Duke’s energy alumni offer career advice, industry tips
Bryan Koen, EI Education Staff Assistant

Since its inception in 2011, the Energy Initiative has supplemented Duke’s formal catalog of energy-related courses with unofficial educational opportunities for students on and off campus. Power Trips offer students tours of innovative energy facilities across North Carolina. Power Lunches have attracted industry luminaries such as Jim Rogers and Amory Lovins for informal talks on the evolving energy landscape.

Now the Energy Initiative has inaugurated a new series that connects current students with Duke alumni who have moved into energy careers: Energy Mentoring Conversations. The program focuses on career pathways and draws its mentors from the rich vein of Duke alumni working in the field.

"Our students are getting tremendous training in their degree programs and they have a lot of ambition," said Steve Hicks, the Energy Initiative’s associate director for energy education. "Turning that ambition into reality is always a challenge. There’s so much experience and expertise in the Duke network, and a great willingness to share — it just makes sense to tap into that to help our students navigate the job market and plan their careers."

Alison Taylor (T ’83), vice president for sustainability-Americas at Siemens Corporation, kicked off the series on Dec. 3, joining 10 students via teleconference from her office in Washington, D.C.

A member of the Nicholas School of the Environment’s Board of Visitors, Taylor (pictured at right) started by telling her professional story, following a path from undergraduate studies in biology to environmental law practice in Colorado to Capitol Hill, where she provided legislative counsel to committees in the House and Senate. In her current role, she has led Siemens to repeated recognition as the most sustainable capital goods company in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

Taylor offered guidance about self-marketing and the “soft” skills of successful professionals, fielded questions about the future labor requirements of the energy industry, and discussed the differences between working in the public and private sectors.

"She had a number of valuable insights," said Lauren Shum, a sophomore majoring in electrical and computer engineering, and sustainability chair of the Duke Smart Home. "She did a very good job of painting a holistic picture of her niche in the industry and how one might get there."

The Energy Initiative is working with additional Duke graduates in other sectors of the energy industry to produce more mentoring events for Spring 2015.

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Tips for turning a commitment to the environment into a career

Katie Kross very much believes in professions that have a purpose. As managing director of the Fuqua School's Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment, she works with students who have a passion for sustainability, helping them turn that dedication into a career. But narrowing a job search to a specific focus, such as sustainability, can make finding the right fit a particular challenge. In this Q&A, Kross shares advice on how MBAs can pursue careers with positive environmental impact.

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Seven tips for following your dream from a Duke alumna

Melissa Semcer earned her masters of environmental management at the Nicholas School in 2007. She then joined the California Public Utilities Commission as a senior analyst on climate change market strategies, eventually moving up to her current position as an administrative law judge. She offers this advice to colleagues at Duke who are seeking internships and jobs.

1) Informational interviews are your friend, especially before you need a job. People generally love talking about their work and if they're passionate about it, which many people in the environmental field are, they love to help new folks get started in the profession. It's always best to establish relationships before you need a job; as an employer, it's much more interesting to talk to someone who is in a genuine space of exploration, and the conversations tend to be more genuine and fruitful. One approach is to treat informational interviewing like a class. Do it throughout grad school and set a goal, like one a week or every other week. By the time graduation nears, you'll have established a fairly large network that you can draw upon for the job search. Another benefit of informational interviewing before you're looking for a job is that you can get a real sense of what that person does and what types of jobs are out there. The reality of environmental work often looks very different from the pictures many of us had in our heads. My favorite question?  "What do you dislike/wish was different about your job/profession?" It's amazing what you can find out with this question!

2) Find your uniqueness and never let it go. Everyone has a unique set of skills, passions and interests. Always bring yours to the table and try, as much as possible, not to mold yourself into being or doing something in which you have no interest in the name of getting a job. You never know where and how your unique skills will be useful, so don't be afraid to highlight those skills and ask how you can use those skills in whatever job you take. It's your uniqueness that will make you stand out in a crowd. You can easily tell when a candidate is trying to sound perfect for the job, but not really sharing who he/she is as a person and what he/she brings to the table.

3) Never underestimate "soft skills." The energy industry, although growing, is still quite small and you'll run into the same people over and over again. Relationships are everything. I highly recommend everyone get training in mediation, negotiation, facilitation, managerial effectiveness and emotional intelligence. These skills, while rarely reflected in a job title, are invaluable in the energy industry.

