‘I’ve seen a number of women enter STEM jobs only to leave within five years’

5 Apr 2019

Beth Massey, head of research at IERC. Image: IERC

As head of research at Tyndall’s International Energy Research Centre, Beth Massey is trying to encourage more women like her into computer science.

With the consequences of climate change only too clear to see, the need for alternative, efficient energy solutions could not be more paramount. Among those trying to develop the latest technology to help bring this to the world is Beth Massey, head of research at Tyndall’s International Energy Research Centre (IERC).

Prior to joining the IERC in October 2014, Massey worked for the United Technologies Research Centre in Ireland as a senior research scientist, where she held the position of principal investigator for several projects related to energy data analytics and diagnostics of energy systems in commercial buildings.

She also worked in project management with none other than the US Department of Defense, DARPA and NASA. Now, she is working towards technology that can help solve society’s grand challenges, providing education and options for enhanced quality of life.

She is due to speak at the IERC’s annual conference taking place on Fota Island, Cork, on 10 and 11 April 2019.

Were you particularly driven to enter energy research from a young age?

Energy research is a huge innovation space and I have always been fascinated by the question of ‘What can be?’ I started out as a software engineer working on innovations for military applications and at NASA, where my computer science and mathematics skills were developed. It was after my PhD that I started to look at the energy sector as another opportunity to apply those skills.

Could you give us an insight into some of the things you are working on at the IERC?

My background in computer science and software engineering has provided me with the perspective to understand how important digitalisation is for the energy sector. Buildings account for nearly 40pc of the energy consumption in industrialised countries, so it is important to understand how this energy is being consumed. Collecting the right data and doing in-depth analysis helps us to understand how best to find savings opportunities.

The IERC is a multidisciplined team working on three key aspects of the energy sector in Ireland: low-carbon heating and cooling, embedded and distributed generation, and energy efficiency and data analytics. In the low-carbon heating area, we are currently looking at heat policy in similar countries in Europe to find examples of successful heat delivery programmes that may be of use to the Irish economy.

We have also delivered a green gas certification scheme to gas utilities who are now implementing it for national scale use to sell biogas that will replace the fossil gas currently in place.

In the embedded and distributed generation area, we are looking at how batteries of various technologies can provide options for renewable electricity generators to avoid current curtailment constraints and provide fast response services to the national grid. We are also researching how consumers can benefit from having batteries in their homes and solar panels on their roofs as a way to save on their electricity bills and also as a way to work together as an energy community.

In the energy-efficiency and data analytics area, we are looking at several areas around optimising energy performance contracts and growing the energy services companies market. This includes developing building information model data, along with dynamic modelling to enhance our understanding of energy use in buildings. Finally, we are looking at energy-efficiency upgrades in public housing in a holistic way to build standardisable and reusable tools for the construction and maintenance sector.

As we consider the question ‘What can be?’, we are also asking ‘What makes sense right now?’ with a view towards those technology enablers that can be developed to provide a clearer focus on the more impactful developments.

Ireland remains one of Europe’s poorest performers in CO2 reduction, so do you see your role as helping to show Ireland’s efforts to turn this around?

The IERC has a large role to play in helping Ireland to reduce our CO2 emissions. It’s all about holistic thinking and having a vision of what a cleaner future looks like and then working together, across sectors, to achieving that. Reducing our demand is integral to reducing our emissions and meeting our future targets. Our research provides the empirical evidence that policymakers can use to make policy and investment decisions to benefit the Irish consumer.

What do you think are some of the greatest challenges in your role?

As head of research, it is my job to map out the research strategy for the centre and to identify those opportunities for biggest impact to the Irish economy. The research team at the IERC is a driven and motivated group of experts in their fields. Generating good ideas is the easy part; the biggest challenge is deciding which of the portfolio of good ideas will create the next pivot point in the sector. Part of my role is to ensure the continuation of deep collaboration with industry, which in turn helps us expand those ideas and turn them into something that creates a new market offering or increases capacity in an existing vertical marketplace.

How are you trying to help girls enter male-dominated STEM spaces such as computer science?

As a computer scientist student at university, I was usually part of that less than 10pc of women students in computer science and engineering courses.

While the numbers of women enrolling in STEM courses have increased, there is still a gender imbalance at graduation. Over my own career, I have seen an increase in the number of women entering STEM jobs only to leave the field within five years to take up non-STEM jobs or requalify into non-STEM disciplines.

At university we ran a four-year project with a focus on mentoring to support the women enrolled in the computer science curriculum, with a goal of reducing the attrition rate. The project showed that through various mentoring-focused activities, women students felt less isolated, which results in increased retention by 25pc.

At the Tyndall National Institute, we have an ‘Empowering Women’ group that focuses on diversity in the workplace. Also, we recently ran a webcast for Engineers Week where we showed that women are engineers and scientists, too. This is a long-term issue and requires open-minded thinking about how to keep diversity as a goal in both academia and industry. It is important to identify opportunities and then take action whenever possible.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic