Diné engineer tells story of journey from rez to world-class research
By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 17, 2013
Some of those parts the Shiprock, N.M.-native would grab from the dumpster included used tires and used mechanical systems.
From them and the end of it all, he created a "really nice product."
Little did he know, however, from those early childhood years that his innate ability to create stuff from scratch would eventually lead him to becoming the first Native American student to earn a Philosophy of Doctor in Electrical Engineering from Virginia Tech and be employed with Sandia National Laboratories for the last 18 years.
"I already knew I liked to build parts when I was young, and I had no idea I was going to pursue engineering at that point," Atcitty said to the attendees of a panel session during the 2013 SACNAS National Conference in San Antonio, held on Oct. 3-6.
Atcitty was one of several Native American scientists invited by SACNAS, a society dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science, to participate in the annual event.
Sitting alongside Atcitty were Monica Yellowhair (a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona), Matthew Anderson (a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota), and Julius Yellowhair (a senior technical staff member at Sandia National Laboratories), who moderated the panel.
They told of their career development in a session titled, "Native American Researchers: From the Rez to World-Class Research."
This session showcased some of the nation's most accomplished Native American researchers in engineering, environmental sciences and chemistry, and ended with Yellowhair asking the panelists to tell of their journey from the "rez" to doing world-class research.
In the session, Atcitty also highlighted how he briefly worked in the construction industry to help bring finances to his family's table.
Working as a laborer in construction was a major turning point, when he had an "epiphany" and asked, himself, "Is this what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life? Is this it?"
He thought, "No. It was a resounding, No."
From there, Atcitty began academic life at San Juan College in Farmington, where he became fascinated with math and science classes.
Naturally, he started exploring career options with those fields and decided on engineering.
Because San Juan College didn't have an engineering program, he transferred to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
At NMSU, where he enrolled in engineering, he initially thought he couldn't achieve, considering that East Indian and Asian nerds stereotypically dominate the field.
"There's no way I can compete with these guys," Atcitty thought.
It also didn't help that his thought process of coming from the reservation where relatives told him he couldn't be anything lowered his confidence, which he turned resulted in "mediocre grades."
But the turning point, Atcitty said, was the mentor support he received from Dr.
Jamie Ramirez-Angulo, an electronics professor, and an Indian student who asked him several times for tutoring help.
From that point on, Atcitty, who had at this point in time developed a fascination with power electronics from Ramirez-Angulo, became more confident.
"My GPA started exceeding 3.5," he added.
"That confidence is so key," he told attendees. "That baggage, you have to get rid of. You got to get confidence in you."
Following graduation from NMSU, where he also got a master's degree, he pondered about his next step of "going all the way."
He eventually applied to Virginia Tech, an institution known for its top-notch electronics program, and received a doctoral degree in electronics and computers.
For the last 18 years, Atcitty has worked in power electronics at Sandia National Laboratories.
He is a principal technical staff member in the Energy Storage Technology and Systems Department, with over 300 publications and three patents for inventions in power electronics, specifically post-silicon devices.
He currently has three more patents pending.
Because of his patents, which are funded by the Department of Energy, he was awarded an R&D100 Award.
To be bestowed an R&D100 award is considered "The Oscars of Invention," according to the Chicago Tribune.
And according to the editors of R&D Magazine, an R&D Award "provides a mark of excellence known to industry, government and academia as proof that the product is one of the most innovative ideas of the year."
Atcitty has also been featured in a children's book on Energy Basics and also recently published his first book in June, titled, "Power Electronics for Renewable and Distributed Energy Systems: A sourcebook of topologies, control and integration."
In July 2012, U.S. President Barak Obama named the energy storage researcher a winner of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
The award is given to outstanding scientists and engineers, who are very early in their independent research careers.
Presently, Atcitty also works in a mentorship capacity mentoring students and also works on tribal energy programs in various Navajo communities and Monti Bay, Yakatat, Alaska.
For advice to students, Atcitty encourages students to persevere, no matter what.
"My advice is to stick with it and look at this way: The time it takes to complete your higher education compared to the average lifespan is relatively short.
The hours of studying for an exam or spent on homework during your years of school provide a lifetime of benefits.
I am certainly living it today."
Atcitty is Tl'aasch’í’ (Red Streaking People Clan) born for Tl'izilani (Manygoats Clan). His maternal grandfather is Tód’ch'ii'nii (Bitter Water People Clan) and paternal father clan is Hash'kaa hadzoh’ (Yucca Fruit-Strung-Out-In-A-Line Clan).