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Graduate students Irene Onyango, Yu Feng and Claire Doll from the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology in the UAlberta Faculty of ALES.

Graduate students Irene Onyango, Yu Feng and Claire Doll from the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology in the UAlberta Faculty of ALES.

Understanding why people do – or don't – adopt new energy technologies is the job for an international team of graduate students

In 2014, Claire Doll, Yu Feng and Irene Onyango lived on three different continents.

Doll was working on her undergraduate degree in Environmental and Conservation Sciences at the University of Alberta, learning about the market and policy forces that can influence environmental decisions.

Feng was studying at China’s Inner-Mongolia Agricultural University, part of a program she knew would give her the opportunity to transfer to the University of Alberta thanks to an agreement between the two institutions.

Onyango was working as a Research Assistant for conservation programs in Kenya, trying to encourage farmers to adopt practices that would reduce the loss of wildlife habitat for rhinos, elephants and beneficial insects such as honey bees.

On a January morning three years later, all three sit around a table in Edmonton, alternately discussing their Future Energy Systems research and the -37ºC wind chill outside their building.

Doll, Feng and Onyango are working on the project Investment Decisions and Policy Analysis with Principal Investigator Dr. Marty Luckert and Co-Investigator Dr. Feng Qiu. Together this team aims to develop a greater understanding of what economic and policy factors could make commercial production of bioenergy a reality.

It’s a complex question because bioenergy can be derived from a variety of feedstocks –– everything from forestry industry residues to purposely-planted crops like switchgrass can be turned into fuel –– and a variety of cost and policy factors can influence profitability. Finding answers requires an array of methods and perspectives, which is why three graduate students from across the globe have braved polar temperatures to team up for the investigation.

Almost done

The term ‘highly qualified personnel’ (HQP) is often used by granting councils to refer to graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and specialized personnel like technicians. A key objective for university research programs is to train HQP, giving them the opportunity to learn, grow, and gain experience that can propel them into the rest of their careers.

Claire Doll is in the process of launching her career. Last September she successfully defended her Master’s thesis examining the viability of an ethanol bioenergy industry in Alberta, and she’s now considering her first steps into the workforce.

“I’ve been able to learn a lot and gain a lot of experience as a grad student,” she says. “Now it’s time to take all that into the real world.”

Her expertise in market forces and environmental policy will grant her opportunities in either government or the private sector, and though she hails from Vancouver, her current plan is to pursue work in Edmonton.

“I love Alberta and there’s a lot of opportunity here,” she explains. “Bioenergy can be an important part of this province’s economic future, and I hope I can help contribute to that growth.”

She has time to look for the right fit. For the next few months she’ll remain with the project, focusing on writing and publishing –– two peer-reviewed articles are planned based on her thesis work –– while also expanding her research as she prepares to hand it off to future Master’s students.

One of those successors is already at the table.

Sticking around

Around the time Doll was defending her thesis, Yu Feng was just beginning her Master’s degree. After completing her undergraduate work in University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, her original plan had been to return to China –– but the plan changed.

“I chose the undergraduate program at Inner-Mongolia Agricultural University because I knew it would allow me to finish my degree at the University of Alberta,” she says. “I had not planned to stay for grad school, but the opportunity was too positive to turn down.”

Feng’s decision to remain made her available to join the Future Energy Systems project. Master’s students in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology often spend their first year as teaching assistants, but her experience in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) made her an ideal candidate to help examine the spatial dimension of bioenergy production –– to explore what characteristics a landscape needs for bioenergy to make sense, and how different policies come into play.

“I was in China on break when I got a call from [Co-Investigator] Feng Qiu,” she laughs. “I had to stay up until 3:00 AM Beijing time to interview for the position, but it was worth it to start my Master’s experience with this research opportunity.”

Feng is confident her research experience will contribute to her overall goal of working on policies that improve efficiency and help the environment.

Back for more

Graduate studies aren’t just a one-way street to the workforce; sometimes professionals choose to return to university to improve their ability to do their jobs.

Irene Onyango worked for the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya –– East Africa’s largest black rhino sanctuary –– and then the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology. These organizations promoted mechanisms like conservation agriculture and bio-pesticides as ways to preserve critical habitat for endangered animals and insects, but continually ran into difficulty when seeking support from nearby farmers.

“We could show research demonstrating the economic and environmental benefits of more efficient farming approaches,” she explains. “But it can take a long time for farmers and communities to embrace sustainable agricultural practices and technologies –– and sometimes their behaviours don’t change at all.”

Onyango decided to build her expertise in the economic and social factors that influence the adoption of new technologies, in order to contribute to the development of tools and techniques that incentivize people to support sustainable global development. Her first stop was a Master’s degree at the University of Birmingham, and now she has joined the University of Alberta for her PhD.

“Kenya is much warmer than Alberta,” she smiles as she indicates her newly-acquired parka. “But the principle is the same whether you are encouraging new practices to support bioenergy production, or to conserve wildlife habitat.”

Through her first frozen winter Onyango will familiarize herself with Canadian forestry policy, so she can begin identifying specific questions for her research.

Perspectives from around the world

Diverse groups of graduate students are the norm for a world-leading research institution like the University of Alberta. A glance through the Future Energy Systems researcher directory will reveal more than 200 HQP from around the globe, each bringing unique perspectives and expertise.

Thanks to common interests and a shared passion for research, these students usually find little difficulty in working together –– and learning from each other.

“Every week we have a roundtable project meeting where we all talk about what we’re doing and how it can fit into each other’s research,” Doll explains. “Something I’m working on might inform another student’s research, or an experience someone brings from another part of the world could help shape what I do.”

Such collaboration is essential when addressing global energy systems change.

Future Energy Systems Director Larry Kostiuk speaks often about the vast differences in needs, opportunities and expectations when it comes to changing energy systems worldwide: “People want different things from their energy systems. You want different capacities to do work, you want different relationships with your transportation system, and you have different sources available.”

Teams like Doll, Feng and Onyango help Future Energy Systems grapple with this variability, while also giving students the opportunity to develop relationships and that can transcend national borders for decades to come.

For now, this team’s objective is more immediate: when the wind chill is polar, the University of Alberta is well-equipped with ‘warmcuts’ –– routes from classrooms to coffee shops that don’t require stepping outside.

Having been in the country for less than a week, Onyango is still getting her bearings, so Doll offers: “We’ll definitely give you the pedway tour!”

Knowing those routes will come in handy, because many more winters of research lie ahead for Onyango, and hundreds of other HQP conducting research funded by Future Energy Systems. Stay tuned to this website for more of their stories, and information about their research.

To learn more about Investment Decisions and Policy Analysis, click here.

For more HQP profile stories, click here.

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