With roots dating back to Women’s History Week, first celebrated in 1982, Women’s History Month is a time to recognize and honor women’s contributions to history and their achievements in fields ranging from sciences to arts and literature, and more. That’s why the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) is taking a moment this month to highlight just a few of the women at WPTO who are helping to advance hydropower and marine energy technologies and move the nation closer to its clean energy future.
Her Role: Executive Assistant
Her Time With WPTO: Six years
Her Total Time with DOE: 20 years
Her Story: In high school, Natalie Alexander liked dissecting frogs. But she didn’t pursue science further than those guts. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do,” she said.
Natalie persisted, nonetheless. She attended community college, studied secretarial skills and shorthand—that now-cryptic code used to take notes with superhuman speed. Now, decades later, her title may have changed from Secretary to Executive Assistant, but her role is much the same. “I’m the glue that holds everything together,” Natalie said. “I'm here for the people.”
Natalie might be here for the people—she keeps WPTO running and creates space for staff to pause, breathe, and recalibrate. She’s also here for the planet. When she joined DOE 20 years ago as a contractor, she didn’t know anything about the energy world, she said. Now, when she sees advertisements or news articles on ENERGY STAR®, LED lightbulbs, hydrogen fuel cells, electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines, she thinks, “That's us! That's where I work.”
Natalie is now an ambassador for water power. She tells anyone who asks, as well as her granddaughter and goddaughter, how water creates energy, how there could be power grids in the ocean, how marine energy and hydropower could change the world—and, she adds, power the blue economy.
“I’m proud of where I work,” Natalie said. “We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, and my role is to help each member face them.”
Her Advice for the Next Generation: “Just step out and try something. You might not think that what you're doing is important, but if you stick with it, you’ll realize that no matter where you are, you're just as important as the next person.”
Her Role: Diversity and Inclusion Project Manager
Her Time With WPTO: One year
Her Story: Ashley Brooks grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where being successful, as her brother once told her, means working in the oil or gas industry. That’s what drew Ashley to work in clean energy: “How will my brother transition to the clean energy industry while being able to stay in the town where he bought a home and raised his family?” she said.
As the diversity and inclusion project manager, Ashley is involved in planning WPTO’s workforce development and community outreach efforts. She also meets with community organizations and associations, primarily those that support underrepresented groups, to understand how WPTO can reach a broader and more diverse audience while achieving the Biden administration’s Justice40 goals.
Ashley didn’t always plan to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion. Starting when she was nine years old, she was a competitive horseback rider. As an undergraduate student, she pursued a business management degree so she could run horse farms. But she realized something. “I didn’t want to run a horse farm,” Ashley said. “I wanted to be part of the bigger picture.”
Ever since, Ashley has thrown herself into work with underserved communities, first with Public Allies, a nonprofit focused on social justice, then with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where she helped support over 23,000 employees. After moving to Los Angeles, California, (which Ashley calls a “crazy little decision”) and working for the provost’s office at the University of Southern California and a nonprofit in Skid Row, she came back home to the East Coast.
Even now, the work she does is vital but challenging, Ashley said.
“Being in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, you don't just work in it. You have to live it. It's hard and exhausting sometimes, especially in the world we live in today. But it’s rewarding and worth it,” she said. At WPTO, Ashley hopes to make that world a little easier for people, like her brother, whose livelihoods will be directly impacted by climate change.
Advice for the Next Generation: “You belong here. Don’t stop pursuing your goals just because you don't see people that look like you, think like you, or act like you. Be the first; pave the way and bring others along with you. Go for it; don't hold yourself back.”
Kathryn (Katie) Jackson
Her Role: Engineer and Hydropower Technology Manager
Her Time With WPTO: Two and a half years
Her Story: “The only things I've ever been paid to do are related to water,” said Katie Jackson.
Katie grew up surrounded by ocean on a mile-wide barrier island off the coast of Florida. In high school, she worked as a lifeguard; during graduate school, she studied ceramic water filters used to produce clean drinking water for homes without access to centralized water treatment; and after graduating, she worked on water quality as an environmental consultant.
Today, Katie is still deep in water. After earning a prestigious Science and Technology Policy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she joined WPTO and saw, for the first time, how water mixes with energy. Now, as an engineer and technology manager for WPTO, Katie studies low-impact hydropower—technologies that are more sustainable and safer for ecosystems—as well as how to efficiently expand hydropower to support a clean energy grid.
“Water is such a unique resource,” Katie said. “It serves so many purposes. It’s just a mess to untangle all its many value streams.”
