NREL Celebrates the Powerful Women of Water Power

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Power to the Women: For Women’s History Month, NREL Celebrates the Powerful Women of Water Power

This article is the first of two in a Women’s History Month series that showcases a handful of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL’s) outstanding women researchers in water power.

“Are women really interested in renewable energy technologies?” asked an NREL report published in 2000.

“There is a stereotype,” wrote the report’s author, Elizabeth Cecelski, “that women are not technologists and that they are not capable … of building, operating and maintaining sophisticated technologies. The reality is that women’s role in technology has been largely overlooked.”

Twenty-two years later, women’s role in technology (and science) has grown substantially. But there’s plenty more room to grow. Fewer than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. And papers authored by female scientists are often, well, overlooked. Those who publish in elite medical journals are half as likely to be cited as men who publish comparable studies.

So, for Women’s History Month 2022, we’re taking a look at six NREL women who are, in fact, really interested in renewable energy technologies, specifically water power technologies. We wanted to know: How did you get into science? What barriers did you have to overcome? And what do you do now? Here, three of the six give us their answers.

Question: What’s Your Scientist Origin Story?

When I was about 10 years old, I watched a documentary on global warming. I remember asking my dad, “What is this global warming? Is it true the world is going to end?” I was freaking out. I thought the world would end tomorrow.

Ever since, I’ve always wanted to do something about climate change.

Hannah Ross, Water Power Postdoctoral Researcher:

My mom was a biologist, and she had these really little eyeglasses that she used to look at little specimens. I really wanted to take those eyeglasses apart and see if I could figure out how they worked. One day, they broke, and my mom couldn’t fix them. So, I did.

Then, in high school, I had a moment of awakening when I realized that electricity is something we have to make. I also learned some of the implications of the ways we made electricity and how that was affecting the planet. I knew then that I wanted to go into renewable energy.

Sara Wallen, Water Power Research Technician at the Flatirons Campus:

I grew up in a gearhead family. My dad and brother were always working on cars. I helped out a bit but wasn’t really involved. I always thought, “OK, you guys are in the shop? That’s great. I’m going to go run track.”

When I started at NREL, I was an administrator. But at one of the staff awards, I happened to be sitting next to a gentleman who was high up in management with the field-testing team, and I said, “Hey, I’d love to climb a wind turbine. When can I get out there and do that?” That translated into “Sara wants to be a technician. How can we transition her out to the field?” I’ve been doing it for 7.5 years now.

Question: What Barriers, if Any, Did You Face Throughout Your Career?

Sarah Awara: 

I was very lucky that most people supported me throughout my career. But when you’re a minority, it’s harder to find a community that can relate to you. Because of that, it’s important to foster a community for women and minorities to build connections and relationships. During my undergraduate studies, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration, which was a turning point for me. I realized there was a vast community of great women out there to support us through our challenges.

Plus, when I feel discouraged, I think back to the documentary I watched as a kid. Climate change is a scary thing, and we need to study renewable energy technologies to implement them. That always motivates me.

I’m lucky that the only major barriers I faced were confidence issues and the impostor syndrome that comes with being the only woman in a class of 30, when anything you say is going to seem representative of all women in engineering.

There were quite a few engineers in my family, so I didn’t even realize, going into mechanical engineering, that women were underrepresented in the field. No one ever said, “Oh, you’re doing really well especially for a woman in this field.” It wasn’t until later, going through my undergraduate and doctoral classes, that I had to face the fact that only about 10% of the student population in my major were women.

Sara Wallen: 

Being a woman, it’s always a bit different. You must figure out your own way of doing things. Working with mostly men up here at NREL’s Flatirons Campus, we all have different beliefs and different ways that we were raised. But we’re all here, working for NREL, so we have common ground there.

In the beginning, I wanted to be tough. I was the only female technician at the Flatirons Campus (and one of only a handful at NREL). It was like, “OK, we’re going to climb the meteorological tower today, which is close to 400 feet.” And of course, I’m nervous. Of course, I’m scared. But on the outside, I’m like, “Oh yeah, no problem. We got this. Give me a tool bag. I’ll haul one of those up there.”

What’s Your Role at NREL? What Are You Working on Now?

Sarah Awara, Energy Systems Researcher at NREL. Photo courtesy of Sarah Awara

Sarah Awara: 

I’m an energy systems researcher in NREL’s Grid Systems Group within the Grid Planning and Analysis Center. I mostly write code to model U.S. and Canadian power systems and troubleshoot issues they might face as we add more renewable energy sources to the grid.

It’s not just an easy fix. Once we add renewable energy from solar power, wind energy, and water power, that doesn’t mean we’ve solved the problem. We already have a power grid, and we’re trying to add something and remove something. You can’t just fix it in one day.

Hannah Ross, Water Power Postdoctoral Researcher at NREL. Photo courtesy of Hannah Ross

Hannah Ross:

I’m a postdoctoral researcher in NREL’s marine energy group, focusing on energy generated from rivers, tides, and ocean currents. Mostly, I work in numerical modeling. For example, I’ve been taking some of the tools that were developed by the Wind Energy group, specifically the OpenFAST code, and am adding functionalities to make them work for water turbines.

There are a lot of similarities between wind and water turbines. But there’s some additional physics that needs to be accounted for, like the blade interactions with the water. By adding that in, we can take advantage of tools that already work really well and make them useful for water, too.

Sara Wallen, Water Power Research Technician at the Flatirons Campus at NREL. Photo courtesy of Sara Wallen

Sara Wallen: 

I’m a research technician at NREL’s Flatirons Campus. I started out climbing the wind turbines and meteorological towers to work on instrumentation up, up in the air.

Now, I work mostly with the structural testing team and the grid integration team. For example, if we’re testing a turbine blade or generator for an underwater marine energy device, I assist in the setup from top to bottom. I install hydraulic controls systems, instrumentation, wiring, and the software that connects everything to the computers so we can collect raw data.

Question: What’s Your Advice for Young Women Who Want To Pursue Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Fields?

Sarah Awara: 

If you’re passionate about using logic to solve challenges, then you’re in the right place. Try to filter out the distractions and anyone who tries to bring you down. Focus on your goal instead.

Hannah Ross:

If you enjoy science, math, or engineering, then just pursue it. You belong in those fields as much as anyone else. Try not to let setbacks overshadow the bigger goal of pursuing what you’re passionate about.

Sara Wallen: 

I always tell myself, “Relentless forward motion. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” Road blocks will come. You have to figure out how to get around them and have a good attitude about learning something new.

My mom always said, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” For me, it was really important to be confident and talk to that field manager to say, “Hey, I want to go out into the field. How can I do that?”

Article courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory. By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy.

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