Alumni Portrait: Phoebe Suina ’98 Th’99 Th’01

March 28, 2019

By Catha Mayor Lamm

Environmental Engineer

Phoebe Suina
Suina founded High Water Mark, an environmental consulting firm that takes a community-based approach combining traditional knowledge with modern engineering methods.

“When I started telling people about Thayer School and where I am now in my life and career,” says Phoebe Suina ’98 Th’99 Th’01, “I laughed because they were like, ‘Well, I guess they succeeded! That's what the program was developed for!’ And I realized, yeah, I guess so!”

Equipped with an AB/BE in engineering sciences followed by a Master of Engineering Management (MEM) degree, Suina wanted to use her education to help protect the natural and cultural environments of New Mexico’s San Felipe and Cochiti Pueblos where she grew up. Suina played a key role in flood mitigation projects after the Cerro Grande Fire burned close to 150,000 acres in 2000, and she worked on several more projects with the Federal Emergency Management Agency before founding her own environmental consulting firm, High Water Mark, in 2013. 

For addressing water management issues, her company specializes in finding solutions that consider both the cultural and natural significance of rivers, floodplains, and watersheds and uses a community-based approach that incorporates traditional knowledge with modern engineering methods.

Suina gravitated toward math and engineering at an early age. “I loved math and I had a fourth-grade teacher named Ms. Barrett, and the way she explained things really ignited math and science for me. That year was a big turning point.”

As she got older, supported by an especially strong bond with her father, Suina felt comfortable in the math and science arena even when she found herself surrounded by mostly boys. “I grew up doing things with my dad like playing basketball and baseball and hiking and camping. Out on the playground I beat all the boys at sports and so I thought ‘Well, I can play basketball and run with the best of them, so I can do this too.’”

In high school, her confidence grew even more as she became surrounded by role models. “My advanced placement classes in chemistry, math, calculus, and physics all had female teachers. I didn’t realize until years later how influential they were to me.” This, along with an internship at Sandia National Laboratories in the materials engineering department, solidified her aspiration to attend college to become an engineer.

"I told her what I learned at Dartmouth—if you’re fluent in civil engineering, and you need to understand chemical concepts or thermal concepts, or even hydraulics, you have to ask what are the core concepts in this one that you can apply to that one. Once you bridge that gap, it’s the translation key."

As for choosing Thayer, there was a bit of meteorological luck involved. “The day I visited Dartmouth, it was summer, the sun was out, there was no humidity, everybody was out on the green, people were studying over in this corner and playing volleyball in the middle and soccer over there. It was picturesque with Dartmouth Row and Baker Library and I was like, ‘Wow. This is beautiful!’ But I laugh because then I spent six years of winters there too.” 

Once she arrived and learned more about the engineering programs, Suina decided to stay on for the BE and MEM. “I really liked the MEM program. My background is understanding that there are multiple aspects to getting any initiative or project moving forward. You've got your financial aspects, legal aspects, ethical aspects, as well as the collaborative work across multiple disciplines—including multiple disciplines within the engineering field. I was just talking to someone who was having trouble understanding chemical engineering concepts because she's a civil engineer. I told her what I learned at Dartmouth—if you’re fluent in civil engineering, and you need to understand chemical concepts or thermal concepts, or even hydraulics, you have to ask what are the core concepts in this one that you can apply to that one. Once you bridge that gap, it’s the translation key. A few days later, she's like, ‘Oh my gosh, I get it now.’”

Another benefit of her Thayer education has been better communication skills. English and writing were not her strong suit, but she found ample support at Thayer to practice and improve. “In my career, I've run across a lot of technically brilliant folks from other engineering programs, but they can't write an email. They can't clearly communicate the brilliant concepts in their minds. At Dartmouth I learned the importance of communication, not only to my peers, but also to the layman or the funder or the client or the policy-maker.”

Adding another layer to Suina’s communication skills is her fluency in Keres, the language of many of the native people in New Mexico. With that she’s able to access knowledge embedded in the long oral history of these Pueblos. “Although no one can peer-review this knowledge, we cannot forget or negate it. We must incorporate it into our decisions because we have data points going back over thousands of years in this particular landscape in this particular area given this particular set of conditions.” 

Suina’s combination of an engineering education with expertise in the Pueblos’ language, principles, and values gives her a unique, holistic perspective that she can then communicate “to the engineers of the Army Corps, to the funders, to the government, the congressman, the senators, the DoD, the Department of Transportation, to make better engineering solutions that address problems in the short as well as the long term.”

To illustrate, she gave this example: “We had an upper watershed burn severely after the Las Conchas fire. They didn't believe me that there was going to be flooding—neither the Army Corps, the US Forest Service, nor the hydrologists. So after the first storm, which was the annual precipitation event, not even a ten-year event, they started saying, ‘Oh no. Oh no.’ So I went out there with the Army Corps and they said, ‘Okay, we're just going to put a big old dike right here.’ I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. We don't need another dam in a culturally sensitive and important watershed. Looking at the ecosystem, it’s not the best solution. Looking at the sensitivity of the soil and the disturbance we're going to make, it's not the best solution. Looking at the disturbance to our cultural resources, it's not the best solution. Looking at the financial aspect, it’s not the best solution. We're going to spend millions of dollars on a one-point protection system. So when that fails, we have a one-point failure.

“When I framed it like that, they listened. I said, ‘We're dealing with a watershed. We need a watershed approach. You do multiple small structures to take the energy out of the water at key locations, you mitigate that energy, you reduce the flow, therefore you reduce the immediate hard impact, and when you have one structure fail, that's okay. You have five more downstream. and that's what we ended up doing. And guess what? On September 13, 2013, we had nine thousand cubic feet per second coming directly towards the village, and all those structures, they did their jobs. Two of them failed, but we had the backups, and the community was safe.”

The High Water Mark team
The High Water Mark team

With this success and others, Suina’s environmental consulting business is growing. “We actually just hired a Thayer student, Lindsey Holiday. She graduated in 2009, so we're up to twelve employees now, and I think we're getting that million-dollar threshold on revenue coming in.”

Suina likes to tell up-and-coming students to really think about what makes them happy. And also make sure to “look for those passions outside of strictly math and science to diversify and recognize that you're always going to be learning new concepts, new perspectives, and new ideas. And if you're a systems engineer, like they teach at Thayer, you know the system is dynamic. By being open to learning, you're able to be dynamic in the way you find solutions—for yourself, your communities, your country, the world—that help overall resiliency and flexibility in a dynamic system.”