One thing that wasn’t a mess for Katie? Her career path. Throughout her education—from high school to WPTO—she had a steady presence of strong, scientific role models who happened to be women. “I'm not sure I realized how important that was until I was older,” Katie said. Today, she’s become that strong, scientific role model for the next generation, volunteering as a mentor for the Society of Women Engineers and for the Latina SciGirls classes at the Children’s Science Center in Virginia.
“I've always been really lucky and blessed to have great scientific role models and women to look up to,” Katie said. “It's cool that I get to be part of that from the other side.”
Her Advice for the Next Generation: “Look out for camps and events, like those hosted by the Society of Women Engineers. If one of your friends is signing up for something, try it! It's a good way to meet mentors.”
Her Role: Technical Project Officer
Her Time With WPTO: Over 5 years
Her Story: Yana Shininger was born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan. She recalls her homeland as “an oil-rich, post-Soviet republic also rich in other natural resources, like the Caspian Sea, which laps right up against the budding, industrial city of Baku.” Growing up in this somewhat contradictory scene, Yana felt the calling to protect the world’s natural resources.
For her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Yana came to the United States—first to Washington D.C., then to Colorado. After graduating with degrees in international relations and diplomacy as well as environmental policy and management, she applied for a project specialist position with DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in early 2006. “This job found me when I least expected,” Yana said.
Yana worked her way through several different offices within DOE before finally joining WPTO in 2017. Now, she oversees the office’s various funding opportunity announcements and manages a portfolio of marine energy projects. “It turned out to be the best decision and life opportunity yet,” she said.
In summer 2019, for example, Yana traveled to Alaska to watch as the remote village of Igiugig installed its first river-based renewable energy device. The device provides the community with clean power without harming their local, salmon-rich waters. “Watching this collaboration between a local tribal community and a marine energy technology developer affirmed my childhood hope that energy and natural resources can coexist,” Yana said.
“It’s all I’ve ever wished for in a job.”
Her Advice for the Next Generation: “Today’s world is different from the world your mothers were born into. You have the right to the same amount of knowledge and opportunities as anyone else. So, know what you want, and go after it. Go after informational interviews, ask for mentors, get help along the way, and never be afraid to ask questions. In the end, you will succeed.”
Her Role: Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Fellow
Her Time With WPTO: About one year
Her Story: During her two-year Peace Corps mission on the Fiji Islands, Maya Whalen-Kipp learned three things: “There is never a bad time for a nap. The Pacific Ocean is arguably the most powerful thing on the planet. And coconut trees are arguably the most useful tools on the planet,” she wrote in an essay about her service.
But Maya, who has a master’s degree in environmental policy and climate science, also learned how vulnerable coastal communities are to climate change. Rising temperatures and sea levels threaten their coral reefs, fisheries, invertebrates, and way of life. “The sea cucumber industry in the South Pacific is wild,” Maya said. For her graduate thesis, she wrote about indigenous cultural conservation practices and how these could inform policy to address the illegal sea cucumber trade, which threatens ecologically valuable species in the South Pacific.
Maya joined WPTO as a John A. Knauss Marine Policy fellow, also known as a Sea Grant fellow, a position that is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When that marine policy fellowship ended, she earned an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education fellowship to further grow her role at WPTO.
Now, Maya coordinates marine energy policy, ensuring that this renewable energy resource is part of larger interagency conversations about ocean science, data, technology, and policy. She’s also a business liaison between marine energy startups, incubators, and DOE. Coming in with a wealth of experience with young companies, including a solar energy startup and hydroponics food technology startup, Maya is a seasoned ambassador.
“If I could change one thing in the world,” said Maya, “I would decarbonize all sectors of the economy by uplifting a wide array of clean energy and climate technology.” At the same time, she hopes to create pathways for communities of color and those on the front lines of climate change to join the growing green economy and build wealth through climate solutions and the clean energy transition. These include Fiji and her hometown of Queens, New York, which have often borne the brunt of the effects of the climate crisis.
“There's no reason these communities can’t be heroes and leaders we all look to at this time of crisis.”
Her Advice for the Next Generation: “Apply for as many things as you possibly can. It doesn’t matter if it's in your field exactly or if you think you don’t meet all the qualifications. You will be surprised what doors can open with a diverse set of experiences. Don't take these systems so seriously. The energy space, federal government, and technology startups can be daunting as one transitions out of academia. Think outside the box in terms of which organizations you're willing to work with. These are spaces that would be lucky to have you. Simply keep overall impact, mission, and personal growth centered in whatever direction you professionally grow.”
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