It's not rocket science...Or is it?
Of course intelligence comes in many forms and no single field holds the market. Still, there is a certain positive association between rocket science and smarts — and as a research-driven organization, we took the opportunity to explore that association a bit, with a couple willing test subjects in our own staff.
Director of engineering and business development Rich Szydlowski (one of CEE’s longest-tenured employees) and research analyst Nicole Kessler (one of our newest) sat down to talk about their own rocket-science backgrounds and their perspectives on the past, present, and future of energy efficiency.
Nicole, you worked at NASA! How has that work influenced your career path?
Nicole: I worked as an environmental, life support, and thermal control systems flight controller for NASA’s International Space Station Program at the Johnson Space Center. In that role I was responsible for the real-time operation of all those systems, which basically meant ensuring that the crew had a livable environment. I worked there for four years and during that time there were some dramatic changes — the Space Shuttle program ended and the Constellation Program was cancelled, while SpaceX became the first private company to deliver cargo to the Space Station. I realized that all of these changes were policy related, and that got me interested in attending graduate school to study science policy. While in graduate school, I started learning more about energy and became interested in how energy impacts all the Earth’s resources — I think about it as if the Earth is one big space station, and how our energy use impacts our ability to preserve a livable environment for everyone.
Rich, how has your Aerospace Engineering background influenced your career?
Rich: I actually worked at the Johnson Space Center about 30 years before Nicole was there, while I was working towards a B.S. in aerospace engineering. During my time there I gained insight into the space program and the role of engineers, and ultimately decided that graduate school would be the best thing for me. After receiving a graduate degree in industrial engineering, I went back to work for a couple years and became increasingly interested in renewable energy. I then followed up with a second graduate degree in mechanical engineering, specializing in energy systems. Since then, I have worked both at Ames Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, focusing on instrumentation packages for both renewable energy systems and buildings. Changes to the national political climate and federal funding led to national lab cuts and I lost my job. After a recalibration year of skiing out in Colorado, I ended up at Pacific Northwest National Lab, where I worked on energy evaluation in commercial buildings. I came to CEE about 20 years ago.
Throughout my career I have followed a path based on my interests and available, energy-related opportunities. All my past experiences are beneficial to my role here at CEE — I have been able to expand our perspective from beyond the Midwest, and build our connections to national labs.
How does your current CEE job connect back to your rocket science roots?
Nicole: My role at NASA required a lot of data analysis. The environmental systems are made up of multiple subsystems that all interact together, and the system as a whole also interacts with other systems, such as the power and computer systems. The analysis required to understand and respond to system issues is similar to what I do in my role as a research analyst for CEE — I have to understand the specific system I am studying and consider variables that could impact results.
Rich: The common thread throughout my career is computer programming and automated data analysis. There is a lot of data in the world and understanding how to use computer programming to look at the big picture, as opposed to looking at individual data points, has been a huge asset both in past work and in my current role at CEE.
What were the biggest energy issues when you started out?
Rich: The way we talk about energy efficiency has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. When I first entered the field in the late 1970s, the discussion revolved around oil shortages and energy independence. There was no discussion of climate — it was simply not an issue at that time. That conversation has obviously shifted since then, and the current emphasis on climate change will greatly impact energy efficiency much more than past discussions around availability ever did.
What is our biggest energy issue today?
Nicole: Our current level of energy consumption is not sustainable. We need to keep finding ways to reduce our energy consumption through equipment and system efficiency, and also through changes to our built infrastructure and our behavior.
What current energy issues would you never have predicted 30 years ago?
Rich: When I began my career, climate change was not on our radar. There was a general understanding of pollution and ozone depletion, but the global climate impact had not been quantified. It has been hard for people to wrap their heads around the issue and its impacts, and I still don’t think we understand the full extent. While climate issues are not a complete surprise having worked in this industry for 30 years, it is not something I would have predicted. The good news is that by thinking about the global impact of climate change in searching for solutions, the end result will be a much more comprehensive.
Can you predict what we might be working on 30 years from now?
Nicole: Adaptation and mitigation will play an important role in how we deal with future issues around climate change. For energy efficiency, the intersection between policy and technology will become even more crucial and these two sectors will need to work together to find successful solutions. A life-changing technology could be available tomorrow, but without policy support it is irrelevant. It is frustrating to have the technology available and lack the political support to put it in to action. NASA's history is full of good examples of how political support can change the course of a program — either to keep technology at a standstill or drive it forward.
Photo credit: NASA HQ PHOTO