4) If you are interested in a job or company but feel under-qualified, apply anyway. This is where the cover letter is essential: Tell your story and why you should be considered for the job, even if you don't have every skill or the necessary years of experience. Never answer for someone else; let the other person say no rather than deciding in advance that the answer will be no. You never know what else might be available in the company or how much the company may value the "go-getter" attitude over the skills and experiences they listed in the job posting.

5) For women: Although the energy industry is rapidly changing, it is still effectively a male-dominated world. It's only recently become "sexy" with things like renewables, energy efficiency and sustainability. Before this dramatic change, most people who entered the energy industry were males with finance or engineering backgrounds. Learn to play in that space — this is where negotiation skills can be incredibly effective. Although it's changing, for now don't be surprised if you work in a utility and most of upper management is male.

6) On a similar note, don't be afraid to venture into the less "sexy" areas of energy. You'll see that the energy field is rapidly dividing along gender lines. You'll find more women in the sustainability space and many more men are in the traditional oil, gas and "dirty" energy space. You can learn an incredible amount if you spend some time working in the "traditional" energy areas. After all, coal, natural gas and oil are still the predominant means of producing power in this country and around the world. The more you know about traditional energy and the people that work there, the more effective you'll be when trying to make a change down the road.

7) It's OK to fail and it's OK to realize that you don't like your job. I learned the hard way in my internship that speaking up about things not working is way more effective than being silent and ineffective. As my boss said, "If you had spoken up, something could have been done about it." And, as he also pointed out, "If your boss isn't interested in trying to make the job work for you, then you don't want to work for them anyway." On a similar note, as someone else said to me, "Nothing in your career is permanent." You can always adjust, realign or just go a completely different direction. Don't be afraid to try something and fail at it. Failure often teaches you so much more than success.

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N.C. ranked No. 2 for solar capacity (The Chronicle - Duke)

NPD Solarbuzz, a solar energy market research and analysis firm, recently ranked North Carolina the second-highest state in terms of solar capacity in the country, losing only to California. The 2013 report marked an improvement from the previous year, when North Carolina ranked fifth nationally in solar energy capacity.

Larry Shirley, the director of operations and planning at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, attributes North Carolina’s ascension to solar-friendly policies. He noted specifically the 2007 renewable portfolio standard law that mandates that 12.5 percent of utilities come from renewable energy sources.

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Data-gathering trip puts wind in energy researcher’s sails

Duke Ph.D. candidate Jenni Rinker recently traveled to Colorado with the support of the Energy Initiative to build contacts for her research into wind turbine design. She explains her work and the value of this trip to her academic and professional growth.

It is often said that the point of a Ph.D. is to become an expert in a particular research topic, and I think few people would argue that one of the most efficient ways to gain that expertise is to interact and communicate with other experts.

In August, with the support of the Energy Initiative, I had the opportunity to do just that: I travelled to Boulder, Colo., to visit the National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) and attend the second annual meeting of the North American Wind Energy Academy (NAWEA).

This trip was an amazing opportunity for me because my Ph.D. research in the Civil & Environmental Engineering department focuses on a novel wind simulation technique that we are developing, so I wanted to connect with other researchers both to understand what topics are hot right now and to gauge their interest in our simulation method.

The NAWEA meeting was held at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU-Boulder), which is very close to the NWTC in Louisville, so I was able to kill two birds with one stone on this trip. The NWTC is part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), but is devoted entirely to wind energy research and maintains a campus separate from the main NREL campus in Golden. The research projects at the NWTC span all aspects of wind energy, including controls analysis, utility grid integration assessment, and wind resource assessment. Big-name wind turbine manufacturers also contract with the NWTC to do structural testing, monitoring and design review (www.nrel.gov/wind), so there are usually at least a half-dozen operational wind turbines at the NWTC in any given time.

