Engineering a STEM Career

Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes

Profession: Design Engineer, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

Degree: B.S., Civil Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Thomas Hughes is an Alaska Native and first-generation college graduate who has succeeded in his STEM career and who has donated considerable time to helping others to pursue theirs. He began his college career at the University of Alaska Southeast and received his B.S. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.


Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

My name is Thomas Chapman Hughes. I am from Juneau, Alaska. I was born and raised in Southeast Alaska out of Juneau and Hoonah. Hoonah is a small community outside of Juneau. I am Alaska Native. I am Tlingit and I am a part of Raven Clan and the Coho House.

What is your current job and what is it like?

I am an Engineering Associate with the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) and Public Facilities out of the Fairbanks office.

I currently am a design engineer that works on roads, bridges, culverts, and sets like that. I work on anything involving the road system basically, building our road infrastructure within the state. I also work on airports.

I am a part of the rural transportation design team. So, most of my projects right now are out in rural communities. I kind of bounced around in the department going from aviation design over to highway design and worked on urban projects. Then I got an opportunity to jump back, and one of the reasons why they pulled me in was my ability to communicate with people. They took advantage of my being able to communicate effectively with people from rural areas because I have a huge rural background.

Hughes working on a DOT project in Shishmaref, Alaska.

I currently have projects all the way from Shishmaref, Kotzebue, Nunam Iqua, Alaska, and Kake, Alaska. I’ve been involved in projects out in Nome, Noatak, Marshall, and Hughes.

It’s been a heck of a ride so far and it seems to only be heating up. The last few years have been taking off with a lot of really cool projects that are intended to help infrastructure for small rural communities. That’s where my focus is now.

How are the various STEM fields integrated with your work?

We have specialists all over the place and my job is to coordinate with these other divisions.

With road building we’re always involved with geotechnical science. And so, I work hand-in-hand with a lot of geotechnical engineers all the time with my projects, and it varies all over the state. Another area that we work on a lot is culverts, and looking at flows in rivers and streams. We have to analyze how much water flows down the mountainside in a certain catchment area and make sure that our roads don’t wash away. So, you’ve got hydrology thrown in there. And then you’ll have bridge designers who need different certifications because a lot of expertise is needed to develop bridges.

And so my job is to coordinate with all these groups and incorporate a design philosophy. I put together all the recommendations from each support group and then put my expertise on it also in terms of what I think can work as a design to make our road stable and to last longer.

There are all sorts of dimensions and scenarios that come into play that I have to keep track of to make sure that we fall in line with the guidance that the department puts out, as well as the federal guidelines by the Federal Highway Administration. And then I put that all together in a contract as well as a bunch of specifications, then I get it put out for a bid for contractors to bid on.

And so as a civil engineer most of the time when we become a designer, we are the guys that put together the contracts and stuff, but work with all the different areas in other departments which involve a lot of the different specialties, science, analysis, and it’s really cool, it’s something I definitely enjoy.

I’ve been with the department now for over seven years. I was lucky enough to fall right into a job right after I graduated college. It has definitely been an unbelievable job and I’ve been grateful that I got this position and got on with the department.

Tell me more about your journey getting to this point in your career.

I am a first-generation [student]. At that time, on my mom’s side of the family I was the first male graduate of high school. That was a big opportunity, but when I did it, it didn’t seem like much to me because I wasn’t in the mindset of going to get an education, or thinking that was even possible.

Being first-generation was a challenge all the way around. Looking back on it, confidence was not there at all early on - confidence that something like a STEM career or a college career was even achievable. Up to that point there weren’t many successful stories in my family regarding education, so it was never on my radar.

Even getting through high school was a really winding road. I dealt with a lot of personal conflict within myself and negative traits at that time, including substance abuse problems. That was probably the biggest issue hindering my development as a person, and until I sat there and took steps to figure that out, I wasn’t going to see much success in school. A lot of my issues with my family and myself trace back to that substance abuse, and it still plagues my family to this day.

I attempted to go to college right out of high school and I dropped out. It wasn’t a very successful experience.

My early, I wouldn’t call it a career, involved heavy labor work ranging from being a logger, a tree thinner, to labor, to a carpenter. So, I did have experience in kind of that field, the engineering field, just being involved with labor in general and building structures and stuff along those lines.

I enrolled in college again when I was about twenty-three to get into the IBEW, the electrical union. I had met my future wife, and I knew I needed to make a change. At that time, I didn’t have enough math to qualify for [the union] because I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth. I was told in school that I was done with my math requirement at sophomore year. They said I didn’t have to do it anymore and at that time I took full advantage, but ended up paying for it because when I got to the college level and had to do entrance exams it showed exactly where I needed to be which was a higher level of math.

I needed about two math classes to be even eligible to sign up [for the union]. After I passed my first course I committed to a year of school and started on the business route for a year, and I kept progressing in math in all of my classes which was kind of a surprise to me at the time.

