ISD ESE Graduate Dr. Sita M. Syal ’14 Crusades for Sustainability, Decarbonization, and Energy Equity
She always wanted to be an astronaut.
“That’s all I wanted to do,” Dr. Sita M. Syal said. “One of my earliest memories is my preschool teacher reading me a book about space. I was fascinated and super geeked about planetarium shows. I convinced my parents to buy me the Lego space shuttle.”
Her exploration of space soon skyrocketed into an exploration of climate issues while listening to her dad, an engineering professor with a passion for sustainable buildings.
“My dad loves every part of sustainability,” she said. “His teaching includes research. He would come home and tell these really cool stories about sustainability and all these issues here on Earth. I thought maybe being an astronaut has multiple paths.”
Dr. Syal comes from a multicultural background embedded in education.
Her father grew up in New Delhi, India, and her mother grew up in Northwest Indiana, outside of Chicago. They met in the 1980s in Kansas, and have been married for over 35 years.
“They worked really, really hard to give my brother, sister, and I a strong work ethic and a deep appreciation for education,” she said. “Having two parents from different cultures and me also learning in India broadened my perspectives from an incredibly young age. What a privilege. I’m very thankful because this has fueled the fire in my work, and what I want to do for the world on an international platform. Climate change is affecting all of us. It’s an important driver and motivation for the work I do, and the impact I want to have. We’re all in this together.”
While she grew up near Michigan State University in East Lansing, Dr. Syal chose to pursue higher education in Ann Arbor along with her sister and brother. She earned a BSE degree in Chemical Engineering from U-M’s College of Engineering in 2013.
One year later, she graduated with a MEng from U-M’s Energy Systems Engineering Program, Integrative Systems + Design.
“The University of Michigan is the best school in the world,” she said. “It’s a special place. There’s no other place on earth that has this amount of expertise in such a diverse area. If you come to Michigan, you can do anything. Here, everyone is the best at what they do. You name it. We’ve got it. For people who want to solve the world’s biggest challenges, we have these kinds of diverse thoughts. This place is incredible.”
When asked why she chose to pursue an advanced degree in ISD, Dr. Syal quickly highlighted the ISD integrative mindset and opportunity to customize her degree.
“ISD embodies that spirit of interdisciplinary, of understanding different areas, of fostering passions in areas that are outside of engineering, outside of systems, outside of design, but then bringing that back into an engineering context to make huge steps forward,” she said. “We need the ISD mindset to solve these wicked problems we have in the world today. That is the spirit embodied in ISD and its degree offerings.”
Dr. Syal feels blessed for the opportunity to learn and grow under the strong leadership of ISD Chair and Professor Dr. Diann Brei.
“Dr. Brei is a great leader who cares a lot and is very passionate about the groups of people she leads,” Dr. Syal said. “The biggest thing I learned from her is how to be a professional, how to honor where I’m coming from, and bringing my authentic self to work. She sees people for people, and she has encouraged me to never forget that.”
With space exploration deep in her heart, Dr. Syal left ISD to boldly go where few women have gone before: Offshore Engineering.
She joined a BP America engineering support team as an operations engineer working in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I wanted to get out into the field, get my hands dirty, and make a direct impact on our operations,” she said. “The work was not glamorous – extensive checks on multiple temporary equipment kits, go over risk assessments with the onshore teams, and climb under and around piping to check hose certification numbers.”
During this time, she faced many challenges related to her gender and age.
“Although the industry has certainly improved in the last few decades, women make a very small percentage of the offshore oil and gas workforce,” she said. “I had to set very clear boundaries to ensure people took me seriously and to gain the trust of my team by listening and showing I was capable of doing the work.”
She quickly learned the oil and gas industry has a lot of room for improvement to encourage more women to pursue offshore careers.
“Provide equal wages for women, offer unbiased opportunities for leadership positions, and expand maternity leave are some ideas that come to mind,” she said. “I hope I was able to turn the dial – even if it was just slightly – to make a positive impact on the field for future engineers.”
Harvard of the Midwest
Dr. Syal left the high seas to pursue a MS degree in Product Design Engineering at Stanford University, where she graduated in December 2020. Two years later, she graduated with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and Human-Centered Design also from Stanford University, where she earned a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Along the way, she published in peer-reviewed journals and conferences proceedings, wrote a position paper, and presented her research at multiple venues, earned awards and fellowships, taught numerous courses and workshops, mentored undergraduate students, and successfully defended her PhD thesis: “Embedding Human Perspective and Equity in the Design of Sustainable Energy and Transportation Systems.”
Back to the Past
In May 2022, Dr. Syal returned to U-M and accepted the position of Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering. The opportunity to return to her roots and explore her love of teaching, sustainability, climate change, and engineering has become her dream job.
“I’m inspired every day,” she said. “I’m welcomed here as a new professor. Gone are the days of the old academia, where it’s like you sit in your silo, and you don’t talk to anyone. There’s such a spirit of collaboration here. What a huge honor to join an exceptional faculty with resources to explore my own passions and share them with my students, my colleagues, and people outside of the University. I take my role as an educator very seriously, and my colleagues do as well. It’s an enormous responsibility. I feel a sense of humility. There’s a lot to learn.”
Growing Recognition for Climate Change
The climate and environmental justice movement has been active for quite some time and now getting recognition at higher levels. Dr. Syal uses a related case study to teach students the importance of the movement and share her passion for energy equity.
“I want my students to wrestle with questions with no right or wrong answers,” she said. “A lot of the time when we talk about climate change, we talk about technologies to fight climate change and decarbonization being one of them.”
A common misconception about sustainability is it is only related to the environment. Sustainability includes economics and people, Dr. Syal said.
“People are an incredibly important part of how we, as engineers, think about the work we do,” she said. “My responsibility is to take math and science and transform them into solutions that help the world. That’s how I see my role as an engineer. We wouldn’t have all of this great technology if it weren’t for people to use it. So it is my responsibility as an engineer to deeply think about that. We know that our energy systems are incredibly inequitable. They put burdens on people in disproportionate ways and are often unfair. We have to be able to change that distribution of burdens in a very unjust energy system.”
Questions She Wrestles With Include
- How are we distributing burdens?
- How are we actually designing our system for all people?
- How are we distributing benefits, and who has the agency to be able to choose what they need for their well-being and their families?
“We have to consider the equity and the justice of our solutions we’re putting out into the world,” she said. “I focus on this intense need for rapid decarbonization. Climate change is not coming. It’s here. We are seeing these effects all over the world in unprecedented ways. We have to rapidly decarbonize, and particularly in our energy and transportation systems, which are two enormous areas that touch multiple other areas. We have this incredible opportunity with decarbonization to be able to not repeat the mistakes of our current energy and transportation systems that depend on fossil fuels. We can’t just keep going the way we’re going. As engineers, we have to center the people we are designing for at the heart of all of our problems and solutions, particularly those who are underserved. This will require redesigning and reimagining these systems for all people, and making sure the burdens and the benefits are being distributed in ways that are fair.”
Words of Advice
Dr. Syal advises her students to be humble.
“Be your authentic self, treat others with respect, no matter what race, religion, or socioeconomic status, those rewards will take you far,” she said.
Secretary of Energy?
What’s in her future? Higher education and possibly a United States presidential cabinet position.
“In the future, I still plan to teach and work with students,” Dr. Syal said. “I may go on hiatus for a little bit to be the Secretary of Energy someday, and continue to push radical changes and stand on the giants of those who are already doing that.
“Ultimately, my role is to serve my students.”