National Native American Heritage Month: Dr. Julius Yellowhair

Nov. 16, 2021

In celebration of National Native American Heritage Month, November, we recognize Wyant College alumnus, Dr. Julius Yellowhair  (BS, 1996; MS, 2005; PhD, 2007). Today Dr. Yellowhair is an optical engineer at the Sandia National Laboratories working on concentrating solar technologies. Learn more about his research here.

Please tell us who you are in less than 20 words.

I have successfully navigated two worlds – maintaining my Navajo (Diné) culture and identity in one, while being successful in the other.

What and/or who influenced your academic and career choice for optics/photonics?  

My education started at about 5 or 6 years old when my mom, who never spent a day in school herself because her parents forced her to care for the livestock and maintain a traditional way of life, registered me at the “Indian” boarding school on our reservation.  She has been the driving force behind my educational success since my first day at school and all the way through earning a Ph.D. from the Wyant College of Optical Sciences.  Somehow, she understood that education was a way to get ahead and a way to help our communities on the reservation.  Picking up from what my mom did for me, today I ensure I am engaged with my own children’s educations.

When I came to the University of Arizona in 1992 as an undergraduate, I did not have a major specified, but I was interested in studying engineering.  During an engineering open house event, I saw a demonstration with lasers, which I had never seen before.  I immediately became curious and wanted to learn more about it.  So I applied to the optical engineering program, and I have enjoyed studying and applying optics ever since.  Through this experience I learned the importance of outreach programs, and I’ve dedicated a portion of my time doing outreach, which I really enjoy doing.

Please tell us about your career path, including your position today?

After receiving my BS in optical engineering, I joined a small aerospace company, SVS, Inc., in Albuquerque, NM where I worked on concepts for deployable space telescopes and we did a laboratory demonstration of automatic phasing of a sparse aperture telescope.  I also worked on a couple of directed energy programs.  There were a lot of “aha” moments here as I was applying theory learned in class to real engineering projects.

After a few years, I entered graduate school at the University of New Mexico to pursue a MS in electrical engineering.  After earning my MS degree, I returned to the Wyant College of Optical Sciences to pursue a Ph.D.  I worked with Prof. Jim Burge to develop fabrication and testing technologies to fabricate meter-class flat mirrors.  We were able to fabricate a 1.6-meter flat mirror which we claimed was the world’s best meter-class flat mirror at the time. 

After receiving a Ph.D. I joined Sandia National Laboratories as a post-doc and then I was immediately converted to regular technical staff.  At Sandia I got involved with space technologies.  Getting a chance to handle space hardware and aligning the imaging optics to high precision was very exciting work. 

After a few years, I asked myself if there are other ways I can make positive contributions and impacts on our society.  I decided to join the solar renewable energy group at Sandia to help develop clean energy and help address climate change issues.  I knew about photovoltaics, but I knew nothing about concentrating solar technologies.  It involves using arrays of large mirrors to collect and concentrate the sun’s radiative energy to generate large amount of heat which can be used directly or converted to other forms of energy such as electricity.  My contributions included converting mechanical measurement tools to optical based tools to form the array of mirrors into accurate concentrators.  With better aligned concentrators, higher irradiances, and thus higher temperatures, can be achieved for more efficient heat and electricity generation. 

One of the last projects that I lead at Sandia was using drones to inspect the large mirror fields and measure the optical qualities and cleanliness of heliostats.  There are a couple of personal achievements during my time with the solar group that I’m proud about.  First, are the multiple patents that were awarded to me as main or co-inventor.  Second, is the Solar Optics Field Guide book that I was able to publish last year through SPIE.  Today I do consulting work on solar technologies, and I have also returned to doing work on directed energy and space systems. 

My next goal is to apply what I learned about solar renewable energy technologies and begin to build and deploy the technologies on my and other Native American reservations.

During your time at OSC as a student, what resource(s) did you most appreciate? What would you have wished to be available at that time?

The thing I appreciated the most was the availability of professors and their willingness to talk even outside their office hours.  I remember running into Prof. Jack Gaskill and he would ask me if I had time to get lunch.  The team engagements in Prof. Jim Burge’s research group was always fun.  The events gave us students a chance to relax and unwind from longs days (and nights) in the lab or student offices.  I remember going on hikes into Bear Canyon on weekends and going to get lunch or dinner at restaurants with the group. 

Having a library in the building was very helpful.  The library was well stocked with optics books, journals, and student reports.  Needing a book or other resource while studying or doing homework required just a short walk over to the library on the main floor.

What advice would you offer current optics students and early-career professionals?

I usually share with students four lessons that I’ve learned while I was student.  First, is setting a goal and then making a plan to reach that goal.  Second, is not waiting too long or being scared to ask for help when you get stuck with coursework, for example.  Third, is not being discouraged after a failure but using it as a lesson to do better next time and thinking of it as gaining experience.  Fourth, is working hard, which I learned from my parents. 

For someone nearing a professional status, for example someone nearing graduation or have just graduated, there are additional advice that I usually share.  This also applies to those that have already reached professional status.  Networking is one of the most important things to do.  It can help land you a job you desire by talking with people in your industry or find potential collaborators to work with and develop professional relationships with. 

If possible, attend conferences or trade shows.  This is where the latest research, technologies, and/or best industry practices are presented.  This will allow you to stay on top of the latest activities in your technology area.  These are also great opportunities to network with other researchers not just from domestic organizations but also from organizations abroad.  To continue to develop personally and professionally, it is imperative to find the right mentors.  There are different types of mentors.  There are mentors that can help you grow professionally, and then there are others that you can work with for personal growth. 

From my personal experience, Native Americans coming to a new environment can experience a significant culture shock.  This alone can make them return to the comforts of home and their communities.  I would advise these students to seek out Native American groups to join such as the UArizona Native American Student Affairs or the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.  Through these organizations you can find a home away from home and allow you to focus on academic success.  While I was an undergraduate and a graduate student at the university I participated in these organizations.  They helped relieve stress and anxiety from the culture shock and being away from home.   


A special thank you to Dr. Julius Yellowhair for providing the included images as well as his perspective and experience for this article. 

Image Caption: Dr. Julius Yellowhair (left) stands with Dr. Karletta Chief (hydrology) and Dr. Pete Littlehat (environmental engineering) during their 2007 commencement at which all three Native American Ph.D. students earned their degrees in engineering at UArizona.