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Testimony 16/02/2021

"Energy and climate change are everyone’s business"

We’re taking advantage of the International Women’s day, on March 8, to launch a serie of portraits. 

I think it is a matter of time before the policy catches up with the scientific knowledge to provide economic and more sustainable energy solutions.

We need more women in science and technology

Olga Kavvada - Senior Research Engineer

Women working at ENGIE, on different topics, in different entities, with a common thread: they are working in tech or research, which are often associated with men in the collective imagination. At ENGIE, a lot of women work in these sectors, and some of them have agreed to talk about their professional journey.

Let’s start with Olga Kavvada, Senior Research Engineer, CSAI - Lab for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence.

 What is your professional background?

Olga.K- I am from Greece, which is where I did my undergrad studies in engineering.  I worked as an engineer in Greece for a couple of years and then decided to go to UC Berkeley in the US to do my masters and PhD in civil and environmental engineering.  My focus was around energy projects and climate change and how engineering can improve that side of the energy and environmental sector.  I got very interested in these subjects and afterwards I did a postdoc at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.  During my studies, I focused on how engineering projects can be more sustainable and how we can use data-driven models to develop digital tools that will help scientists solve some of those problems and to make decision and policy-making easier.  
After that, I decided to move back to Europe and ENGIE seemed like a good fit. I started my career at ENGIE one year ago.

Why did you choose the energy sector?

Olga.K- It was a very organic transition for me into the energy sector given my studies and interests in civil and environmental engineering.  I learnt a lot about the problems the energy sector has and how we can combine it with the climate change impact.  Of course, in the last  10 years, climate change has been a big part of the conversation.  That really spiked my interest to learn more about creating tools that will hopefully mitigate climate change.  

Do you think it is more of an asset or a handicap being a woman in this environment?

Olga.K- That is a very good question.  I think it is more about how you view it.  As a woman, if you view it as a handicap then it is going to be a handicap but if you decide to view it as an asset it can become that.  I think that if you are confident in your knowledge and expertise then you are not lacking in anything that your male colleagues have and you can definitely view it as an asset.  Of course, it is a male-driven field so there are a lot more men in engineering, especially in the IT department, but you can promote yourself as the special person in the room who can provide the other side of the conversation.  
At the same time, I can also see how it can be a handicap.  Statistically women do not make it to the top of their profession and usually want to be an expert before being confident to “take a seat at the table”, express their opinions and take leadership roles.  If you  conform to this stereotype you will not get  your voice heard as much as your male counterparts and will eventually not get the same opportunities.  I want to break this stereotype and that is why I always try to feel and promote myself as equal to everyone else.  However, I think we, as women in tech, should be confident in our abilities and do our best to see it as an asset, put ourselves out there and express our knowledge and opinions as much as possible and not be afraid to take leadership opportunities.

How do you imagine the future of energy?

Olga.K- I think we have made a lot of progress in the last few years in taking into account  the climate impacts, how we have been using energy and how we can improve that.  I feel  optimistic about the future.  The conversation has already started, and scientists have expressed their opinions, have listed the challenges we face and are providing solutions.  I think it is a matter of time before the policy catches up with the scientific knowledge to provide economic and more sustainable energy solutions.  I am optimistic that the world of tomorrow is going to be more sustainable.  We are all fighting to make the sustainable solutions economically feasible and attractive so more and more countries can adopt them.

As a woman, do you have a decisive role to play in achieving zero-carbon neutrality?

Olga.K- I do not really like this question.  Whether you are a man or a woman, we all have a role to play. I do not think any of the gender-specific qualities really translate into being more carbon neutral, so I think my response would be that we should all strive for carbon neutrality, whether you identify as a woman or man.  
I think it is more about what we do in our personal life along with our professional careers that we should strive for.  It is about simple things like not leaving a heater on all day if you are not going to be there, turning off the lights when you leave the room and even, one of my personal favourites, riding your bike to work if possible.

 Is there a project during your career that you are especially proud  of?

Olga.K- Yes.  During my PhD at UC Berkeley, I worked on a project about how to best implement water reuse in cities.  California has a lot of droughts and dry seasons over the years, and they had a huge water shortage a couple of years ago. This is a recurring problem.  We were working on identifying solutions enabling households, small communities or bigger cities to reuse water for secondary uses.  For example, when you wash your hands you can collect that water, treat it and water your plants afterwards.  That way you do not have to use freshwater for things where it is not important to have the cleanest and purest water.  For instance, right now, you flush your toilets with water you could drink.  To me this is crazy! 
I really enjoyed that project and it was also connected to energy because we were looking at the energy required by these systems for treating the water before reuse and their carbon footprint.  
Of course, saving water was the main idea but we also wanted to assess the energy and environmental impacts of the proposed solutions and identify the main design criteria that would make the water reuse systems more energy efficient  than the conventional systems.  It was a sort of full-picture idea and we studied it for the case  of San Francisco.

 Last but not least, do you have a message for your fellow  women?

Olga.K- I think that my message to all my fellow women out there is to not underestimate their abilities, believe in themselves and express their opinions because they matter We do have a valuable side of the story to tell.  Of course, ideally, gender should not matter in the professional environment, but how we view things, our previous experiences and how we are raised, instils something inherent in us that we can provide as professionals.  Women’s voices are important and should be heard.  
I would also say that women can do anything they put their minds to, and they should not feel threatened or scared when they walk into a room full of men or to take up more responsibilities and leadership roles.  They should feel comfortable and I encourage everyone to give their opinion and stand up for what they know. 
Of course, we need more women in science and technology so please come and join us!



Drawing : Marie Désert ©ADAGAP, Paris 2021

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