Alumni Profiles Series: Adria Wilson
Adria Wilson earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry, developing model nanoparticle catalysts with applications for renewable energy technologies. After graduation she was selected as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and worked in a U.S. Senator’s office on public policy issues related to renewable energy and the environment. She then obtained a fellowship through the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education working on fuel cell technologies in the Department of Energy (DOE). She is now a Technology Manager for DOE, where she develops programs and manages applied research and development projects that advance fuel cell technologies. The primary goal behind her education and career path has been to increase the availability and accessibility of renewable energy technologies.
What career plans did you have in mind at the beginning of graduate school, and did these change during your time at Duke?
When I began graduate school, I had just earned my bachelor’s degree from Drexel University in Chemistry with a minor in Political Science. From that experience I had gained a strong sense of the implications science and policy could have on one another, and I ultimately wanted to advance renewable energy technologies to mitigate climate change. During my first few years at Duke, I spent time talking to people to find out if there was a certificate program related to technologies and policy that I could pursue. As my interest in science policy became known, a fifth-year graduate student told me about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship program for Ph.D. scientists, and, after learning more about that the program, I set out to make myself the best candidate for this fellowship during graduate school. My career plans in graduate school were not extremely specific, but I had a very powerful and unwavering drive to advance and promote renewable energy technologies using my scientific expertise.
What has your career path looked like since graduate school? How did you obtain these positions?
After graduating I served as a AAAS Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow for one year, working in Senator Bernie Sanders’ office on Capitol Hill and focusing on energy and environment-related issues. You can apply for AAAS policy fellowships directly through AAAS or through a number of professional societies, which may have different rules or requirements. In my case, I applied through the Materials Research Society; I was a member of the society for several years before applying and had helped to establish the student chapter at Duke.
Working in the Senator’s office dramatically expanded my understanding of the policy issues that arise because of energy choices. After gaining new insights and expertise, I went back into the science and technology arena with a fellowship at the Department of Energy (DOE) in the Fuel Cell Technologies Office. I obtained this position after making a conscious effort to explore the opportunities that existed in the DC area for scientists through extensive networking and informational interviews. I ultimately was encouraged to apply for this position through the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE). I served as an ORISE fellow for one year, and during that time a position opened in my office as a federal employee. My supervisor encouraged me to apply, and I fortunately made it through the aggressive application process successfully.
As a Technology Manager in the Fuel Cell Technologies Office, I work to support DOE’s mission to create and sustain American leadership in a clean energy economy by funding high-impact research and development and by breaking down barriers to market entry. I spend my time helping to determine the best strategy for advancing fuel cell technologies to a point where they are competitive alternatives to traditional vehicles, and to actively guide applied research & development in that direction using a variety of funding tools. Once projects are funded through our office, our technology managers lead each project, making sure they are reaching their specified goals on time. Part of my day-to-day also involves developing programs to advance technologies developed in our national laboratories, so that society can begin to realize their benefit.
What is your favorite aspect of your position as Technology Manager at DOE? The most challenging aspect?
My favorite part of my job, hands down, is that I get to learn about and manage groundbreaking scientific research supporting the adoption of a promising energy technology that is quite arguably going to be the next big thing, and that, in that context, I get to drive strategy and explore new ways to accelerate adoption at the same time. I love that I get to think about innovative ways to inspire early career scientists to think about becoming fuel cell entrepreneurs, for example, or to make it easier for companies and universities to collaborate with the national labs. The most challenging part is working within the bureaucratic structure of the federal government, but it is an understandable structure that is warranted given the use of taxpayer dollars to fund research projects.
What activities in graduate school helped prepare you for your current position?
Talking with my advisor and developing my own research experiences helped the most in preparing me for my current job. Since I work with national lab scientists quite a bit in my current role, going to do experiments at user facilities during grad school has proven to be useful as well. Being a member of the Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) allowed me to engage early on in grad school in sustainability-related issues at Duke, and that was somewhat useful in that it gave me a framework for understanding the challenges to deploying cleaner, more sustainable practices.
Do you have any advice for graduate students seeking to enter careers in renewable energy?
Talk to as many people as possible who do things that you’re interested in about what their life is like. Doing informational interviews is in my view the most effective way to gain a handle on the language and culture that defines a subject or field, and that makes it a great way to help refine your passion and figure out the best way for you to make an impact. As a grad student, I knew I wanted to fight climate change by supporting renewable energy adoption, but I didn’t know anything about regulations, financing, or policy – all things that define the boundary conditions for that adoption. When you’re a grad student, and your research is your top priority, talking to people and maintaining relationships with the network you build – even by sending a follow up email every month or so - is an excellent way to learn about the context for whatever it is you are interested in without getting too sidetracked.
Do you have other professional plans or projects in the works?
I’m still driven by the desire to help people easily choose clean energy in their daily lives, and so I spend a fair amount of time talking with other clean energy professionals to learn about different ways other people are tackling the problem. I’ve been lucky to find a great community for this in the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, or CELI, which is a non-profit organization that brings together young professionals in clean energy in DC and San Francisco. I highly encourage anyone interested in learning more about the different facets of clean energy to check CELI out.
Ph.D. student, Ecology
Sarah Loftus is a PhD candidate in the University Program in Ecology seeking to advance the potential of bioenergy. Her research focuses on cost-saving methods to grow algae for biofuel production. Sarah is also a blogger for the Nicholas School of the Environment.