Each February, the U.S. Department of Energy's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office (HFTO) celebrates Black History Month. This year, HFTO is celebrating by highlighting three individuals working to advance clean hydrogen technologies: Tommy Rockward, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) who leads collaborations with minority serving institutions (MSIs); Dr. Asha-Dee Celestine, an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellow at HFTO; and Dr. Kendall Parker, an energy equity engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and former ORISE fellow at HFTO.
Tommy Rockward, a level-four scientist at LANL, received his master's degree in applied physics at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, north of his hometown of Houma, where he grew up as the youngest of nine children. He has worked at LANL since 1997, when he first started as a graduate researcher. Today, he works on hydrogen and fuel cell projects including a hydrogen contamination detector and collaborates with the National Nuclear Security Administration Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program, which includes 52 institutions.
"My colleagues were so open and welcoming to me," Tommy says of his arrival at LANL. "I felt comfortable, and I developed a family." But Tommy saw ways to improve. "As a student there, I noticed there weren't a lot of African Americans and so I didn't hesitate to have that rather uncomfortable conversation with my mentor. I was afforded an opportunity to bring in another student. It was there that I learned to mentor."
Since that first experience, Tommy has mentored over 100 students, and he was featured in the October 2022 H2IQ Hour with three former mentees. Tommy strongly believes that mentorships benefit not just the students, but the entire field. "If we are to continue to do the best STEM in the United States, then we must diversify our recruiting portfolio and include MSIs."
Tommy's upbringing is the source of his drive to help others. "I was taught at an early age that helping people is important and it didn't matter about the color of your skin. What keeps me motivated is seeing the 'Aha!' moments for students, when they realize they can work independently and contribute."
Tommy sees progress still to be made. "Being uninformed is one of the largest barriers that some institutions must overcome. Minorities in STEM are out there, we just need to open our portfolio, take the blinders off, and look everywhere." After years working in the hydrogen and fuel cells space and collaborating with MSIs, Tommy's advice for minority students is simple and direct. "Remain focused on your goals despite challenges, be confident in your skills, and be a great team player who can also perform independently."
Asha-Dee Celestine, Ph.D.
Dr. Asha-Dee Celestine is an ORISE Fellow at HFTO working on hydrogen delivery and storage. Her passion for learning and desire to be an aerospace engineer brought her to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago. She received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at Howard University, a master's in aerospace engineering at Stanford University, and, after working as a field engineer, earned a doctorate in aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. "I like the challenge of learning new things. While I was working in the field, I felt strongly that I should go back and get my doctorate."
Before coming to HFTO, Asha-Dee taught in Auburn University's Aerospace Engineering department. Like Tommy Rockward, Asha-Dee also saw areas for improvement. "I was the only female faculty member and only Black faculty member in the department. In a way, it gave me an opportunity to interact with many diverse groups." This happened through 100+ Women Strong, which works to increase the number of female students within the college, and Auburn's Center for Inclusive Engineering Excellence, focused on increasing underrepresented minorities in engineering.
Asha-Dee transitioned to government after her experiences with industry and academia to understand all aspects of the funding process. "From the outside, you have this impression that somebody comes up with an idea and creates a funding opportunity announcement," she says. "I didn't appreciate how much work and thoughtfulness goes into choosing funding topics. We have workshops and webinars, and we get input from so many different stakeholders before we decide on those topics. It was a pleasant surprise. I like to see all the different pieces come together."
Looking back, Asha-Dee has advice to offer to women, particularly Black and Brown women going into engineering, who may not see themselves represented in the field. "You are qualified for your position, so don't let the fact that you're the only one intimidate you and make you feel like you don't belong. In that situation, build up your support system and find the people to give you advice and mentor you, even if it's just someone to have lunch with and discuss what you're experiencing. And don't be afraid to take chances as well. Be fearless."
Kendall Parker, Ph.D.
Dr. Kendall Parker is an energy equity engineer at PNNL and a former ORISE fellow at HFTO. She earned her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at Florida A&M University and received her doctorate in bulk power systems at the University of Florida.
At the University of Florida, Kendall realized she wanted to work in environmental justice. "I was part of the social justice activities on campus. Looking back, I wish I could have integrated those activities into my research." As she looked for an intersection of social justice and engineering, she became aware of the field of environmental justice and the work of Dr. Tony Reames, DOE's deputy director for energy justice. "I thought I could follow in his footsteps. I came to DOE and learned the ins and outs of developing metrics to measure equity, and I realized I could contribute."
In transitioning from her energy equity and environmental justice (EEEJ) work at HFTO to PNNL, Kendall has used that experience to work directly with communities. "I'm working with a social equity program to provide technical assistance for communities looking to implement energy storage. I'm also supporting equity in wind efforts and the grid deployment office, as well as rural and remote communities."
Kendall has made progress in the hydrogen space, as well. "We hosted an EEEJ summit for the national labs and I presented PNNL's hydrogen portfolio." The summit was critical to implementing the Justice40 Initiative in national lab projects. Additionally, Kendall consults with external groups needing assistance on EEEJ activities, something she wants to continue in her career by working as a community technical assistance liaison.
Kendall sees collaborative efforts, like the Hydrogen Safety Panel, as key to progress. The Safety Panel was created under the DOE Hydrogen Program through PNNL nearly two decades ago. In addition, through a partnership between PNNL and the American Institute for Chemical Engineers and with support from HFTO and industry, the Center for Hydrogen Safety now has over a hundred members committed to collaboration on hydrogen safety. Such activities are critical for building resources to support the hydrogen workforce and for strengthening "energy democracy," which refers to the ability of communities to control and lead their own energy transitions.
For those interested in the technical side of environmental justice, Kendall recommends learning about energy equity, which is a relatively new field. And she emphasizes the importance of humility, "It takes humility to remember not to put yourself first—this is ultimately a public service role."