Girlspring Springboarder Lindsay Gardner interviews Alyssa McQuilling, PhD, an environmental engineer at Southern Research and a member of AAUW Birmingham. A full bio can be found here.
Created in partnership with AAUW Birmingham (The American Association of University Women Birmingham Branch). This interview is the first in a series that aims to bridge the gap between girls in Generation Z who are interested in STEM fields, and women who are working in STEM fields now, or have at some point in their lives.
L: Your bio says that you provide onsite testing support and data analysis for the Front-of-Meter and Behind-the-Meter Storage Testing programs – What exactly does that mean?
A: Energy storage, at the grid-scale, allows us to separate the generation and usage of electricity. This means, for example, we can store electricity generated from solar panels to be used at a later time, when the sun may not be shining. This ability means that our electric grid can be much more flexible and resilient. At Southern Research, we test and evaluate energy storage systems; these systems can be connected behind-the-meter or customer-sited, meaning that the owner of the system purchases and operates the system and it is not directly connected to the grid. In contrast, a front of the meter system is connected directly to the power grid and requires an agreement with the power company about how you will operate the system. Systems connected on different sides of the meter serve different purposes and our test facilities can accommodate both scales of systems.
L: How did you get into this field?
A: I joined Southern Research in 2016 and by late in the year, they had been awarded funding to develop the Energy Storage Research Center. Energy storage and renewable energy are both topics that are related to my background in environmental engineering, so I jumped at the chance to broaden my experiences by working on energy storage.
L: Your degree is in environmental engineering. Can you tell us, in broad terms, what environmental engineering is?
A: Broadly, it is the use of engineering methods to solve complex environmental problems and address environmental concerns. This means that environmental engineers can work in a lot of different areas—from water and wastewater management, air pollution control, and hazardous waste management to renewable energy and energy storage, and climate change.
L: What was the path you took to get you to this position school-wise?
A: I attended North Carolina State University where I received my BS in environmental engineering from the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering in 2010. Then, I moved to Pittsburgh where I studied at Carnegie Mellon and pursued my MS and PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering. My research during my PhD focused on quantifying and characterizing ammonia emissions from livestock production in the United States.
L: Why did you decide to work in the energy storage research team as opposed to something else?
A: When working in research, it is vital to be flexible and creative. Obtaining a PhD is all about learning how to solve problems that no one has ever solved before, so when you find a new problem, you can apply those skills and your perspective to make progress, so when I joined Southern Research I was open to working on pretty much anything. Research is also heavily dependent on funding, so we work on problems where our interests and public research needs intersect.
L: Do you enjoy what you do?
A: Absolutely. Working in research means that I get to learn something new every day and I also get to work with a great team and learn from their expertise too.
L: You have spent 10 years on this, what is so great about it in your opinion? What do you find interesting about it?
A: I have spent about 10 years in the research sector so far—spending the first half mostly working on air quality modeling and the second half on energy storage. I am continuing to learn and better understand how interconnected all aspects of our food and energy systems are and how I can better integrate the knowledge I gained while pursuing my PhD with the problems we’re facing as we’re studying energy storage. Climate change and the energy transition are global issues and as a researcher, I feel like I’m doing some small part to help solve these existential challenges in collaboration with my research team and others.
L: Which project had the most impact on others in your opinion, and why?
A: So far, I think it would have to be my thesis work from my PhD. I developed a new method to estimate ammonia emissions from livestock production, and this work is still being used by the EPA in their National Emissions Inventory, which I think is pretty cool.
L: You were awarded “funding through the USDA-NIFA program as a co-PI on a project investigating “Nutrient use efficiency in multi-trophic aquaculture production” with Auburn University;” can you tell us about that project?
A: This project focuses on understanding how nutrients fed to the fish in the Auburn aquaculture facility and travel through and are taken up by the connected Auburn hydroponics facilities and the impact that this combined “aquaponics” system has on the nutrient, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, content of the effluent the exits the open-loop system. We wanted to see if we could adjust the conditions within the system to co-optimize production of fish and produce while reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus released from the system.
L: What types of articles have you published? And do you have a favorite?
A: I have published articles in peer-reviewed journals as well as conference proceedings. I’ve also contributed to blog posts, written white papers, drafted posters, and even recently appeared on television on Alabama STEM Explorers on APTV. My favorite article is probably my first peer-reviewed first-author publication entitled “Semi-empirical process-based models for ammonia emissions from beef, swine, and poultry operations in the United States.”
L: What does it take to publish something? Do you have advice for someone who is looking to publish a scientific paper?
A: In order to publish in a peer-reviewed journal, the work you are presenting must be both novel and important. It usually is the culmination of months, and likely years, of work that has been carefully distilled into a few pages of background, methods, results and conclusions. My advice would be to stick with it! It takes patience and a lot of hard work to get published. It also helps to have a good team working with you that can support you through the revision process. It’s also really important to pick the right journal to submit to.
L: Do you have any challenges as a woman working in this type of field?
A: Working in energy storage has definitely been eye-opening as it is very much a male dominated field. I always try to keep in mind that: anyone can have good ideas, speak confidently when you have good ideas, and always be willing to learn from others.
L: What about work-life balance: Is it possible to do what you do and have a family?
A: There’s often a lot to juggle, but I think it’s absolutely possible to have a family. I’ve been married since 2013 and have a 3-year-old son and a 15-month old son (plus a dog). I think it’s less about balance and more about prioritizing—realizing that you can’t do everything on your own and relying on your “village”—especially saying yes if someone offers help!
L: Any advice to someone wanting to go into this field?
A: Do it! Stay curious—it will serve you well. Develop collaborations—research is rarely done alone and so the benefits of developing a great team will pay dividends in the work.