Aaron Yazzie shares many of the questions a lot of us have about the planet Mars. “Mars was once similar to Earth,” he says. “It once had water and was warmer as an early planet. It developed over billions of years in similar ways to Earth, but the question is, why did Earth develop life and Mars didn’t? Or maybe it did?”
Like most of us, Yazzie likes to puzzle over these questions. But there’s a big difference in his ruminations — his work as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., is instrumental in actually getting some answers. Yazzie, the winner of this year’s award for Technical Excellence, led a team that developed the Mars 2020 Sample Acquisition Drill Bit Assemblies, which are an integral part of the Sample Caching System aboard the Perseverance rover that landed on the red planet in February of this year.
In NASA parlance, that means Yazzie and his colleagues developed the tools and instruments needed to collect rock core samples that will eventually be returned to Earth and studied in depth. “Previously, when we studied Mars geology to look for water and signs of the building blocks of life, like carbon, we would drill into the rocks and study the powder using instruments on board the missions,” says Yazzie. “Now we are trying to acquire a preserved rock core to bring back to Earth to study with much more powerful instruments here. That will give us a much clearer view of whether there was life on Mars.”
The years of engineering work required to develop technologies to make this possible involved a level of difficulty that is hard to overstate, particularly designing equipment that can work reliably in the harshest of environments. But Yazzie is no stranger to overcoming big challenges. Born on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, Ariz., and raised in Holbrook, Ariz., Yazzie charted an unlikely course from his boyhood surroundings to earning a BS in mechanical engineering at Stanford University in 2008. “Nobody from home had gone to a place like that,” he says.
“[A preserved rock core] will give us a much clearer view of whether there was life on Mars.”
But Yazzie is quick to recall the many positive influences and mentors that helped him navigate his way to Stanford and then on to JPL. Fortunately, he didn’t have to look far to find inspiration: Yazzie’s father was a civil engineer for the State of Arizona and his mother was a math teacher. “They were both in a STEM field and their stories are inspirational,” he says. “They were first in their families to go to college and get their education, and they had to fight hard and it took years. But for me, it meant that I didn’t second-guess that I would go to college. And I knew what an engineer looks like.”
These days, Yazzie likes to use his platform and accomplishments to make it clear to as many Native students as possible that space exploration and other STEM fields need and want them. “I spend a lot of time doing outreach, and I have been given this amazing platform because things I work on are easily recognizable and interesting to anybody,” says Yazzie, who has been called the “Indigenous Bill Nye – The Science Guy.” “I specifically target Native communities and talking to Native students. I want to show everyone that you can be a NASA engineer and look like me. I want to normalize that.”
These days, any discussion of electricity inevitably turns to energy generated by the sun. In fact, according to a recent report by the Solar Energy Industries Association, nearly 60 percent of all new electric generation added in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2021 was solar — and forecasts are that the mainstreaming of solar energy will only accelerate.
The fact that the planet can increasingly depend on clean and emissions-free electricity from solar panels is thanks to people like Deb Tewa, this year’s winner of the Indigenous Excellence Award. Decades before solar energy became big business, Tewa was one of a handful of people actually installing panels and helping the niche industry prove its value.
Decades before solar energy became big business, Tewa was one of a handful of people actually installing panels.
For Tewa, that journey began in the early 1980s, when she started offering off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that would deliver electricity for the first time to other members of her Hopi tribe. The fact that Tewa speaks some Hopi helped. “People trusted us and were embracing this transformative technology,” says Tewa, who worked with the Hopi Foundation to install solar. “People wanted lights and TVs and now cell phones and tablets and hot spots. But we started with humble beginnings.”
Tewa also started with humble beginnings. Originally from Hotevilla, Ariz., she is the first in her family to graduate from college — although she took a circuitous route to her BS in applied Indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University (NAU). After originally enrolling at NAU after high school, Tewa left after two years and moved back home. There she got a summer job working with the tribal government as a liaison with summer youth workers. One day a woman set up a table to recruit young people to attend Gila River Career Center, a trade school.
“I asked whether girls could apply, and she said yes,” recalls Tewa, who earned her electrical certification and graduated among the top 3 percent in her class. She then worked as an electrician in the Phoenix area, before being lured back home when Hopi tribe members were recruited to participate in a PV installation certificate program run by Solar Energy International in Carbondale, Colo.
Since then, Tewa has been a pioneer in what many see as an ongoing transition to climate-friendly sources of electricity. She’s been a hands-on installer, business owner, and instructor focused on delivering electricity to tribal communities. Tewa worked at Sandia National Laboratories as part of its Native American Renewable Energy Program and in the Arizona Department of Commerce Energy Office, where she educated tribes about renewable energy installation, financing, workforce development, and more.