Turbine at NWTC

For my Ph.D. research, my advisor Dr. Henri Gavin and I have been using data from the NWTC to develop our wind simulation technique, then using an open-source wind turbine simulator code called FAST to determine the effects of our method on the simulated fatigue loads in wind turbines. This code was developed by Jason Jonkman at the NWTC, and I was able to meet with him during my visit. I met with other researchers at the NWTC including Bonnie Jonkman to discuss the development of FAST and some of her previous work with turbulence-turbine interactions, as well as Paul Fleming to discuss wind turbine controls, a hobby of mine. Scott Hughes gave me a tour of the Structural Testing Laboratory, where they conduct full-scale load and fatigue tests on wind turbine blades. Imagine a wind turbine blade that is as tall as the Duke Chapel laying sideways in a hangar, criss-crossed with wires and strain gages, and you’ll get the picture.

The NAWEA symposium began the day after I visited the NWTC. NAWEA is a collaborative organization of researchers from universities, laboratories and companies focused upon identifying and investigating key wind energy issues. The interdisciplinary focus spans not only different engineering topics but also areas such as atmospheric science and even policy. I heard lectures on topics that varied from wind turbine controls to atmospheric modeling, and discussions on policy and what political obstacles wind energy must overcome before it will be widely accepted.

I spoke with professors at other universities at poster sessions, talked to industry leaders about what issues were important to them, and even had a one-on-one lunch conversation with a researcher at NREL who invented his own wind simulation technique.

The whole experience was absolutely incredible and has given a huge boost to my research. Not only am I more in-tune with the wind energy community, I also have a network of contacts that I can use for future endeavors. For example, from my one-on-one lunch discussion I developed a collaboration with a researcher at the NWTC who, like me, is also interested in the effects of turbulence and wind turbine fatigue lives. I got suggestions about which conferences to attend to maintain these connections both with the people and with the topics that they are investigating. I plan on working on my research at the NWTC next summer in order to maximize the many benefits that I have gained from this single trip.

Jenni Rinker is a Ph.D. student in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at Duke University. Her current research focuses on using computational tools and uncertainty quantification methods to determine if current methods of wind simulations are sufficient for wind turbine design considerations. She is particularly interested in the relationship between boundary layer meteorology, turbulence, and subsequent fatigue loads and lifespans of wind turbines. Jenni earned her B.S. in Engineering in 2011 from Harvey Mudd College, where she worked on two main projects: the construction and validation of a finite element model of a wind turbine blade and on novel tuning methods of tuned-mass dampers for vibration suppression.

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Duke professor discusses new energy-finance MBA program (Fox Business)

In September, Duke’s Fuqua School of Business became the first top ten business school in the United States to offer a concentration in energy finance. Faculty Dean Jim Anton, professor of managerial economics, tells Fox Business news that changes in the energy markets led to the need for a more in-depth focus on energy finance.

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Sign up now for Energy Industry Fundamentals

Registration is now open for Energy Industry Fundamentals, a two-day fall graduate student symposium aimed at students who are interested in pursuing an energy industry career. The EIF provides an introduction to key energy issues, terms and trends to all Duke graduate students. It will be led by key Duke faculty and experts in energy economics, policy, business and technology. At the end of the first day, participants are invited to join the Energy Initiative for our 2013-14 kickoff Energy Mix.

Energy Industry Fundamentals (EIF) will be held in the HCA Auditorium at the Fuqua School of Business on Thursday and Friday, Aug. 29-30. Topics to be covered will include energy systems and sources, finance, forecasts, innovation and careers.

The EIF workshop is free, but registration is required. You can register and view a tentative agenda here.

At the end of Thursday's session, all participants are invited to take a short walk to Gross Hall to join the Energy Initiative and our cohosts, the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, for this academic year's first Energy Mix.

The Energy Mix is a monthly reception that gives the Duke community a chance to mingle with colleagues from businesses, government, nonprofits and other universities who share our interest in energy research, education and entrepreneurship.

This month, we'll learn more about the work of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster - and we'll unveil the newly renovated Energy Initiative offices on the ground floor of Gross Hall. We'll serve local barbecue and beer from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the Southwest Portico of Gross Hall, and you're welcome to have a look inside at the Energy Hub atrium and the Energy Initiative's offices in suite 101.

Read about last year's EIF in this blog post by the Fuqua School of Business's EDGE:The Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment.

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Contact lens kit wins Start-Up Challenge; energy team again in finals

A credit card-sized, emergency case for contact lenses won over judges at the Duke Start-Up Challenge. Refresh Innovations claimed the pitch competition's $50,000 grand prize, defeating two other teams at the challenge's grand finale.

