By Diamond Gwynn
About 1.2 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity—and another billion lack reliable access. At Duke, Sanford School of Public Policy student Aubrey Zhang (MPP’18) has opportunities to contribute to efforts addressing this global challenge.
“Energy access is an important issue that presents an interesting set of problems,” said Zhang. “It’s about addressing poverty. It’s also about engineering, and of course, the environment.”
During her first year in the Master of Public Policy (MPP) program, Zhang served as a research assistant with the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI), an international network of energy access researchers and practitioners, currently housed at Duke and led by faculty Subhrendu Pattanayak and Marc Jeuland.
During her SETI assistantship, Zhang worked on a literature review about the socioeconomic impacts of energy access.
Immediate involvement in consequential research is part of what drew Zhang to the MPP program, which requires students to complete internships and encourages them to pursue hands-on policy learning opportunities from the moment they arrive at Duke.
Zhang also appreciates opportunities to learn from accomplished peers. “Duke’s public policy program is very different from other universities because most of the people enrolled are mid-career professionals,” she noted. "One thing I like the most about working with experienced peers is I can expect professionalism. People take responsibility and meet deadlines when working on teams together.”
Exploring a different angle on energy access
This summer, an internship with the Duke University Energy Initiative gave Zhang the opportunity to approach the global energy challenge by looking back at the trajectory of energy access in the United States.
Zhang is working on a new project that investigates how rural electrification took hold in the United States in the first half of twentieth century—and aims to identify lessons learned that could inform contemporary efforts in developing nations. The project is led by postdoctoral research associate Jonathon Free, who received a doctorate in history from Duke last year.
As part of the project, Zhang has examined the legislative history of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, identifying key players and issues that emerged during the crafting of the bill. She has also collected and analyzed data from electric utilities during the mid-1930s to mid-1940s.
“Dr. Free is a historian and I'm no expert in that area. So it’s been interesting to track how electrification policies have moved through government systems in the past," said Zhang.
More on Zhang’s background and why she chose Duke
Zhang, who hails from a small town outside of Shanghai, holds an undergraduate degree in politics of economy from Renmin University. Before coming to Duke, she completed internships in finance and consulting in China, including one related to global electricity demand and forecasting.
“The MPP program doesn’t have many Chinese students, which pushes me to adapt to the culture here and get out of my comfort zone,” said Zhang.
She appreciates the relatively modest size of the MPP program at Duke. “Everyone gets attention,” she observed “We have a very strong routine which includes career counseling. I’m confident that I will be able to find a job.”
With about 75 students enrolling each year, it’s easy for MPP students to build relationships with their professors and peers. Professors provide one-on-one mentoring to share insights about their personal experiences. Among Sanford School grad students, 75 percent are employed within three months of beginning their job search and 95 percent within one year.
Sanford's Office of Career Services provides help with career planning, networking, internship guidance, job search, and feedback on résumés and cover letters.
Zhang’s advice for prospective students—and what’s next for her
Zhang has some advice for students considering the MPP program at Duke. “You have to have a clear goal. You have to choose what you actually need. Have a specific plan, know what kind of skills you need to build on, and what kind of experience you need to get so you can go after the career you want,” said Zhang. “There’s so many opportunities here so you have to choose what you actually need and manage your time wisely.”
What’s Zhang’s goal? She hopes to be able to stay in the U.S. and pursue a career as a statistical analyst working in an energy consulting firm.
This fall, Zhang will strengthen her analytical skills as part of a Bass Connections interdisciplinary research team. "I’ll be part of a collaborative project focusing on modeling and electricity demands in China—led by two professors from the Nicholas School of the Environment and one from the Pratt School of Engineering," said Zhang.
Final words from Zhang? "Duke has a lot to offer. I love Durham, the location of the school is important to me and the low cost of living is a plus. Duke also has reliable resources that keep me moving in the right direction and the low student-to-professor ratio is definitely a bonus," said Zhang.
Diamond Gwynn is a 2017 graduate of North Carolina Central University (NCCU), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. As part of an NCCU-Duke summer program in 2017, she completed a communications internship with the Duke University Energy Initiative.