Dr. Karma Sawyer is the program manager of the Building Technologies Office's (BTO) Emerging Technologies program within the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Dr. Sawyer oversees a diverse portfolio of research and development (R&D) activities, with the goal of developing cost-effective, energy-efficient, flexible technologies for residential and commercial buildings. Her team supports the development of innovative practices and technologies with partners across academia, national labs, small businesses and industry in the areas of space conditioning, water heating and appliances, windows and envelope, sensors and controls, lighting and building energy modeling. She originally joined DOE in 2010 as an AAAS and ARPA-E fellow and later became an assistant program director, responsible for ARPA-E’s CO2 capture portfolio. Prior to joining DOE, Sawyer worked as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
She received a bachelor of science degree with honors in chemistry from Syracuse University in 2003 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 2008.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
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 fascinated by the concept of foundational laws of thermodynamics that describe all physical phenomena and are broadly applicable across the sciences. That AP Chemistry course was my first time being challenged by problems and feeling intellectually satisfied. I still think that it’s a rush to solve difficult problems. My desire to solve big problems is what drew me to work in energy -- there aren’t many problems bigger than that.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
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 in BTO, I was working on windows and building envelope R&D. 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.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
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 all children love to experiment and discover. It’s sad that their curiosity fades over time. I believe that STEM education is necessary to be an engaged citizen. One of the most important things that we can do to encourage greater participation from underrepresented groups is to prevent students from being intimidated by STEM fields. It’s also important to make children more comfortable with struggling with hard problems, new concepts and embracing new challenges.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
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.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
My husband and I have been together since sophomore year in high school. Over the last 20+ years, we have created an active, chaotic, but very fun household that includes two active dogs and two even more active boys (ages 5 and 8). During our spare time, we enjoy kayaking and hiking together. When I get a moment to myself, I listen to podcasts, do yoga or nap.
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at http://www.energy.gov/women