Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog --

Center for Energy and Environment research and programs focus on Minnesota buildings and homes, but advances in energy efficiency impact people all over the world. The United Nations declared 2012 the year of Sustainable Energy for All and is working to empower women to participate in the energy field.

In addition to supporting Girls Excel in Math, CEE employs women who play key roles in support of energy efficiency.  i.e. is interviewing women at our organization to recognize their work in energy. So far we've talked about research and engineeringand policy, advocacy, and regulation. In this installment, I sat down with intern Corinne Wichser, a Mechanical Engineering graduate student finishing up her Masters Degree from the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology and volunteer Kate Goldstein, a PhD candidate at M.I.T., to find out what it’s like to be a female student in the energy field.

Anna: Could you each tell me a little bit about your academic background? So, what you studied in undergrad and the types of projects you’re working on right now?


I got my bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Then I worked for about three years at an architecture and engineering firm before going back to get a Master’s degree in sustainable energy engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

I’m working on my thesis here at CEE, on the combination water heater and space heating project. Doing some energy analysis to see if they’re more effective than our standard system, emphasizing that they are systems that you can buy and install right now without a lot of added costs or infrastructure changes to your home.


I did my bachelor’s degree in engineering at Brown University. I started in physics and switched pretty late on. Then I consulted and installed solar and solar thermal systems for a little while before getting my Master’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, where I primarily focused on heat transfer for the indoor environment, so kind of like thermal fluids mechanical engineering but in buildings.

And then I performed building research at the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy in Cambridge, MA. I am entering my third year of my PhD at MIT, where for the first two years I worked to develop a procedure to back out the R-values of homes with infrared cameras, and to elicit the potential for residential energy retrofits by understanding better how well insulated our building stock was. And I basically have shifted, holding true to those same questions, but using other methods to get at where the potential is for those residential efficiency retrofits.

I really like this field, because usually if you tell someone you’re an engineer, they shake their head and they stop listening. But when you tell them that you work on energy, people get excited. And that’s really cool! There’s a lot of interest in energy now and people understand that it’s important. The energy field has a technical, an environmental, and a social component. And I think that’s why I enjoy it, there’s not much in engineering that includes all three of those. That’s why I like working with buildings: you save a family money, sometimes the difference between them being able to pay or not pay their bills.

Anna: When you say people get excited about energy, do you mean technical people, or just people on the street?


Everyone! When I go out, I don’t say, “I study convective heat transfer correlations for the indoor environment, specifically ceiling slot diffusers.” I study how to make buildings better and more sustainable. And that’s an easy answer that will hit home.


Mhm. And even kids know what’s going on. It seems like everyone’s being introduced to energy efficiency these days. And when you say that you work in that field, they at least know something and they want to talk to you about something. Even if people just say “I changed my lightbulbs!” And you can say “oh, that’s good, I try to turn the lights off too.”


And that’s the other thing. People can do small things to save energy. It’s relevant to people in their everyday lives. To find something in engineering where you can know the exact impact of what you do and where it falls in the environment, where it falls in humanity, just being able to contextualize your problem on a daily basis, that’s a real gift.

Anna: I’m curious to hear which energy issues you think deserve our brain power and imagination. Which problems are you excited to solve?


I am most interested in energy efficiency in buildings and households. I think we could focus a lot of our personal energy on that. There are so many opportunities out there, and I think coming together as a community and working on energy efficiency upgrades would be just phenomenal. District heating, district cooling stuff. I think personally would be a big benefit to a lot of communities around here, especially in Minneapolis. That’s where I think we could focus and make a lot of really great things happen.


I agree. I care a lot about energy efficiency, particularly in residential buildings. I think that the potential is really there, and it’s a hard nut to crack and it’s a very systems problem because every single piece is very distributed and each action is a small part of the whole. So to understand how to sum those pieces has both a social and an environmental impact.


I would love to see more solar thermal too! It’s so great. More of it would be really beneficial for Minnesota and Minneapolis.

Anna: Who are your professional role models? People you look up to in the field?


I’m lucky to have a whole lot of them! All the quote on quote “old timers” who went through the oil crisis, they’re all my friends and all of them are professional role models. It’s great to hear stories and encouragement from someone who’s been working in the field twice as long as you’ve been alive, to hear them say “I didn’t know anything about that.” Sometimes it’s overwhelming how much you have to learn, and the more you know, the more you know you don’t know anything at all. So having role models who are able to be constantly curious and constantly seeking to learn, but aware of the fact that they’ll never know everything.

In terms of female role models, there were many more at Brown, where the focus was on teaching. Women who said, “just because the system isn’t set up for you to do this, doesn’t mean you can’t make a place for yourself and have the life that you want to live.” To me that is the greatest thing. Because as a woman, if you’re interested in being a professor, the reality is: if you get your PhD when you’re 28 and you’re unmarried, when do you get married? When do you get tenure? Being a professor is not set up for also being a woman.


I think trying to fit into the engineering world as a female is challenging. It does attract certain types of people. And to see some women who excel at it is pretty astounding. I think Martha [Hewett] does a fantastic job in an engineer’s world. Some of my professors were pretty good at maintaining their femininity while asserting, “I am also very technical person”. But honestly, I haven’t come up with too many women to look up to in the field yet.

