Q: Please tell us about yourself, your background and your Native American heritage, as well as your educational and professional path that led you to your current career. Also, share with us some of the challenges you faced and how you overcame them.
Singer: I am Navajo (Diné), of the Tangle Clan, born for the Mexican clan. My maternal grandfather is the Deer Water clan, and my paternal grandfather is the Salt clan. I grew up in the mountains of Flagstaff, AZ. My grandparents lived in Northern Arizona and did not speak English. They lived in rural areas without access to grid-tied electricity or running water. Having spent much of my childhood at their homes’ allowed me to learn at an early age the importance of energy and water efficiency. The labor of bringing water into the home in a dry area made water seem precious. Having little light to cook and read by at night made me appreciate easy access to electricity. Looking back, I am grateful for these experiences and realize how much they motivated me to pursue higher education and influenced my career choices.
I really enjoyed math at a young age. I worked hard in high school while also playing sports and music. Getting good grades provided many opportunities to further my academics through scholarships. While at the University of Arizona, I was an engineering math major and was able to explore several engineering disciplines with intense math courses. An internship opportunity with my professor solidified my interest in experimental heat transfer and prompted an interest in graduate school. Acclimating to the high standards of graduate research at UC Berkeley was probably the biggest challenge I have experienced. Not really knowing anyone that had earned their Ph.D. or knowing the ins and outs of thesis research put me at a disadvantage at a “Research 1” or R1 institution. I felt like I was many steps behind my peers constantly playing catch up. Thankfully, I had an awesome support system consisting of my family and graduate school friends that made me feel like I had the power and wisdom to make the best choice for my future. After 5 years of working extra hours and learning from other successful students, I graduated with a Ph.D.
Q: Tell us about your work and position as Energy Systems and Thermal Analyst at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Singer: I am involved in many aspects of energy research at LLNL. I utilize my heat transfer and mechanical engineering background to evaluate material and mechanical integrity with thermal and multi-physics modeling tools. These tools are great for designing or analyzing components that need to meet certain engineering specifications. One of my goals is to help Native Tribes become more energy independent, which inspires me to find collaborative opportunities between LLNL and Tribes.
Part of my work as an energy systems analyst is to generate qualitative and quantitative representations of an energy system in the form of data flow charts (commonly known as Sankey diagrams). LLNL’s signature flow chart is of the U.S. energy consumption and carbon dioxide (https://flowcharts.llnl.gov). These diagrams are a great way to depict large amounts of data and complicated analysis in a single page reference of the country’s most important energy statistics. I have created Sankey diagrams to depict Tribal renewable energy potential and energy-water interactions for U.S. states. The energy-water nexus is a rising topic of interest, especially in the drought stricken Southwest U.S. Being able to “see” how much water is used to generate our electricity needs, or how much energy is used to provide our water consumption shows how integrated these systems are. An interesting project that I worked on was to analyze energy flows in a commercial building in Philadelphia, PA. The flow charts showed large amounts of natural gas consumed for cooling in the summer and large heat losses through windows and walls in the winter. The goal of the building energy flow charts was to demonstrate the potential benefit of implementing energy efficiency measures.
Q: In your view, what unique challenges Native American girls and women face in STEM studies and careers that are specific to both their gender and race?
Singer: I think one of the challenges of being a Native American student, particularly if you grew up on the reservation, is finding a way to succeed in a new academic environment where it is rare to see a “familiar” face. Growing up through high school and as an undergraduate student, I had plenty of Native American friends and family. So, when I went to any of my science and engineering classes, the lack of minorities came with an isolating feeling. Another unique challenge is the struggle between education and family. The hardest times for me in school were when a family tragedy happened, and I could either not afford to go home, or I was concerned that going home would negatively influence my schoolwork. I also grew up learning to respect my elders, which translated to not questioning authority. This is a bad trait in the world of academia and science where questioning how the world works is fundamental to the way we learn. I adjusted through graduate school, where I sought out diversity groups targeted toward Ph.D. students in STEM fields that could help me navigate the world of academia.
Both women and Native Americans face discrimination in academia and the workplace. The combination of being a Native American woman in the sciences further compounds the barriers needed to overcome systemic discrimination on the path to success. For example, I have heard stories of women in science or engineering who had classmates that would not study with them; or who had colleagues ask them to get coffee in a meeting. Sadly, one of the challenges of being a woman in STEM is to be taken seriously as an intelligent professional. My advisor once told me that I would have to work twice as hard as my peers for people to not use my skin color and gender as an excuse for me being there. I used that advice as motivation to get through graduate school. Now, I enjoy seeing people’s reactions when I tell them I earned my Ph.D. from Berkeley. It is shocking and a little disheartening to realize how surprised they are, and strange how differently they treat me. I also find joy in seeing that shock because it reminds me how hard I have worked to be where I am now.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top 2 reasons why Native Americans are not more prominently represented in STEM careers?
Singer: I think a significant reason why few Native American students pursue STEM careers is the lack of role models, mentors, and relatable STEM professionals. Young students may never consider a STEM career path if never introduced to the vast career opportunities. If there is no one in their community to tell them that engineers can do more than drive a train, they might never realize they can create apps, design bridges, develop medical devices, or increase renewable energy development in their communities. Having professionals that “look like you” makes pursuing a STEM career more plausible. I am hopeful that technology makes it easier to find resources and access to successful role models. Publications like this article are a great step to publicizing the challenges and opportunities for underrepresented students.
Another unfortunate hurdle to increasing students in STEM fields is the lack of resources and infrastructure. I think exposing Native American students to STEM at an early age and continually engaging them in STEM activities and educational development is critical. There may not be high-speed internet to access libraries of online educational tools in remote areas such as reservations. There is also no possibility of remote learning opportunities via internet. In some areas, updating building facilities and science classrooms could be a challenging and costly endeavor. Having a centralized science resource center is available in large cities. However, in rural areas, the distance may be too much to travel on a regular basis. Some great educators work hard to create opportunities for students to travel to science camps or fairs, regardless of the travel and costs. I am glad some organizations are investigating the socioeconomic barriers to academic success, and some such as the Inter-Tribal Energy & Tech Tour are exploring creative ways to promote STEM learning.
Q: What are the critical steps policymakers should undertake to increase the number of Native Americans in STEM studies, academia and businesses?
Singer: Increased investment in STEM education within Tribal school districts is badly needed, yet it is not always clear how new funding resources should be optimally spent. Sometimes hurdles to education are linked to infrastructure development. For example, there are limited housing options in rural areas that often lead to long commutes. Another challenge is the lack of support or incentives to attract and retain talented educators.
Streamlining Federal and Tribal processes to implement economic, energy, and infrastructure development is needed to encourage growth and create financially appealing investment opportunities. Any incentive to bring businesses to reservations, especially in technology-based areas, would give young people a STEM career path that allows them to stay close to home and preserve their culturally identity.