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NSF GRFP 2013 Personal Statement

March 29, 2013

I am a problem-solver.  Given the scale and scope of today’s environmental problems, new approaches are needed to address the human element of technical solutions. Social science and engineering strategies can work in tandem by addressing different aspects of a socio-technical system. The electricity industry, caught between energy demand and environmental concerns, is a fruitful space for applying interdisciplinary solutions due to the complex relationships among stakeholders: it’s a game of balancing various needs. While technology can play a role in achieving high levels of energy-efficiency and peak reduction, education and policy measures are equally important to ensure successful implementation. Energy-efficient appliances only have an effect if purchased to replace existing appliances. Dishwashers can be designed to only run at night, but people must choose to use this functionality. Even small changes towards energy efficiency could reduce carbon emissions and facilitate a more sustainable future. My educational and professional experiences have prepared me for a career in implementing system-level, interdisciplinary solutions to big environmental problems like climate change.

Interest in System-Level Solutions: As an undergraduate, I spent a month as a sustainable engineering intern at the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island in Maine where I spearheaded a project on the freshwater system.  The system had been subject to unpleasant and potentially unsafe fluctuations in chlorine content that the island engineers had difficulty controlling. Without a safe, reliable fresh water source, the island would be forced to import bottled water for drinking. I examined numerous variables including tides, rainfall, water use, and flow rate in search of a pattern. While water use was the only variable that had an observable correlation to chlorine concentration due to its impact on contact time, my team also observed that the chlorine pump was performing far below its specifications. The pump had lost all fine control and the island engineers had little control over the injection system. Ultimately, we recommended that the simple purchase of a new chlorine pump would have dramatic improvements. This was my first exposure to using system-level thinking to identify weaknesses in a system and ultimately motivated me to pursue my undergraduate degree in systems engineering.

Interest in the Energy Industry: I pursued my interest in the energy industry through an internship at Constellation Energy in the summer of 2008. I worked in the commodities office where I learned about the economic and regulatory environment that controls the energy industry. I designed and built an intuitive software tool that synthesized the numerous state-level regulations associated with carbon offsets in anticipation of a potential carbon market in the US. This decision-making tool allowed the user to quickly identify if a carbon offset project was worth funding or not based on how many carbon credits it was eligible to sell. Because this experience enhanced my interest in the power industry, I spent the following summer as an engineering intern at the H.A. Wagner Generating Station, a primarily coal-based power plant.

As an engineering intern, I saw first-hand a coal plant’s struggles in implementing environmental controls to keep up with new legislation. I assisted in collecting samples of coal ash that had been exposed to various powders designed to absorb SOx and NOx in the flue gas. These samples were used to determine if the waste ash was contaminated and therefore considered hazardous waste. If the coal ash is hazardous waste, it incurs high disposal costs and can no longer be sold for secondary purposes such as cement manufacturing.  At the same time, the plant was experimenting with different types of coal to reduce emissions, all while continuing to upgrade its aging infrastructure.  It was clear to me that modifying current coal power plants can only reduce carbon emissions to a certain degree. Alternative approaches such as energy efficiency programs are needed to address the impending energy crisis as fuel costs and environmental regulations increase.

Interest in Interdisciplinary Solutions: My educational experiences, focused on developing an interdisciplinary toolkit that combines social science research skills and a broad technical understanding, has prepared me to successfully conduct my proposed research study. I attended Olin College, an innovative engineering school that focuses on design thinking and producing well-rounded engineers. One class in particular, User-Oriented Collaborative Design, was influential in shaping how I approach problems. This class focused on working with users to understand their lives and developing ideas for technology based on the user’s perspective rather than on the designer’s. For instance, I worked with firefighters to design a hands-free communication system that could be built into existing fire-fighting uniforms to replace the current system of using walkie-talkies that are hard to use and understand in loud, chaotic environments. I learned that designers and other so-called “experts” often do not understand the audience they are designing for unless they make a specific effort to do so. Social science methods help to reveal these types of disconnects and create space for innovative solutions.

In addition, my background in oceanography has emphasized the importance of energy conservation research to reduce the effects of climate change. In Spring 2009, I spent a semester studying oceanography on a tall ship in the Pacific Ocean. In a transect from Hawaii to Tahiti, we visited a small atoll called Kiritimati that may be submerged in as soon as 10 years as a result of projected sea-level rise. As the President of Kiribati, the island nation including Kiritimati, explained to the press in 2008: “To plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful but I think we have to do that.” Yet, in talking to the people of Kiritimati, I learned that many thought their President was foolish. Their immediate concerns were limited food resources and access to water rather than whether they might become the first “environmental refugees”. Clearly, the people of Kiritimati had a different perspective than their President, who has flown all over the world raising awareness about climate change. This emphasized to me that people facing the same environmental challenges have radically different priorities. Environmental solutions must meet the needs of all people, not only those who can afford to care.

Leadership Potential: I am driven to use both behavioral and technical solutions to improve infrastructure to help those who may be disadvantaged by the status quo. In addition to my environmental interests, I have been an advocate for women in engineering. At Olin College, much of my research about engineering education was motivated by my desire to learn how to attract and retain women in the field of engineering.  Through my research, I was introduced to ideas and methods of the social sciences and thus learned of its value and potential.  In addition to my research, I co-facilitated a gender and engineering discussion group because I had found it useful as a first year student to be aware of the literature regarding challenges for women in engineering. I wanted to ensure that there was a system in place to help others find those same benefits.

Career Aspirations: I am in the Engineering and Public Policy PhD program at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) because I want to apply social science methods to system-level problems in the electricity industry. Therefore, I am developing skills in survey design and risk communication to apply to energy problems. In the long term, I intend to work with the power industry to identify new ways to approach electricity usage that are rooted in sustainability and environmental justice via a career in research and government. I aim to be a leader in improving the effectiveness of energy efficiency programs and identifying how to shift American understanding of energy use from energy as a right to energy as a resource.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2013 21:48

    Congratulations and best wishes on your research! It sounds like something that is very important and you seem to have a great angle at advancing this cause 🙂

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  1. I Won an NSF GRFP Fellowship! | radengineer

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