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Native Engineer Receives Top Award From President Obama

As a young child, Stanley Atcitty, a member of the Navajo Nation from Shiprock, New Mexico, recalls taking toys apart and building them back together. He was always fascinated by how things worked, and even built his own bicycle out of salvaged parts he retrieved from an old junk yard.

Today he continues to excel as in innovative engineer, and was recently honored with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). At a White House Ceremony on July 31, Atcitty accepted the PECASE, one of the highest honors given by the U.S. government to individuals in the science and engineering professions in the early stages of their independent research careers.

“Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people… and the impressive accomplishments of today’s awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead,” President Barack Obama stated in a White House press release.

President Obama named 13 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-funded researchers as recipients of the award. Dr. Atcitty, a principal member of Sandia National Laboratories’ technical staff in New Mexico, was one of 96 researchers chosen nationally for the award in 2012.

“This certainly has been the highlight of my career!” said Atcitty. He was nominated by the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability for his “advances in power electronics for the electric grid including the development of a high-temperature silicon-carbide power module and an ultra-high-voltage silicon-carbide thyristor, for research on grid integration for energy storage”—as well as for his mentorship to Native American students. His invention helps maximize various renewable energy sources like wind and solar, as well as energy storage devices such as batteries. "It helps them to perform better, be more reliable and cost efficient," he explained.

But Atcitty calls working with Native youth his "personal passion."

“I have been there too; I have lived on the reservation, and I know that you can go off and accomplish something," Atcitty encourages. "I know it’s hard to leave that comfort zone, but you can come back too. Most people give up and go home. I stuck it through; I kept going, and they can too! It [college] is such a short time, but it can change your whole life.”

Atcitty was recruited as a student 17 years ago and now leads the power electronics subprogram as part of the DOE Energy Storage Program. His educational accomplishments did not come easy. He started at a local college, where he chose engineering as his major.

“I enjoyed math and science courses, but when I transferred to New Mexico State University (NMSU), I felt I couldn’t compete with the other engineering students. But during a power electronics course, I realized that I understood the concepts very well; and when one of the top students asked me to help solve a technical problem, I realized I could compete academically with my peers. This new found confidence encouraged me to attain higher goals.”

He received his bachelor's degree from NMSU and went on to pursue a doctorate degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which he completed in 2006.

Atcitty is a regular guest at colleges and universities and speaks with those who come to visit the laboratories.

He has also recently been profiled in grade school textbookKey Concepts in Physical Science:Energy Basics Energized, published by Sally Ride Science last year.

As a PECASE winner, Atcitty will continue to receive DOE funding for up to five years to advance his research.

The PECASE award is the pinnacle of Atcitty's many professional accomplishments. He has also received an American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Award of Excellence in 2007, four R&D 100 Awards (an international award given by Research & Development magazine for innovative new products), and has secured several patents for his products.