I think the energy field has a lot more women than my mechanical engineering class. For us it was about ten women in a class of one hundred. It was pretty intense. The same ratio seemed to occur with the professors. I maybe had one or two women professors for all of my engineering classes. It was hard to find those women who were able to really pull it off well.


I see the balance in one direction or another, unfortunately, especially in terms of how women interact and see themselves. There are the overly aggressive who’ve had to constantly prove themselves and so are overbearing and just want to make their point heard. And there are women who tend to be passive because they don’t want to have their positions negated. To find women who have achieved a balance where they are professionally respected and able to be themselves is rare. It’s more common in an environment that promotes that.

It’s also hard because I stop thinking about it when I’m around men all the time. I’ll be out and will have not thought about the fact that I’m with twelve guys. It doesn’t really bother me, I don't think it’s affected my professional life. I have lots of women role models who aren’t engineers. For me, it’s less about having achieved particular academic or professional accomplishments: it’s about doing all of those things and still maintaining balance in their life. Women who haven’t completely skewed in one direction. Examples of balance are more important than actual technical skills that get handed down.

Anna: You both mentioned a small ratio of females to males in your classes. Do you notice that female professors or students bringing a different perspective to certain issues, or solving problems in a different way?


I felt like the women professors I had were more personal, easier to approach. More understanding. It could just be because I only had two and that’s just who they were. There were some male professors who were definitely like that as well.


I find that women are better at understanding the implications of their actions with other human beings. This is probably a gross generalization, but I feel that women are pretty empathetic. There’s less of a macho “I’m gonna one-up you” and more of a collaborative open environment.


I think when there’s a bunch of men in a room, and there’s a male professor, there are just certain buttings of heads. When there’s a female professor it feels different, it feels a little calmer. I don’t know exactly how to put it into words.


I just went through my qualifying exams for my PhD, which involves a comprehensive set of oral exams, where you have thirty minutes with a question and then the experts drill you for an hour. I felt personally attacked at the end of those, broken down and exhausted. I studied with only males. They said “oh, they’re just doing their job. It has nothing to do with us as people.” One kid said, “I got totally torn apart. One of the professors asked ‘have you ever studied heat transfer?’” but he didn’t take it personally. He was able to say, “I was the last person he interviewed that day, so he was probably exhausted and frustrated.” I would have thought “I. Am. A. Failure.”

That was an interesting realization: maybe women tend to blame things on themselves, and men tend to look outwards for the problem. That might be one of the reasons that the tone is a little calmer with a female professor. Women do tend to look inwards and ask, “what am I doing? How is this affecting everyone else?”

Anna: Interesting insight, Kate! And those exams sound exhausting. What have been your other biggest academic challenges? Finding projects that interest you? Finding funding?


This is getting a little personal, but I think my biggest challenge is believing that I’m good enough to be in this field. Thinking that I’m smart enough. What happens a lot is men are assumed to be smart enough until they prove themselves wrong. But people start out thinking women don’t know anything, so you have to prove that you do. That dynamic has affected me and I struggle with it sometimes. And jumping on opportunities when I think that I’m not good enough, but I am and have to get over my hesitation. That has been my hardest part.


I totally agree with that. One of the reasons I believe that there are not as many women in math and science, is that to solve a technical problem, you have to be cocky. You have to go in believing you have the tools to solve it. Or else you’ll get stuck in the problem statement, asking “why don’t I understand it? I can’t even read this through.” And guys are cocky: “Of course I can do this. It’s just poorly worded.”


Even the ability to start out wrong, have someone point out your mistake, and responding, “Oh. What’s right then?” and working forward. Guys are so good at that. They can say things, be totally wrong, get corrected, and just let it roll off their backs. Whereas if I make a mistake and someone corrects me, I get embarrassed and think I failed. Something I try to do is just start talking, and if I’m wrong, just work through it and feel okay with my mistake.


And being okay being frustrated and trying things out over and over again and knowing that it’s all a process. Whatever. You figure it out, you write good notes, and you’ll do it in thirty seconds the next time.When you reach hurdles, you have to come back and identify what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and feel comfortable with both of those ranges.

Anna: Do you have any other advice for fellow women students in energy?


They are capable of doing whatever they want to do. So often do I see women, at least high school women who think that they can’t do math or can’t do science. People can be successful in anything they want to do. Maybe not excel at it, but if they have an interest in something that requires an engineering degree, of course they can do it. It’s about trying hard and maybe it’ll be a little bit more challenging to be a woman in the field. But there are support structures, there are people to talk to.


I think success is about passion. If you don’t care or you don’t want to be doing it, you’re not going to be good at it. If you care enough, then you’re going to spend the extra time.

I’m more worried about the dialogues that women have with themselves. Because if the internal dialogues aren’t positive then no matter what’s going on externally, you’re never going to be able to feel on par with your male peers. So I think the problem is more a societal messaging that comes across. Whatever’s happening to equalize the playing field, I think we still need to stop and understand that what goes on inside is the real issue at hand.


But I do think it’s an exciting time now for women. We’re being told more and more that we can do anything that we want to do, and I believe that we’re going to see more women in the field feeling confident around men, which will make it easier for other women. Maybe I’m delusional, but that’s my hope.

Related posts:

Women in Energy: Policy, Advocacy, and Regulation

Women in Energy: Research and Engineering

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