Karma Sawyer is the Program Manager for Emerging Technologies within EERE’s Building Technologies Office (BTO). She received a Bachelor of Science with honors in chemistry from Syracuse University and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley. She sat down with us recently for our Ask a Scientist series, and earlier this month, she participated in a roundtable with Federal News Radio; after learning more about her in this interview, check out her thoughts on the Internet of Things and digital revolution.
How did you decide on a career in science?
I took an AP Chemistry course my junior year of high school that inspired me to become a scientist. I loved chemistry because it is a central science. It was during that class that I started to see how biology, chemistry and physics intersect.
I was particularly fascinated by the concept that there are foundational laws of thermodynamics that describe all physical phenomena and are broadly applicable across the sciences. It’s pretty amazing when you sit back and think about it.
That AP Chemistry was my first time being really challenged by problems and feeling intellectually satisfied. I still think that it’s a rush to solve difficult problems. I think that my desire to solve big problems is what drew me to work in energy. There aren’t many problems bigger than that.
What kind of research and development do you do?
Right now, I work to make the U.S. building stock energy efficient and flexible so that buildings are sustainable, fully utilized assets in the emerging energy economy. Energy efficient building technologies R&D is incredibly rich and full of opportunities for new scientific discovery.
When I first started at BTO, I was working on the windows & building envelope R&D portfolio. This was a great fit for me because I had quite a bit of experience in heat and mass transfer R&D from my postdoctoral work and my time working as a fellow at ARPA-E.
I quickly began to appreciate (and love) the breadth of R&D in BTO’s portfolio – everything from mechanical engineering for advanced air conditioning technologies to computer science for building energy modeling to organic chemistry for solid state lighting.
In my current role, I oversee R&D for all of these technology areas, which is fantastic. There is so much to learn on a regular basis. I believe that my educational training in chemistry has been invaluable to doing this work.
What are some misconceptions about being a professional scientist?
People often don’t appreciate the importance of creativity, communication, and leadership for professional scientists. Scientific research is nothing if not creative problem solving. And most often, that creative problem solving isn’t done by a single person. It requires a team of scientists working together. Some of them might be behind the scenes, but they still need to be able to effectively collaborate and communicate.
Is there any advice you'd give a young student who's thinking about becoming a scientist?
Develop a growth mindset. I just learned about this concept from my own children’s teachers and I love it. People with a growth mindset enjoy challenges and strive to learn and develop new skills. It’s an incredible gift to be able to spend your professional life learning and working to solve difficult and important challenges. Embrace it.
The subject of STEM education has been growing in importance recently. What might you tell students and teachers about the importance of STEM education and how to encourage it?
Carl Sagan has a quote that really resonates with me on this topic: “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” It’s funny, but it’s also true that children love to experiment and discover. It’s sad to me that their curiosity fades over time.
STEM education is necessary to be an engaged citizen because increasingly the STEM fields are at the core of our society. I think the most important thing that we can do is prevent students from being intimidated by STEM fields. It’s also important to get them more comfortable with struggling with hard problems new concepts and embracing new challenges.