You talked about lacking confidence in yourself. How did you overcome that?

leaving for university
Hughes with his son Samuel the year he returned to college.

Lack of confidence was something that I had to overcome on multiple levels and I had to build myself from the ground up, and it wasn’t easy for me because my first stabs at school resulted in failure. I felt like I shouldn’t even be there.

I have failed classes during my college career, and through high school. It is a lonely feeling once you do fail a class, but it is well worth it to get back up and learn how to pass that class. It ultimately comes down to learning how to accept failure - in terms of learning how to process it as something that probably needed to happen because either you’re not prepared and work needs to be done, or it’s time to slow things down.

That’s kind of how I’ve used failure in my life. It was not always that way for me, I used to use failure as a gateway to say ‘to hell with it’ and to just give up. That was my M.O. of how I processed things, which led to other problems besides those in the classroom, up until I started passing classes and developing my tools.

What tools did you develop to help you succeed?

I had to learn to be humble. It is not an easy thing, especially being a first-generation. All the way from back to dealing with the challenges of being Alaska Native early on, what I saw my parents go through and all the stories early on – developing insecurities about where I belonged and where I am going.

I had to learn to let my guard down, to be willing to be talked to by people who are trying to help me. Up to that point I was really defensive through anything – whether it was through my relatives, my schooling, my work, my peers. And so, I really had to learn to humble myself and allow myself to be molded by the people around me, by the support system that was in the universities and in the school system. That was not easy for me. To sit there and allow myself to feel vulnerable.

So, once I realized that most of the people around me wanted to help, and wanted me to be a successful student, that really helped me move forward. I developed the confidence to reach out and not feel so vulnerable in terms of feeling ashamed of where I was at in school.

How did your journey progress after you had this insight?

Once I got to the calculus stage I told myself if I passed calculus I would pursue engineering. It was just more of a buzzword at that time, it sounded cool to be an engineer, and like I would be building stuff.

I started hearing about opportunities for engineering and one was from a physics teacher at UAS who asked, “Have you ever heard of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society [AISES]?” I said “no” and she asked, “Would you want to go to a national conference?” It was in Anchorage that year and she invited me to go and they paid my way from Juneau. It was really an unbelievable experience. It was a really big conference basically celebrating other students’ success and promoting American Indians and Natives to get into STEM fields. 

It was really overwhelming at the time because there were so many people from all over the nation, thousands. I saw a whole bunch of people that I could relate to – there were first-generation students all over the place. It was the start of me turning the corner of thinking, “Something like this is for me. This is something I can do.” I was hearing stories of people that were in my shoes who had long journeys to get to where they were, and there they were presenting to thousands of college students and professionals in their field.

The conference led into other opportunities I took part in that really got the ball rolling, like the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP).

What else contributed to your success at the university level?

UAS was a smaller venue and the connection there from the teacher to the student was just remarkable. I was able to touch base with and talk with my teachers all the way up to the Chancellor, all the time.

Once I learned to put my guard down and to allow myself to talk with people – which was really hard at first – that really set the stage to allow me to grow from those experiences. I was able to talk to a teacher about stuff I’m having issues with and they were welcoming and did not make me feel vulnerable. That place really got me to start learning to become a better student.

UAS was a great place to be involved. I was involved with AISES and ANSEP. First, I started working with guys in work groups, but soon after I started taking opportunities to tutor and to be a peer mentor.

Eventually when I made the choice to come to UAF, I immediately started taking opportunities to do many of the same things I was doing down there, and I followed through with all of that until I graduated.

family photo
Hughes in Hoonah with his wife, two sons and father.

Actually, my oldest son is about to graduate high school, and I was able to inspire him to be involved in the sciences. He started out in middle school being a part of the ANSEP middle school science camp and all the way through to their Acceleration Academy. He did that three out of the last four years in high school and he will be involved in another program this summer. It was supposed to be an engineering internship. Family is my ultimate success.

I finished strong and all of my school success I owe to all the people at UAS and UAF because I made so many strong connections there, and there is so much support at both of those schools. And they all stuck with me all the way through, and all those relationships will last a lifetime.

What would you say to students who are thinking about STEM fields?

In terms of getting through the math and science classes – the intimidation of even getting into those classes can sometimes be overwhelming. As you start sitting there, developing that skill set, it does get easier and you start getting used to the punishment, so to speak. You start getting used to the idea that this should be a normal feeling of things tending to be tougher. You know, any class in college it is intended to be tough, and it is intended to challenge, or else everyone would do it.

It’s about you finding that passion and sticking with it, because you are going to come across a lot of roadblocks. As you keep pushing through those classes you just need to keep taking baby steps all the way through and you will be able to get through those challenges.•

Interview by Courtney Breest, Alaska NSF EPSCoR. Click here for more Faces of STEM. All photos courtesy Thomas Hughes.