Q & A With Recent PhDs #2
Holmes Hummel, PhD, 2007, Stanford University
Exploring Global Energy Scenarios
Holmes Hummel recently completed the Interdisciplinary PhD Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University. I interviewed Holmes by telephone in San Francisco. This is the second in our series of interviews with recent PhDs.
Liena Vayzman: Hi, Holmes. Congratulations! What was the title of your dissertation?
Holmes Hummel: Wait a second...the title page of my dissertation is in my recycle bin. OK, here it is: "Interpreting Global Energy and Emission Scenarios: Methods for Understanding and Communicating Policy Insights." That's the official name... but all of the talks I'm giving based on it are called "Technology and Policy Implications of Global Energy Scenarios on Stabilizing Climate Change." The reason for the difference is that my dissertation is focused on techniques but that would put an audience to sleep unless they do that for a living. In other words, I was investigating specific analytical tools for my research but what people want to know about is what I found using these tools.
LV: In layperson's terms, what did you find?
HH: I found that the potential for energy efficiency improvements is typically underestimated. What that means is that the statements about how much energy humans will need in the future can be overstated and leads us to believe that we need many more high-stakes power plants even before we have taken advantage of all the existing efficiency opportunities.
LV: Where does this insight fall, for example, in relation to Al Gore's film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth?
HH: It is literally at the very end of the film, where he uses a type of global energy scenario to show how emissions can be contained in the future. There are hundreds of scenarios out there. My dissertation was about using two techniques to put those results into a common framework for initial comarison and interpretation. This is big problem for policy analysts. Investigating global energy scenarios from a wide range sources, I find that the potential for energy efficiency is greater than Gore suggest, which challenges the resigned attitude towards high-stakes technologies like nuclear power and carbon sequestration.
LV: How much time exactly did you spend on your PhD?
HH: My PhD start to finish was 4.25 years. My writing was 18 months.
LV: That’s relatively quick, even for the sciences. What helped you stay motivated and focused?
HH: I had a goal of being eligible for a congressional science fellowship awarded by AAAS, the leading science organization in the country. I had to finish by Dec the 20th. So I finished by Dec. 17th.
LV: How did you put the pedal to the metal?
HH: Actually, I went to China, through a National Science Foundation study program for East Asia (EAPSI). I worked at the Institute for Energy, Environment and Economy in Bejing, which gave me an incredible level of focus on my task. I was in the company of some very talented researchers who are motivated to address energy issues in China. It gave me motivation to be surrounded by their work ethic.
LV: What helped you complete the writing process when you got back to the States?
HH: I unplugged my laptop from the Internet! That was the most important thing. It prevented anyone form reaching me and gave me more control for when I responded to emails. I needed the duration of attention and level of focus.
LV: Can you talk about how you dealt a major challenge in your dissertation process?
HH: I can tell you about something that happened in September, 3 months before I was scheduled to defend my dissertation. I took my work to the research institution that leads my field and I begged my toughest critics to help me understand the weaknesses in my analysis and the extra areas I needed to cover. After that, I needed every minute from leaving their shop to my submission date to write.
LV: I like that strategy. That is an amazingly direct way to anticipate criticism and to deal with it head on. I often suggest dissertation writers in any field anticipate their critics' responses and address them in the dissertation.
HH: It was daunting. Preparing for that presentation was an incredibly intense task. After my visit, the writing rolled. I knew which questions I was trying to answer and in what order.
LV: What are you doing now in your career?
HH: I have received the one of the two congressional science fellowships from AAAS in Washington DC, the goal that motivated my dissertation completion process.
LV: Excellent! Good luck on Capitol Hill! Thank you for sharing your experience and insights.
HH: I'm glad it's over... and I'm glad for all the people who have the benefit of your insights!