Alumni Spotlight: Dora Yen Nakafuji, '01

Dora Yen Nakafuji, Ph.D., is a member of the Strategy and Innovation Group at Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, HI, where she deploys innovative technologies for water, energy, transportation and workforce development. Most recently, she was the director of renewable energy planning at Hawaiian Electric Company. Before moving to Hawaii, Dora served as the technical lead for the Wind Energy Program at the California Energy Commission and was a staff researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory supporting national sustainability and critical infrastructures. 

Dora earned a Ph.D. in mechanical and aeronautical engineering from UC Davis in 2001, and holds a patent for advance microdevice controls for wind turbines, and served as an industrial affiliate advisor to the Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at UC Davis.

Dora Yen Nakafuji, Ph.D.
Dora Yen Nakafuji, Ph.D.

What does your typical day look like?

I just recently switched positions to join Kamehameha Schools, but in my previous role at Hawaiian Electric Company, I worked with industry partners across the country using about $30M of grant funds I received to develop and deploy renewable integration tools, including real-time renewable forecasting, remote field sensor monitoring capabilities, advanced visualization tools, data analytics and “smart” technologies. This involves lots of early morning calls with colleagues on the East Coast.

Most of my typical days at both companies are spent really talking to people, finding out how they do their jobs in different roles. In parallel, there’s always a new project I’m thinking about and want to get rolled out, or technology I have to implement. I also try to understand who the end users of any given technology are, so I’ll spend time talking with them about their needs and how they are doing their jobs and how (or if) technologies can help. I’m always scanning the literature and doing my own research about new technologies in our field and whatever I’m curious about. I’m also always learning—for example, today I’m at a conference, which helps me stay informed about the latest developments.

What keeps you motivated in your work?

The idea of continuous learning really keeps me motivated, because there’s always something exciting about a new topic—you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so curious about this.’ Having the opportunity within a job to be always learning keeps me motivated. Also, if my interest in something can help somebody else, this also keeps me motivated while getting through the red tape, paperwork, or other kinds of hurdles that may arise.

How did your time at UC Davis prepare you for your career?

There were many exploratory opportunities at UC Davis that exposed me to a lot of different technologies—the resources were just very abundant. When I did my graduate studies, there was a brand-new wind tunnel and I became responsible for setting it up and working with my professor, Case van Dam, to make sure it was a safe operating environment. And so that leveraged a lot of my previous experience, coming from an airline industry. I really kind of gravitated to making sure that the facility was not only safe for me, but for others using it. And we had the opportunity to also showcase the facility at Picnic Day, during tours and other teaching events, so it became a great way to showcase department capabilities and what I was doing and learning.

We had a lot of diverse faculty from different departments that I could take classes from and learn concepts to apply to real-world problems. As an aero-mechanical engineer, I also got to do microfabrication working in the cleanroom on campus, which was an amazing facility. In another class, we learned about biomechanics of robotic arms and used these arms to shake fruits off of a tree. These were all very real-world applications. When we were in the program, sometimes it was hard to connect courses to these technologies as the basis for future economies and future jobs—I didn’t see this connection until I joined industry.

Did you have a favorite instructor in the College of Engineering?

Well, I chose my advisor, Case van Dam, partly because I really like the way he taught and the ways he engaged students. He was a very big influence in my decision to go to graduate school. Bruce White was also a big influence, because he taught me so much about the atmospheric sciences, and I’ve using a lot of that material in what I’ve been doing now with forecasting. Jean-Jacques Chattot also encouraged me to do things I never thought I could do. They all were very instrumental in shaping a number of the engineers going through the UC Davis program. Their energy and interest for the topics they were teaching sparked a fire in many of us.  

What was your most memorable moment at UC Davis?

Graduation! A bunch of us that had gone through the Ph.D. program, sitting there together at commencement. We were all probably shocked and dazed, as we all had just turned in our dissertations. I’m still connected with a lot of my peers that went through the program, and a large group of us get together almost every year in California. Many of them are working at NASA and Boeing and doing such exciting work.

What was wonderful about UC Davis—and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in particular—is that they allowed us to take a lot of different courses with great instructors who I continue to seek advice from and connect with as resources, personally and professionally. As we go through our careers, there are often times when we have to learn about another area research expertise. The great thing about being a UC Davis alum is that we always will have the “Aggie Connection”: a wonderful institution and faculty members available to talk to us.

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