In 2015, when Sarah Moore was a graduate student at the University of Arizona, she and a group from Engineers Without Borders traveled to a rural Bolivian community in the Andes mountains about 14,000 feet above sea level. They came to install solar-powered showers and latrines. When they left, the community had just one shower and no latrines.
“Our team spent a lot of time coming up with creative ways to provide sanitation services to the community. That’s what engineers do,” said Moore, a 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy fellow working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO). “But then, the project just fell apart. As engineers, that totally blindsided us. We were only thinking about the technical problems.”
Moore and her fellow engineers might have mastered the technical challenges, but when it came time to build the new sanitation services, they discovered the community lacked the political will needed to manage such a complex project. The team had no choice but to leave, but Moore took the experience with her.
“If you really want to solve important problems, you need more than the math and science you learn in a classroom,” Moore said. “Take climate change,” she continued. “We have the technology solutions. But the problems are bigger than technology; they are social and political. That’s why I left the lab and came to government.”
Moore shared how she uses her engineering skills to serve communities assessing the potential value of an irrigation system in the Dominican Republic, solar-powered water treatment in the Navajo Nation, and more.
WPTO’s Ripple Effect series features individuals whose impactful work will help advance hydropower and marine energy technologies to achieve a clean energy future.
When you were a kid, did you know you would end up in STEM?
When I was 2 or 3 years old, I wanted to be a “germ doctor”—a microbiologist in my little kid brain. I always knew I was good at math and science and wanted to leave the world a better place than I found it, but I didn’t know how. When I was in high school, one of my friends dragged me to an event hosted by the Society of Women Engineers. They talked about how engineering is the application of science and math to help solve important problems in the world. And I was like, "Oh, cool, that’s exactly what I want—using math to solve everything. Awesome."
For both your undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Arizona, you studied chemical engineering. But as a graduate student, you also did research in the Navajo Nation. And you volunteered with Engineers Without Borders.
It was insane. I don’t know how I did it. My doctoral research was in economic analysis and optimization of solar-powered desalination systems, which remove impurities from brackish water to make it clean enough to drink. The Navajo Nation has very low population density, so one household can be many miles from others. A lot of households don’t have access to grid electricity and piped water, so many drive a truck to the central pumping station to fill it with water. Not only is that a hassle but it’s very expensive. The reservation has groundwater, but it’s too salty to drink or it’s contaminated with uranium because of legacy uranium mining. Our group was working on a novel water treatment technology—called solar-powered membrane distillation—to treat the water using solar power.
Was solar-powered desalination a good fit?
The technology was very novel and interesting, but my work showed that it was too expensive right now. It wasn’t going to solve problems for anybody for several decades. These people are facing this problem now. That was one thing that made me think doing research was not where I wanted to be if I wanted to have immediate impact on these communities. Scientific research is still important. You never know what crazy idea is going to be important in the future. But it’s not where I want to work; I’m just too impatient for that.
But you didn’t head straight to policy work. What did you do immediately after graduating?
I worked in the fossil fuel industry for three years. This was a weird path to take, but I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia. Industry was the only other sector I knew about. I was always interested in working in energy and liked the idea of exploring one of the largest and most complex energy sectors there is. That industry experience was valuable for me to have.
Then you shifted to more community-centric work?
Through Engineers Without Borders, I had found my passion: using engineering skills to help communities solve their infrastructure challenges. And that’s why I ended up at DOE—to pursue that professionally.
Apart from the “eureka” moment in Bolivia, did you have any other pivotal experiences with Engineers Without Borders?
Yes, the issues the Bolivian community was facing are common, even in small, rural communities in the United States. The population was aging. Young people would get a job in the big city and leave because they saw more economic opportunity there. When I was a graduate student, our chapter started a project with a community in the Dominican Republic, where we went to install an irrigation system. This community was totally different. It was still a rural community, but they wanted to include their young people. As the project manager, I recruited a social scientist so what happened in Bolivia wouldn’t happen again. They helped us understand how the project fit into the long-term economic development of the community.
Now, at WPTO, you’re doing even more community-focused work, right?
I wanted to work with WPTO because they do a lot of community-centric work. One project drew me to the office: WPTO worked with a community in Alaska, called Igiugig, to install a tidal river turbine electricity system. I thought that was really cool—that WPTO was working with communities to improve their energy systems. And, exactly a year ago, Jennifer Garson, the WPTO director, approached me to help her stand up a new program on energy improvements in rural and remote communities, which is now housed under the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations. It’s been really cool to apply the stuff I learned working in rural communities abroad to rural communities in the United States.
You’re also working with WPTO to help make DOE funding and clean energy technologies more accessible and inclusive, right?
Right. Before I joined WPTO, DOE released a request for information on how to make their funding and the broader clean energy innovation space more inclusive to people from underrepresented backgrounds. When I joined, I led a team to go through the responses and put together a report summarizing everything people said was preventing them from accessing DOE funding and their suggestions for improvements. That was a really cool opportunity to contribute to the Biden administration's Justice40 Initiative. As a result, DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy ran a prize called the Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize, which is ongoing.
Can you share any examples of Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize projects you’re excited about?
There’s one team in New Orleans that’s working with a group of artists—they call themselves the culture bearers of the city. And they’re developing a program to train people to install rooftop solar panels and microgrids on restaurants, for example. These restaurants could then operate as disaster relief shelters during a hurricane. When the power goes out, people at home can’t cook. Meanwhile, restaurants are just shoveling food out because their freezers are broken. There’s all this food waste while people are going hungry.
So, the team had the idea to combine solutions by making sure power in the restaurants can stay on. People can come hang out there, be in the air conditioning, get food, and charge their cell phones. In the meantime, community members are employed to build these solar microgrids. It’s really cool to be a little teeny-tiny part of helping them make that idea successful.
What would you tell someone considering a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship?
Take advantage of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship network! When I first heard of the fellowship, I was very interested, but didn’t know where to start. One of the things I did was reach out to current and former fellows on social media. To my surprise, many of them were happy to help even though they didn’t know me. The network of current and former fellows is very knowledgeable and always happy to help others join the policy space. I found this to be very helpful in developing a competitive application.
Where do you see yourself going next?
I’m hoping to stay in government. This fellowship helped me understand how to make the connection between the technology solutions I’ve spent most of my career developing, how to implement them in the real world, and where I fit in that complex puzzle.
What advice would you give to folks who are following in your footsteps?
I pursued things that I really cared about even if they were unconventional. So, my advice is to do whatever sparks your interest. Put as much effort into those things as you can so that you make an impact. Over time, all those different things came together into a job that I really enjoyed and was well qualified for.
Catch up on WPTO's other Ripple Effect profiles and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clean Energy Champions. And stay in the know with WPTO! Receive the latest information on funding opportunities, events, and other news by subscribing to the Hydro Headlines and Water Column newsletters, as well as the comprehensive Water Wire newsletter.