BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Seeing the Rocky Mountains usually tops the
list of things to do when visiting Colorado.
Not for Shannon Seneca, who vacationed there after graduating
high school 15 years ago. Upon landing in Denver, she headed
straight for the Rocky Flats Plant, a former nuclear weapons
"It wasn't even open to the public," she recalled. "I actually
talked the people working there into giving me a tour."
The visit solidified Seneca's interest in nuclear waste and
helped lead her to the University at Buffalo, where on May 12 she
became what's believed to be the first female Native American to
earn a doctoral degree from UB's School of Engineering and Applied
Seneca credits her background -- she is a Mohawk and part of Six
Nations community based near Brantford, Ont. -- as the guiding
force behind her studies. As a child, she was told the Great Law of
the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), which essentially says
that people should consider how their decisions will affect future
She received a bachelor's of science degree in physics at
Buffalo State College in 2001 and a master's of science degree in
2006 in environmental engineering at UB. She then began working
with Alan Rabideau, PhD, professor of civil, structural and
environmental engineering at UB.
Rabideau has been studying groundwater contamination at the West
Valley nuclear fuel reprocessing center for years. In 2007, he
received funding from the National Science Foundation to create a
program called Ecosystem Restoration through Interdisciplinary
Exchange (ERIE), which helps train new environmental scientists in
nontraditional ways to repair impaired environments.
Seneca joined the program, which included a groundbreaking
effort to remove radioactive waste from West Valley, located 30
miles south of Buffalo. She helped Rabideau develop a permeable
wall that, when placed underground, filters and removes
strontium-90 from the soil. Strontium-90 is found in spent nuclear
"Shannon'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
In addition to her studies, Seneca has been involved in numerous
Native American-related student activities. She helped found a
local chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering
Society and has worked in the Buffalo Public Schools Native
American Magnet School under a National Science Foundation grant
led by Joseph A. Gardella Jr., John & Francis Larkin Professor
of Chemistry at UB.
Seneca also helped mentor other Native American engineering
students at UB, two of whom earned their master's degrees the same
day she received her doctorate.
"It's been amazing," she said of her time at UB.