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  • Destenie Nock

Undergrad Research: From Research Assistant to Author

Undergrads are vital to any institution, and a valuable part of my research team. Recently one of my undergraduate students published a first author paper in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Let's talk about how this happened.

July 21, 2021 By: Destenie Nock


I want to bring your attention to one of the most overlooked people in research are the undergraduates. Undergraduates can be a huge supporter in research. My thoughts on why everyone should consider advising undergraduate research assistants is here.

Today I am celebrating a huge accomplishment by my undergraduate research assistant (now a Master's student at MIT) Olivia Pfeiffer. She has successfully collected data, built a model, and published a first authored paper on how wind energy investments could impact migratory fish in the New England region. She started this paper during my PhD, and 2 years later the paper is finally in virtual print. First, I am going to discuss some things that made her successful in publishing her paper. Then, will get into the paper summary.

Erin, Olivia, Ami, and I at a research conference.

What helped her be successful in publishing a paper:

She worked with me on data collection for one year before writing the paper when she was a sophomore.

She wanted to lead her own research project. This started off as a desire to add leadership skills to her resume, but I think Olivia also had a burning curiosity about the benefits and drawbacks of energy technologies. Too often engineers only focus on the benefits of their technologies, without asking what the drawbacks might be. By asking what the downside of large wind deployment might be we realized that we did not know how wind energy might indirectly impact fish populations. This curiosity morphed into an undergraduate research thesis.

Later she expressed interest in graduate school, and wanted to help her applications.

When I asked Olivia what she though helped her be successful she mentioned that she liked my mentoring style. I want to make sure my readers know good mentors are not born, they are trained. I have to give a shout out to the Entering Mentoring training program at UMass which helped me learn how to be a better mentor. It was one of the reasons I wrote a template for reading and summarizing technical papers for the undergraduate students I worked with, and helped them develop plans for research and career success.

In summary some things that helped Olivia publish a paper were as follows:

  1. Starting research early. She took initiative and expressed interest in a project.

  2. She paid attention to detail. There were very few times that felt like I had to double check her work, and if there were problems in her code she brought them to me early so we could work on them together. She was honest about mistakes and potential pitfalls which built trust in our research collaboration.

  3. She buckled down and wrote the paper. This trait is very undervalued. Doing the research is the fun part, but it takes a lot of dedication to sit down and write. Tips for writing here.

Now let's talk about the paper she published.

For those that do not wish to continue reading the YouTube video summarizing major findings is here.

Hydro plays key role in maintaining grid reliability, but there is uncertainty about what ecological implications there will be from using hydro to balance variability from high penetration of wind and other renewables, especially in a 100% clean energy system. In the paper we present a model framework which can be used to assess trade-offs between wind energy investments and potential impact on migratory fish.

This research finds that large increases in offshore wind energy in the northeast US will have large impacts on migratory fish due to the variability it will induce in hydropower. Hydropower plays a key role in maintaining grid reliability and balancing energy from renewables. As hydropower energy output balances the variability from renewable this has major impacts on river flows and the ability of fish to migrate upstream.

Figure 1 shows how hydropower ramping (the change in energy output from hour 1 to hour 2) changes between high and low wind energy deployment (red and blue lines). The gray bars show how these changes change in relation to the months with high numbers of migratory fish. One positive result from this research is noticing that, even with high levels of offshore wind, the highest hydropower ramping periods occur in periods of low migratory activity (Jan - March).

Fig 1. Hydropower changes in relation to fish migration (Pfeiffer et al 2021)

There are more details in the paper regarding how this wind variability would impact flow rates in the river, and more information on the types of fish we consider. Again, huge congratulations to Olivia Pfeiffer who published her first authored publication in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews! I am a proud advisor.

Power Grid Bonus: Recently I appeared in the "Make Me Smart" Podcast in the episode titled "Our power grid is buckling under the weight of climate change." check it out for a discussion about the challenges of maintaining and updating the grid in the face of climate change, and the outlook on potential solutions. Decarbonizing electricity sources comes with its own hurdles, like managing power to and from houses with solar panels, for example.

Thank you for reading! If you like this post and want to follow research updates feel free to subscribe below (I promise not to spam you).

Note about the Author: Dr. Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Nock's first research publication was from undergraduate research she did at Iowa's State during a wind energy summer internship. Her current research is focused on understanding trade-offs in sustainable electricity systems, and energy justice. She obtained a PhD in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from UMass Amherst. Her PhD work was computational in nature and involved creating mathematical models which simulated electricity systems and evaluated them in terms of their sustainability. Her papers detailing the research she completed in sustainability evaluation and electricity modeling can be found here.

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