Tonawanda News — At age 12, Shannon Seneca developed an obsession with the remediation of radioactive waste.
Her mother took her to a reading of The Great Law of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) in their Brantford, Ontario, community when she was young. From then on, Seneca knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life: obtain a PhD, become an environmental engineer and help solve the waste problem.
“I always knew I wanted a PhD, and ever since I was 12 and made that decision, I knew I had to go all the way as far as I could to get the most educated and figure out the answers to the questions I had,” Seneca said.
Seneca, who is Mohawk and a native from the City of Tonawanda, went all the way, and she made history during her travels by becoming the first female American Indian to earn a PhD in engineering at The University at Buffalo in May.
Between 2008 and 2011, the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences awarded a total of 165 doctoral degrees. Twenty-five degrees were awarded to women, with only one of those women being a minority. This May, the UB School of Engineering awarded a total of 48 doctoral degrees, and 11 were awarded to women. Seneca was the only minority woman to obtain her degree.
The graduate traveled a six-year-long, winding road through academia to obtain her degree, but she says the trip has been worth it. When Seneca walked up the stairs and waited on stage for her name to be announced on graduation day, along with the announcement of her monumental accomplishment, she felt an overwhelming sense of pride. Applause erupted from every corner of the arena.
“Even the chair of my department was flipping out, he didn’t even know,” Seneca giggled, letting loose her kid-at-heart nature. “There were even people later that day coming up to me congratulating me and saying, ‘You’re representing the Haudenosaunee and you’re making your people proud.’ “
The Great Law of the Haudenosaunee states that the earth cannot be promised to future generations if people in the present do not respect or care for the land, according to Seneca.
This is the guiding force behind American Indian action and belief. It is also the force driving Seneca’s commitment to making the environment safer.
“Throughout (the reading of The Great Law), (Cayuga Chief Jake Thomas) spoke a lot about environmental stewardship, and that got me interested in the environment, realizing how important it was,” Seneca said. “I was also in eighth or ninth grade and we were learning about the crisis in oil and energy.”
The thirty-three-year-old academic is proud to leave her mark in a traditionally male-dominated field of study.
“There have been times where I had to really prove myself because I was a woman, but I am bold and brave and feel hardships only make us stronger,” Seneca said.
After receiving her bachelor’s of science degree in physics at Buffalo State College in 2001 and a master’s of science degree in environmental engineering at UB in 2006, Seneca joined the Ecosystem Restoration through Interdisciplinary Exchange program and received training as an environmental scientist at the university while working towards her doctorate degree.
The ERIE program was created by Seneca’s advisor, Alan Rabideau, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering at UB. Rabideau and Seneca worked together to develop a wall that removed radioactive waste from West Valley, located 30 miles south of Buffalo, as part of the program.
Seneca never lost sight of the finish line. Her focus carried her through the 60 hours of lab work a week that she put into her research, the many Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring breaks she had to do without, and her moments of panic and triumph.
Rabideau, who mentored Seneca through her six years of graduate study, knows more than anyone about her unrelenting drive.
“Seneca’s contributions, from extensive lab testing to helping develop complex mathematical models, as well as her collegiality and commitment to interdisciplinary work, have been invaluable to the ERIE program and the Western New York community,” Rabideau said in a UB press release statement.
The scholar, who speaks with tremendous passion about her efforts to make the planet a safer place, is also an advocate for indigenous rights. When she traveled to Allegheny, Pa., this past year as a stream restoration practitioner and to attend the Kinzua Dam relicensing meetings, she heard stories from the Seneca Nation people that strengthened the purpose of her journey through academia.
“When the dam went up, their land was taken away from them. Their houses were flooded. The stories that they told were horrendous, because they even had a graveyard, which had to get moved too,” Seneca said. “I went (to the podium to speak) as an engineer, and what I was trying to say was that not only should it be important for these people to get the dam because it’s on their territory, but it actually will try to repair the relationship between the Seneca people and the U.S. government.”
Beynan Ransom, who took a class that Seneca taught this past fall, accompanied her on the trip to Allegheny. He also graduated on the same day with a master’s degree in environmental engineering.
“(Shannon) is really hard-working, and beyond that, she’s really supportive of her students. She made sure she had time for them,” Ransom said of his experiences with her.
Seneca scooped out a spot for herself in the world of academia, a place where she appreciates working with colleagues who share a niche, because at one point, she knew the feeling of not fitting in.
“My mom’s family was known as the ‘Indian family’ in town and when I was growing up, people sometimes picked on me about it, but I have always been proud (of my culture),” she said.
And she wears her clan symbol around her neck, a silver turtle brooch that she found and attached to a silver chain, in order to display that pride.
The graduate doesn’t just study the environment, she takes advantage of it. Seneca loves mountain biking, hiking, and rock climbing, activities that got her through the grueling stresses of graduate school. Her dogs — especially Julius, her spunky Springer Spaniel who recently passed away — also kept her spirits bright during moments of exasperation.
The scholar now resides in Buffalo and is currently working toward obtaining a professional engineering license, so she can get hired to work on environmental-related projects.
“We’re all sharing the same environment. Whatever we do impacts other people, and we should always not only be thinking about the environment and the people today, but the people in the future,” she said. “Society sustains when people are thinking about each other.”