Ale Hakala ’03
Courtesy National Energy Technology Laboratory

Ale Hakala ’03 came to Princeton with an interest in environmental policy, though she hadn’t given much thought to more technical careers in the environmental field. Her courses, including a freshman seminar in geosciences and a policy-themed class with Greg van der Vink *83, helped to sharpen her focus, and a summer internship with civil and environmental engineering professor Catherine Peters gave her a closer view of research. But the course that would define her career path was geochemistry, taught by professor Satish Myneni.

“I just found it completely fascinating,” Hakala says. “He agreed to be my mentor for my junior papers, and also for my senior thesis. Through working with Satish, some of the grad students in his group, and some of the other grad students in the GEO department, I got really excited about research.”

That excitement carried forward from her thesis work, exploring bromine compounds in wetland sediments, through her Ph.D. studies at Ohio State University. Hakala, now a geochemist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), explores key scientific questions that have the potential to influence policy.

In January, President Barack Obama named her a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor the U.S. government can bestow on scientists or engineers in the early stages of their research careers. Cynthia Powell, executive director of NETL’s Research and Innovation Center, said in a news release that Hakala’s research “is making a tremendous impact on our understanding of how fossil energy development can impact the environment.”

Hakala’s work includes research on geochemistry as it relates to shale gas production. “The impact that [shale gas] has had on the national energy landscape has been huge,” she says, “but at the same time there are all these questions that have come up about environmental issues and what’s actually happening within the shale formation.”

For example, Hakala and her colleagues are taking a wide-ranging look at shallow groundwater, using regional geochemistry and regional tracers. “We’re hoping that the datasets coming out of all of this research will help us to understand, if somebody sees an issue with their water quality, what’s the actual problem?” she says. “Sometimes it could be associated with drilling, and in other cases it may not be.”

Hakala also has done research on carbon storage, a topic she first encountered in Peters’ lab, and geothermal energy systems.

Away from the lab, Hakala and her husband, Nick Siefert ’02, a mechanical engineer at NETL, enjoy snowboarding in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Hakala won a national amateur snowboard cross championship in 2014. With two young children at home, she has hit pause on her racing schedule, but still rides for fun.

Looking back on her time at Princeton, Hakala sees “a direct pathway” from the thesis research she did in Myneni’s lab to the questions she pursues at NETL.

“I give a lot of credit to Satish for helping to groom me into a scientist that could actually go to graduate school,” she says. “It took a lot of effort on his part, and I don’t know if I would have gotten that experience many other places.”