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NREL: Discovering Building Science Career Opportunities

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Samantha Eddy is leveraging research from the NREL Building Technologies and Science Center to create modular home designs for the Navajo Nation during her summer as a JUMP into STEM intern. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL
Eddy is an undergraduate at the University of Utah and one of three interns who earned a 10-week, paid internship as JUMP into STEM Final Competition Winners early this year. Alexandra Kahl and Kyra Owensby from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville have joined Eddy on the NREL Buildings team for the summer.

“It has been inspiring to experience the NREL mission,” Kahl stated about her internship. “Every team meeting has the underlying theme of energy efficiency and decarbonization.”

For Owensby, she is diving into work that can complement her research as a soon-to-be second-year graduate student. “I’ve had a rare opportunity to conduct both lab and modeling work as an intern.”

Two scientists in the lab inspecting samples for thermal energy storage research.
JUMP into STEM intern Kyra Owensby and one of her mentors, Chuck Booten, in NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL
As the early-career researchers get ready to head back to their college campuses, their impactful research and unique perspectives will live on with the contributions made to a variety of buildings projects.

New Research Fields and Hands-On Learning
Samantha Eddy – The University of Utah
Supporting the Industrialized Construction Innovation (ICI) team, Eddy is working on passive and active design strategies for energy-efficient modular housing to help communities burdened by the high costs of energy and construction. She is lending her insights from her community in the Navajo Nation to help translate ICI research to better meet the needs of those on native lands. Strong dependency on the electric grid, high construction costs, and a reliance on larger surrounding cities are just a few of the unique challenges impacting remote tribal communities.

“Samantha is educating us on what is happening in her community, and we are teaching her about the research NREL has conducted over the past decade,” said Eddy’s mentor, Ankur Podder, engineer in the Communities and Urban Science Research Group at NREL. “She recently had the opportunity to travel home to meet with stakeholders and asked informed research questions that will advance our work.”

With the information she collected from her field research, Eddy is returning to the lab to work on developing supply-demand maps and decision-making charts for her community.

“She’s only here for 10 weeks, but her passion and interest in energy justice proves how motivated she is to make a change in her community and others with similar challenges. There is so much she could do,” Podder added.

Researchers pose in front of a modular building testing site.
JUMP into STEM intern Samantha Eddy and her mentor Ankur Podder outside of the modular home testing site on NREL’s South Table Mountain campus. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL
Following her internship, Eddy will return to Utah for her senior year of college. She does not have concrete plans after graduation but hopes to work with an Indigenous architecture firm to continue working toward solutions.

“This internship has opened my eyes to new career opportunities. There are so many different fields and career paths available. A few weeks ago, I’d never even heard of modular construction, and now I’m working on mapping strategies to help my community,” Eddy added. “It’s been inspiring. I have the opportunity to show my community and future generations how much we’re able to contribute to the future of energy.”

Alexandra Kahl – University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Alexandra Kahl
Alexandra Kahl is a JUMP into STEM intern who will return to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to continue her Ph.D. in energy engineering.
Kahl learned about JUMP into STEM in her graduate-level sustainable energy systems class. Now as an intern with NREL, she is spending her summer working on design guidance to intersect resiliency and energy efficiency. Her project investigates pathways to sustaining building operations during a grid outage and how renewable energy sources can reduce grid strain.

“Allie has been so helpful in automating the development of our model to output more data and broaden guidance across climate zones and resiliency challenges,” said Heather Goetsch, NREL research engineer in the Building Technologies and Science Center and Kahl’s mentor. “She brings a fresh perspective to our work with a passion to bring energy equity to every aspect of the research. She’s been a great asset to ask new questions to help us think about different ideas and new avenues of research.”

Currently pursuing a Ph.D. in energy science and engineering, Kahl is entering her third year and working on her dissertation surrounding grid resilience. Her project with the team at NREL complements her grad school research by looking at the connection of commercial building characteristics to different levels of resiliency at a high resolution. This summer, she is helping to identify various scenarios that would decarbonize buildings while being able to double as community shelters during long-term outages.

“Climate change is our reality, so we need to be working on strategies to reduce the effects of extreme weather events,” Kahl said. “This is rewarding work, and I hope to continue my career path to help mitigate the impact of natural disasters.”

Kyra Owensby – University of Tennessee, Knoxville
As a rising second year graduate student in the energy science and engineering program under the University of Tennessee’s Bredesen Center, Owensby approaches buildings research topics through the lens of energy, entrepreneurship, and policy. Her Ph.D. focuses on solid-state batteries on a nanoscale, and JUMP into STEM challenged her to look at how battery innovation could be used on a larger scale in real world resiliency applications.

Owensby is continuing to explore resiliency through her internship at NREL, in which she is working on thermal energy storage and modeling energy needs for outage situations. Her work compares blackout occurrences in communities across climate zones and the use of various energy sources. This work will bolster her electrochemical energy storage research and provide her a broader range of knowledge for practical usage and future policy.

“Internships are about exploring the type of work you could do; the research is rarely the biggest part of the internship,” said one of Owensby’s mentors, Chuck Booten, NREL senior engineer in the Building Technologies and Science Center. “However, Kyra is already in the lab and conducting modeling work to support our project. She’s extremely engaged and asking great questions along the way—undeniably eager to learn.”

Two scientists in the lab preparing samples for thermal energy storage research.
Kyra Owensby and one of her mentors, Kerry Rippy, research thermal energy storage in NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL
One of the main motivators for Owensby to pursue a Ph.D. is her commitment to energy justice.

“Climate change is disproportionately affecting people of color, which is why I want to get more involved with policy,” Owensby added. “Research doesn’t truly matter if it’s only helping wealthy people or those least affected.”

The JUMP into STEM 2022–2023 Season Is Underway
Ready to compete? Celebrating its fifth year, JUMP into STEM is open to teams of two to four students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. Mixed-major teams are highly encouraged. This means teams consisting of students researching different fields related to the building industry (e.g., architecture, engineering, public policy, computer science, economics, and more).

The competition is judged in two rounds:

Fall Semester Challenges: Student teams select one of this year’s challenge topics and respond with a written solution. Challenge-level winners are selected from each of the three challenges. Challenge winners are awarded one-on-one mentorship opportunities.
JUMP into STEM Final Competition: Eligible challenge-level winners are invited to compete against each other in person at the Final Competition, which will be held at NREL Jan. 26–27, 2023. Final Competition winners are offered a 10-week paid summer internship at NREL, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
2022–2023 Challenge Topics
It’s Electric
The objective of this challenge is to increase electrification of U.S. buildings. Solutions should lead to reductions in energy use and carbon emissions while emphasizing reduced inequalities in obtaining new technologies for identified stakeholder groups.

Curb Your Carbon
Students will be challenged to develop an innovative solution that will reduce carbon emissions from U.S. buildings. Problem statements can focus on embodied carbon, carbon sequestration and storage, and/or operational carbon emissions.

Sustainable and Resilient
Teams will develop novel technical solutions to improve the resilience and sustainability of the built environment and identify ways for each proposed solution to enable underserved communities to adapt, persist, and recover from extreme weather and persistent stress, such as those caused by climate change.

JUMP into STEM Challenge submissions are due November 11. Finalists will be invited to present their innovative solutions to this year’s challenge topics during the Final Competition at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in January 2023 and compete for a paid summer 2023 internship at NREL, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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