I would say my career is a work in progress," he said. "I can sit down and try to plan it out, but when it comes time to make a decision, I believe the better plan will prevail. And since I'm a pretty flexible guy, it usually works out."

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