Mary Yamada currently serves as a Technology-to-Market (T2M) Advisor at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Her focus at ARPA-E includes a wide range of technologies to enable advanced energy solutions for the transportation and buildings sectors. As a T2M Advisor, her role is to advise technical teams in developing and executing an effective commercialization strategy. In addition, Mary Yamada has been integral to the creation of ARPA-E’s new program SCALEUP – Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential. The program builds from ARPA-E’s primary research and development (R&D) focus to support the scaling of high-risk and potentially disruptive new technologies across the full spectrum of energy applications.
Prior to ARPA-E, Yamada served as Associate Director for Navigant Consulting’s Energy Practice. There she managed technology transformation efforts and developed long-term program plans for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Yamada earned an M.S. in Civil & Environmental Engineering with a concentration in Green Design and a B.S. in Civil Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
For me entering STEM was a series of rises and falls. My parents were an enormous influence. They encouraged me to explore, build and take risks. If I wanted to explore Sligo Creek down the street, build a bridge to cross it, and then risk it by bypassing all of that with a rope swing – my parents were all for it. But most of all they taught me if I fell, and failed, that was OK. I also learned that a bag of frozen peas and Advil go a long way...I think for so many young people, and especially girls, they look at STEM coursework and think there is no way I can do that – it’s too hard and I’m not smart enough. I remember getting a “D” on one of my first Physics exams and having that be a real shock to the system. But I think one of the things I’ve come to love about STEM is the inherent acceptance of failure. I remember my teacher telling me afterwards “there’s no way that Newton got this all right the first time, so why should you?” And to me that message was powerful. The reality is willingness to fail is largely how we got to where we are. As a species, we’ve come so far in understanding how the world works, and that’s because scientists, engineers and doctors are willing to fail hundreds of times before they find that one success. And for me – as someone who was only ever OK at building bridges and physics – that makes STEM pretty awesome.
Also, Bill Nye – he was definitely one of my heroes growing up.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I have one of the best jobs in the world. Each day I come to the ARPA-E offices and I get to work with some of the brightest minds working on some of the hardest technical problems out there. Lately what excites me is our new program SCALEUP – Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential – and it’s been what I eat, breath, and dream about here at ARPA-E. I can say as a T2M Advisor here at ARPA-E we work extremely hard to help our teams think through next-steps, and we work diligently to help guide them through securing follow-on funds once their project ends. But the reality is, this is really, really HARD. And it’s especially hard for energy technologies, where private sector investment risk tolerances are often much lower. So to combat this challenge we’ve created the SCALEUP program to tackle those remaining technical and developmental risks that are associated with scaling potentially disruptive energy technologies. This program is the first of its kind at ARPA-E, so it’s been awesome to have helped create this new – and highly necessary – technology funding mechanism.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
Wow – I only get one paragraph for this? Well…drawing on my own experience, I think what helped me was flexible thinking about gender norms. Remember that bridge building example I gave in the paragraph above? Well, I would usually do all of those things while wearing some kind of princess dress and a tiara. I also was very into collecting rocks – geodes are cool OK – and styling and cutting my Barbie’s hair. I’m pretty sure my parents thought I was crazy at times. I know I at least drove them crazy. But unfortunately not everyone I encountered in my life was as supportive, and that was really hard at times. All of that is to say, when we start letting girls define who they are, not by their gender, but by whatever the heck is fun and interesting to them, I think that will go a very long way.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Start talking to people. If you’re young, talk to your science teacher. They can help you find local programs to get you exposure to people doing amazing things in STEM. Also, most major cities in the country have a science museum – go there. It will be fun and you’ll learn something. If you’re older and in college, find the engineering or science department and talk to some professors. STEM professors love to talk about what they do. Trust me I work with a TON of them. If you’re already an engineering or science major, go to the career fair and find your professional development center. These folks have broad networks and it’s their job to bring different STEM-focused organizations and companies to campus to talk to students.
Lastly, remember everyone working in the STEM fields was a kid and student once, and many of us can relate to how hard the process can be for deciding on a career path. We may be wearing steel-toe boots or eye goggles or just some poorly matched tweed, but don’t be afraid to reach out and ask us questions!
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
Soccer. I played as a kid, I played is college, and I still play now. Also, I like to cook. Not just anything though – I like the challenge of mastering things from scratch so I make homemade pastas, breads, sauces, as well as multi-layer birthday cakes and fruit pies. I’ve dabbled in cheese making, but that didn’t go very well. I love consignment shopping for all things – clothes, furniture, knic-knacs. When I get a great deal on a vintage designer jacket or boots it feels like I’ve won the lottery. I also play Dungeons & Dragons with good friends from high school – I’m currently playing as a human Paladin named Elsa – she kicks some serious B-U-T-T!
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at http://www.energy.gov/women