Sunita, thanks for giving H2 View your time. We’re celebrating the women working in hydrogen this International Women’s Day. So, what first sparked your interest in hydrogen and working in this industry?
Sunita Satyapal (SS): For me, the main interest was the versatility of hydrogen and the potential to have impact, on multiple fronts – in terms of emissions reduction, resiliency, energy security, diversification of resources and end uses. Just the fact that hydrogen provides so much more optionality and positive benefit.
I should also add that one of my first positions was in industry at United Technologies. One of the business units there built the hydrogen fuel cells for space applications and also for stationary fuel cells. They were one of the leading companies, one of the first companies involved in hydrogen fuel cells. That also sparked my interest.
What’s something that has surprised you about your chosen career path?
SS: One of the surprises was just how challenging it was to get the hydrogen and fuel cell industry to take off. The necessity of perseverance is one of the challenges. This is the case for many other technologies as well, but I think hydrogen perhaps more so than other technologies, has gone through so many successive hype cycles, highs and lows.
That’s probably the main surprise, the various ups and downs of hydrogen across the whole history of the hydrogen landscape, even going back to the 1970s. That’s actually when the US Department of Energy (DOE) was formed, and the national labs convened the first workshop during the oil embargo, to look at how can we reduce or even eliminate dependence on foreign oil. That was even before the focus on climate and reducing greenhouse emissions.
So I think the lack of a focus and sustained interest across the community, especially the investment community and just the broader technology and energy landscape, is probably what surprised me the most.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. What does this mean to you? And what advice would you give to women experiencing bias and unconscious bias?
SS: Here, I think the main focus I’d like to convey is the sense of urgency, now more than ever, especially for hydrogen, with over $70bn in foreign government funding and $160bn being invested in over 520 projects. I think for the first time, we’re seeing so much interest in hydrogen, so the sense of urgency and that we really need “all hands on deck” is critical. I’d also like to emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion, and not only women, but all forms of embracing diversity and inclusion; not being caught up by the “external packaging” – as I usually call it – that human beings live in.
So again, that sense of urgency and the need for everyone to work together, regardless of gender or any other form of division is one opportunity. I think conveying that is perhaps one of the important opportunities for International Women’s Day.
What are the challenges facing women in hydrogen today, especially the next generation?
SS: I think one of the perennial challenges is just the lack of time and having to balance home life and work life. I think it’s still true that in many cases women do need to work harder and have more challenges. How they balance their family life, other commitments, as well as the work demands is still a challenge. I think it’s getting a little bit better because often other members of the family take on more roles, it’s not as traditional as in the past, but I still think that it’s a big challenge for this generation and the next.
Tell us about one woman who has positively impacted you in your career? What lesson did she teach you?
SS: I actually have more than one, but the one I’ll highlight is my mother. She got her PhD in physics decades ago in the 1960s, when it was very unusual for women. She overcame quite a bit of bias there. There were, fortunately, some other women also in the PhD programme, it was nuclear theoretical physics.
My mother also taught, she was a professor. She’s retired now, but especially coming from India and coming to the US, she taught physics in a New York at a university. There was definitely discrimination, but her ability to be really strong, really technical, but also to balance family life with three daughters and really inspire us to go into science, is something that I am so grateful for.
One of my sisters is an astrophysics professor, also inspirational. And my other sister is a double engineer. I think in general, having that role model and the awareness that women can really do anything, especially during that time, was instrumental.
In fact, once when my parents lived overseas for a short time, this is before I was born, my mother offered to teach and to even teach for free. She had just finished her PhD and she was really interested in starting a career. Where they were living at that time, they would not even allow her to teach, even with no remuneration. It was a culture in the Middle East region that just wouldn’t allow women to teach. She’s just been through a lot and sacrificed a lot.
So I would say going back to childhood, that was probably the most inspirational woman that influenced me.
I do also have to say that my father was equally inspirational. He came to America on a cargo ship without a penny. He ended up getting a PhD, also in science, at Michigan State University. He ended up becoming a director at the United Nations; for him it was all about giving back to those less fortunate, particularly developing countries.
I have to mention both of them together and to not mention my father just because he doesn’t fit the woman profile, a bit of reverse bias there. For me, both my parents positively impacted and inspired me.
Finally, what’s the key message you’d like to get across for International Women’s Day?
SS: The key message is to convey that this is such an unprecedented time in history. Now, more than ever, we really need “all hands on deck” and to eliminate any bias, any sense of divisiveness. Now, more than ever, how do we all work together to be as efficient, as productive, as effective as possible, and to together reduce any sort of bias, conscious or unconscious.