Today, she is the president and owner of Tewa Energy Services and workforce and education manager for Native Renewables. In this role, Tewa is prepping a whole new generation to expand access to solar energy — over the past two and a half years, she has taught and trained nearly 20 Hopi and Navajo tribe members to be solar PV installers. As she surveys her long career in solar, Tewa doesn’t pat herself on the back. Instead, she thinks about the community members from the early 1980s who were willing to trust her that solar is worth what was then a much higher price tag. “I think about our early customers who trusted us when the technology was inefficient and the costs were high,” she says. “Thanks for investing in us.”
Long before Dr. Josiah Hester became a tenure track professor in Northwestern University’s Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science, his parents taught him to understand the connection between computing and a secure life. “My parents saw that computing generally is your ticket,” says Dr. Hester, Native Hawaiian (Kānaka maoli), who remembers how his mom and dad started him learning the Java programing language.
Dr. Hester rejected the idea that the only way to benefit from computing is by compromising the planet.
It was a good fit for Dr. Hester because it meshed with his love of building real-world things, like tree forts and Lego constructions — Java just opened possibilities to create in the virtual world. But his parents saw it as a skill that was even more important. “This could lead to a good job so you’ll be secure,” says Dr. Hester, “which is really important because we came from insecurity.”
Indeed, Dr. Hester’s family story includes its share of deprivation and challenges. His grandmother grew up in Hawaii as the second-oldest child in a family of seven kids. “They were living in poverty, like so many Hawaiians at the time because of cultural and societal repression soon after statehood; it was difficult to get food,” says Dr. Hester. “She felt responsible for all the kids and said she needed to find a new life.” His grandmother stepped into that new life when she married a sailor after his stint at Pearl Harbor, then moved to North Carolina, where he was from.”
North Carolina was where Dr. Hester’s mom was born and, ultimately, began to raise her own family, including Josiah. Eventually, Dr. Hester’s parents moved the family back to Hawaii, where he graduated from Hawaii Baptist Academy before returning to the East Coast to earn a BS and PhD in computer science at Clemson University.
At Clemson Dr. Hester found the direction that now focuses his research: smart, sustainable, mobile computing. “My advisor, Jacob Sorber, introduced me to this postage stamp–sized computer. I had never seen anything like it; he called it a ‘mote,’ a wireless computer with sensors onboard to understand the physical world,” Dr. Hester recalls. “Jacob and I started thinking about these smart devices. They are all constrained by batteries, which eventually die, even rechargeables, and that are made with lithium extracted using water-intensive mining practices in lands Native people own, who suffer from water insecurity. Worse, these batteries eventually get burned in the atmosphere in the recycling process.”
Dr. Hester rejected the idea that the only way to benefit from computing is by compromising the planet. “Why not have both [smart and green]?” he asks. Which is how Dr. Hester began building devices that don’t need batteries because they get their power from the sun, motion, radio waves, even microbes in the soil. Then there are his face masks that harvest energy from breathing and his battery-free portable gaming devices. Dr. Hester’s devices are aimed at motivating radical technological approaches to address climate change and inspiring people with new ideas to increase environmental quality as well as promoting better human health.
Dr. Hester also spends a lot of time ensuring that these sustainable devices get into the hands of Indigenous students and help them build the coding and computer skills that have been such an important part of his own success. Dr. Hester works with Pū’ōhala Elementary School, a bilingual public school that teaches in English and ’Ōlelo Hawai’i (Native Hawaiian), to introduce computing education informed by cultural norms related to sustainability. One program Dr. Hester works on supplies students with smart devices that gather air and water quality data at Waikalua Loko i’a, a 400-year-old fishpond built by Dr. Hester’s ancestors in Kāne’ohe Hawaii. These fishponds are significant cultural sites for Native Hawaiians.
The connection between computing and sustainability and conservation is one that Dr. Hester believes is obvious to all Native Hawaiians. “If someone else was Native Hawaiian and became a computer engineer, they would have done the same thing,” he says. “I am the first to become a tenure track professor in computing. But I won’t be the last.”
On a bigger-picture level, Dr. Hester wants his work to help drive a change across the world in which the systems societies rely on — for everything from computing to food to energy — are all sustainable. “People think that sustainability is on me as an individual. That won’t work. We have to rethink entire systems and societal structures such as computing infrastructure and application to become sustainable,” he says. “That comes from an Indigenous mindset where land and people are connected. It’s systemic.”