The Minnesota Women in Energy series highlights influential women who are part of our state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy industries. CERTs is highlighting these leaders during the month of March in 2017, which is Women’s History Month.
As part of the series we interviewed Laura Babcock, Director of the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP) at the University of Minnesota, to learn more about her work, what inspires her, and how other women can get involved in the industry. Read on to learn more!
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do in the energy world in Minnesota?
I am the Director of the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP). MnTAP is a grant and partner funded outreach and assistance program located at the University of Minnesota that provides engineering assistance focused on improving material, water and energy efficiency of operations at industrial facilities and other resource intensive facilities across the state. Optimizing process inputs generally improves the cost structure of the business with the added advantage of reducing environmental impacts. MnTAP provides this assistance through site assessments in which our technical staff visit a facility (manufacturing, food processing, wastewater treatment, etc) to identify improvement opportunities. We also conduct an intern program that provides the dual benefits of providing more intensive assistance and providing engineering college students with industrial experience to support their career development.
How did you get into this work?
My academic training is in chemistry and I worked in the chemical industry for many years developing catalysts, new materials and biobased plastics. I always enjoyed working with engineers to figure out how to manufacture high quality products safely and cost effectively. That process is often like a brain teaser puzzle, striking the right balance of technology and operations to deliver the target outcome. I had the opportunity to move back into the academic community to study sustainable materials management and was introduced to MnTAP during that time. Over the past six years with MnTAP, I have had the opportunity to expand my experience with manufacturing facilities, learn more about industrial energy efficiency and help demonstrate the opportunity energy efficiency provides for facilities to manage operating costs and improve their environmental profile.
What is a typical day like for you?
MnTAP is involved in so many different projects and works with so many different partners that I am not sure there is a typical day. I spend considerable time planning for what will be coming next and building relationships with partners so we can develop and implement new approaches for providing technical assistance with the goal of improving efficiency in Minnesota industries. Of course there are lots of meetings assessing how well various programs are delivering results and communicating these success stories as well as writing proposals and research reports so we can share the information learned and gain the necessary support to start the next projects.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best parts of my job are the opportunities I have to work with such amazing people across the state. I have had the good fortune of building relationships with committed people working to make Minnesota, our country and our world a better place. I am blessed to work with an outstanding group of MnTAP colleagues as well as an extended network across a variety of academic institutions, local, state and federal government, utility partners, businesses, industry associations, non-profit organization, and consulting firms. Every week brings an opportunity to meet someone new, introduce them to the work we do and establish the groundwork for a new partnership or project. I draw a lot of inspiration from the people in different sectors that I meet. Their passion for their work helps me think out of the box on how we can apply our technical assistance resources in new ways. Those who have worked with me have certainly heard me support opportunities to launch a trial or conduct an experiment to deliver our services more broadly and achieve more results.
One of the challenges of being a grant and partner funded organization is the need to continuously develop new project ideas and write numerous proposals. While this is time consuming, it does provide an opportunity to think critically about the work we want to do and refine it to establish clear goals and metrics for success. While proposal writing does take considerable time, the process helps clarify our ideas and the pathways we will use to reach our goals.
What about your job inspires you?
There are many things that inspire me. One in particular is the opportunity to work with students through the MnTAP Intern Program. Through the intern program we align industry-generated engineering challenges with outstanding student interns supervised by MnTAP engineers and specialists, and supported financially by dedicated partners, to develop effective solutions for energy efficiency. This program provides a triple win for Minnesota – businesses get highly trained staff to help develop solutions to their process challenges, the students gain valuable experience in industrial energy efficiency and project management, and MnTAP staff gain experience and success stories to share with other businesses. On a personal note, it is thrilling to observe and be a part of the professional transition that the interns experience over the course of the summer projects. The interns enter as students in May, hit their stride as team members in June and leave the program as confident young professionals by August, which aligns well with the state’s need for a well trained workforce.
What advice do you have for women who are thinking about working in energy?
Learn more about the energy field outside of your major strengths. If you are technical, make an effort to understand the important policy issues. Similarly if you are policy oriented, pick up what you can about technical innovations and industrial trends. Having a broad perspective can help you make better contributions across the discipline and be a well-respected member of the energy community networks.
Director, Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP)
Laura has served as the Director of the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP) at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus since 2011. In this role she brings executive leadership and technical expertise to the program. Laura is responsible for developing new outreach and assistance opportunities to meet the needs of businesses for material, water and energy efficiency, pursuing funding opportunities for program activities, collaborating with multiple in-state and national partner organizations, managing staff, and providing technical assistance to businesses in Minnesota.
Laura holds degrees in chemistry from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has worked extensively in the chemical industry contributing to improvements in production quality and performance of biobased plastics, decreasing costs of chemical manufacturing operations, and discovering various polymer technologies. She has co-authored numerous patents and publications in these areas.
Since joining the University of Minnesota, Laura has enjoyed developing connections across campus and across the state to support interdisciplinary program activities that apply some of the vast University expertise to real world challenges.
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MN Women in #Energy: Laura Babcock
MnTAP_UMN</a> <a href="https://t.co/lMwDeUjTgM">https://t.co/lMwDeUjTgM</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/umnproud?src=hash">#umnproud</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/umndriven?src=hash">#umndriven</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/wmnhist?src=hash">#wmnhist</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/IWD2017?src=hash">#IWD2017</a> <a href="https://t.co/mcuL6rfc2J">pic.twitter.com/mcuL6rfc2J</a></p>— CERTs (MNCERTs) March 1, 2017
mncerts</a> is highlighting 18 women leading MN's <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/CleanEnergy?src=hash">#CleanEnergy</a> industry! <a href="https://t.co/N6dQ6hf8vu">https://t.co/N6dQ6hf8vu</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/womensday?src=hash">#womensday</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/IWD2017?src=hash">#IWD2017</a> <a href="https://t.co/sfwkGv8MK6">pic.twitter.com/sfwkGv8MK6</a></p>— CERTs (MNCERTs) March 2, 2017
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The Minnesota Women in Energy series highlights influential women who are part of our state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy industries during Women’s History Month.