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Christiane Adcock

PhD candidate, Institute for Computational & Mathematical Engineering
Story originally published on Jun 2022
I became an engineer to fight climate change.

By high school I knew this was the problem I wanted to work on. Its urgency demanded action: The longer we waited, the harder it would be to solve. As I considered what to study in college, I looked for a path that would allow me to use the subjects I most enjoyed in high school, math and physics, to work on this problem. That led me to study mechanical engineering and now computational and mathematical engineering. In my work, I apply fluid dynamics, applied math, and computer science to increase renewable energy generation and thereby mitigate climate change. One of the most satisfying parts of this work is using knowledge from classes – which sometimes seems so theoretical – to address practical problems.

In my PhD, I explore ways to make wind farms more efficient. For example, most wind farms in operation today don’t account for how each turbine affects those around it. As a turbine extracts power from the wind, it creates a region of low-speed wind, called a wake, downwind. Typically, each turbine rotates to face directly into the wind, which maximizes its individual power production. However, to maximize the power production for a whole wind farm, often turbines need to angle slightly away from the wind to steer their wakes away from downwind turbines. I research methods to find the turbine angles that maximize the total power produced by the wind farm.

Working on and reading the literature about renewable energy generation, distribution, and use, I see so much potential to reduce climate change. The technological advances from the past decades, the current research, and the increasing investment make me hopeful. This work will help mitigate climate change and meaningfully improve the lives of future generations.

It’s hard to imagine finding this career path, which brings me so much satisfaction and joy, without the many incredible teachers and mentors who have taught, guided, and cheered me on. From my high school math teacher, biology teacher, and first research mentor; to the research mentor who got me started on wind energy and the path to grad school; to my PhD advisor and research collaborators, I am privileged in the support I’ve received.

That’s not to say that this path has always felt natural. In college, I started noticing that while my engineering classes had a fairly even number of men and women, almost all the TAs and professors were men. In internships and grad school, the gender gap has become even more apparent. When I find myself wondering if this is a field where I belong, I often think of the fantasy novels by Tamora Pierce, which feature women forging paths in all or mostly male spaces. Thanks to the librarian who sent me home with these books, I can remind myself of the story I want to write. In this story, women entering engineering, grad school, and research see other women and have no doubt that they belong.

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