Refrackt, a team that proposed a new solution to water safety issues posed by hydraulic fracturing, claimed the $10,000 Clean Energy Track prize sponsored by the Energy Initiative on its way to the final round. The third finalist was Camras Vision, a company that has created a new device intended to make glaucoma treatment more safely and effectively than current methods.

The event also featured a keynote by entrepreneur David Cummings (Trinity ’02), who announced his donation of $500,000 to create an endowment to encourage undergraduate entrepreneurship. The fund will provide $20,000 in grant funding to top undergraduate entrepreneurs each year.

Read more about the evening in the Duke Chronicle.

Refrackt makes their pitchRefrackt proposes treating wastewater from hydraulic fracturing with a mobile system that incorporates vacuum membrane distillation technology. Because the system can be moved, drillers can clean their water on-site and either recycle it to cut costs or release it back into public water systems.

Refrackt’s founders are Daniel Chow, Mark Panny and Victor Smith, all MEM candidates in the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Judith Winglee, a Pratt doctoral student. View the team's video pitch here, and read an interview with team members here.

Earlier in the week, the team also made the "Final Four" of the ACC Clean Energy Challenge, a $100,000 competition won this year by NC A&T's Bioadhesive Alliance.


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Teams stand to win thousands for energy entrepreneur ideas

Teams including entrepreneurial students from Duke are getting ready to show off at two competitions that will highlight their energy business ideas, help them develop partnerships and, potentially, bring them thousands of dollars in prizes.

The Duke Start-Up Challenge, founded in 1999, has for the past four years featured a Clean Energy Track. The winner of that track may go on to compete in the separate ACC Clean Energy Challenge, a competition funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and open to all schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Winners of both events will be decided in April, with the Duke Start-Up Challenge handing out a $50,000 grand prize -- plus another $10,000 for the Clean Energy Track winner -- and the ACC Clean Energy Challenge presenting a $100,000 prize. The Duke University Energy Initiative co-sponsors the Clean Energy Track prize in the Duke Start-Up Challenge.

The Duke Start-Up Challenge includes an elevator pitch competition in November, an executive summary competition in February, a business plan competition in March and the grand finale on Friday, April 12, at a 6 p.m. public event at the Fuqua School of Business.

The Clean Energy Track was narrowed in February from 12 entrants to six finalists that will compete in Round 2 for the $50,000 Grand Prize, as well as the $10,000 track prize.

The Clean Energy Track winner will be announced in time to compete in the $100,000 ACC Clean Energy Challenge, a one-day event on Tuesday, April 9, at McKimmon Center at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh. (If the Clean Energy Track winner fails to meet the ACC Challenge’s entry requirements, another qualifying track competitor will move on to the Raleigh competition.)

The ACC Clean Energy Challenge is a business plan competition encouraging students from all universities throughout the southeastern United States to develop business plans for new clean energy companies. The ACC Clean Energy Challenge targets and is open to all ACC schools, as well as other universities in the southeastern United States.

The Challenge is supported by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and includes projects related to renewable energy, energy efficiency improvements and advanced fuels/vehicles. In addition to collecting the $100,000 prize, the winner will compete in the DOE’s second annual National Competition Event of the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition held in Washington in mid-June.

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Energy Mixes connect students, researchers, business, government

A full house of businesspeople, government and nonprofit representatives, entrepreneurs and educators joined Duke students and faculty for the Energy Initiative’s first Energy Mix on Jan. 16.

The Mix is a new monthly reception sponsored by the Energy Initiative to bring together the Duke community with industry, government and universities in the region who share an interest in energy policy, science, data and business.

More than 100 people came to the first after-hours gathering at the Energy Hub in Gross Hall, making connections and learning about each other’s research,

projects and interests.

Initiative Director Richard Newell hopes the monthly Mixes will help Duke students, researchers and faculty match their skills and knowledge with the needs of energy companies, policymakers and researchers at neighboring colleges and institutes.

We plan to hold the Energy Mix from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the second or third Thursday of each month, though we’ll reschedule as needed based on other campus and community activities. We'll also have some Mixes off campus, especially while work is done on Gross Hall over the summer.

Keep an eye on our Events page for up-to-date information about all of the Energy Initiative’s Mixes, speakers, Power Lunches and other events. For reminders, follow us on Twitter @DukeUEnergy. Check our Facebook page for event photos and other news.

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