Going Global

UW-Madison EAP Program Legacy Positively Impacts International Environment Initiatives

October 11, 2018

David Abel, B.S. Mechanical Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison, M.S. Environment and Resources, EAP Certificate, University of Wisconsin-Madison  

This summer, Nelson Institute graduate student, David Abel, strengthened a UW-Madison legacy by joining some of the most celebrated scholars in the world at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria as a part of their Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP). Since the inception of IIASA in 1972, UW-Madison students and faculty have been participating in its programing and collaborating with the politically independent Institute, which was originally established to promote scientific cooperation between the East and the West during the Cold War. Today, IIASA continues to be free from political or national self-interest, working with scientists from all around the world and conducting policy-oriented research on topics such as global health, greenhouse gasses, and energy, which is the focus of Abel’s work. 

A doctoral candidate with the Nelson Institute Environment and Resources program and the Energy Analysis and Policy (EAP) certificate, Abel has been focusing much of his academic research on energy and its influence on public and environmental health. In particular, he was recently involved in a UW-Madison research study  that explored the link between temperature changes, air conditioning and air quality. With his focus on energy and air quality, Abel takes an interdisciplinary approach to scientific challenges, utilizing his background in mechanical engineering and environmental studies. As such, Abel is well-versed in the importance of academic diversity and the value of collaborating with people who bring in new skill sets and tools. This commitment to an interdisciplinary approach is shared by Abel, the Nelson Institute and IIASA. In fact, the chance to collaborate with fellow scientists and utilize tools that have been developed and perfected by fellow IIASA professionals, is one of the main reasons that Abel was interested in applying to the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program.

 “The application includes a proposal of the work you would do at IIASA, your previous work, your resume and an explanation of how your proposed research would be of benefit to IIASA’s research community and the world,” explained Abel. “I proposed to work on solar energy, analyzing its benefits in trying to achieve air quality and climate goals in South Africa.”

Due to Abel’s strong academic background and his research interests, he was accepted to the prestigious Young Scientists Summer Program which has hosted 1,800 researchers from more than 50 countries over the past 40 years. In fact, Abel joined the ranks of several UW-Madison alumni and faculty who have been invited to IIASA as either a visiting scientist or a Young Scientists Summer Program member, including Abel’s advisor and Gaylord Nelson Distinguished Professor, Tracey Holloway.

“There are so many benefits for our students to be at an institute like IIASA,” said Holloway, who served as a visiting scientist at IIASA in 1998. “They bring back knowledge, they have a chance to network and they have new professional experiences. Doing research outside of the university also allows us to link the ideas and research at UW-Madison with institutes around the world. This networking and knowledge sharing will benefit us all for decades to come.”

For Abel, the IIASA program has offered him many of the benefits outlined by Holloway, including the opportunity to explore models and tools that showcase the future impact of current emissions on growing economies such as that of South Africa.

“I was interested in studying South Africa with the models and tools available at IIASA,” said Abel. “What I’m doing is combining a well-established model called the Model for Energy Supply Strategy Alternatives and their General Environmental Impact (MESSAGE), which simulates the entire energy system from extraction to use, with another world-famous tool used for air quality and greenhouse gas emissions called the Greenhouse Gas Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model. South Africa is one of the most coal dominated countries in the world, with over 85 percent of electricity in South Africa being generated by coal, so simulating the air quality and climate impacts of future energy decisions is very impactful. South Africa is also in the middle of ongoing energy planning and policy discussions, so my findings could even influence real decisions.”

In addition to novel research ventures, IIASA has also allowed Abel to form relationships with students and faculty all around the world, including those UW-Madison alumni and faculty who have remained dedicated to the IIASA mission. This includes retired UW-Madison professor and Nelson Institute affiliate, Wes Foell who served as a visiting scientist at IIASA from 1972-1974 before returning to UW-Madison and the Nelson Institute to lay the groundwork for the development of the EAP program.

 “Wisconsin has always been a hub for applied systems analysis and EAP emerged from that with its roots in IIASA,” said Foell, who initiated an energy seminar and developed the Wisconsin energy modeling capacity that served as a precursor to the EAP program. “We’ve had good collaboration between EAP and IIASA. It’s a strong historical collaboration that continues to today.”

Established in 1980, just eight years after IIASA began, the Nelson Institute EAP program has evolved into an 18-credit certificate that can be earned along with nearly any other graduate degree offered on the UW-Madison campus. EAP offers an interdisciplinary curriculum that prepares students for energy-related careers in industry, government, consulting and non-profits by providing real-life experience in designing, conducting, and communicating analysis.

“I chose to stay at UW for graduate school over other schools like Stanford and Michigan in large part because of the EAP program,” said Abel. “My favorite part of pursuing the EAP certificate has been interacting with a diverse group of students from across campus interested in energy issues from different perspectives.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the EAP program combined with its well-respected faculty, sets students up for success at an international level, with several EAP students attending programs such as IIASA over the years. In fact, Holloway has advised a total of five EAP students that became involved with IIASA during their time at UW-Madison.

“The Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA is a great experience for any early career scientist working on interdisciplinary issues,” Holloway said. “From the beginning IIASA and UW-Madison have had ties to each other. Both IIASA and the Nelson Institute are special places that bring together talented individuals to address interdisciplinary issues.”

Now, that Abel has returned from IIASA, he is back to working on his dissertation, which is an interdisciplinary look at power plants and the effectiveness of energy technologies for mitigating greenhouse gases and air pollution simultaneously. Again, he is using modeling and information from many different areas, including public health, to paint an accurate picture of the impact greenhouse gases and air pollutants will have on current and future generations.

“We know air pollution is a problem in the U.S. It’s causing about 100,000 deaths per year,” said Abel. “There’s a long history of tracking how air pollution impacts adverse health outcomes, so we have pretty robust data. For example, based on past relationships we can give the risk of death, or an asthma attack based on a given level of air pollution. This is how experts calculate that there will be about 100,000 premature deaths annually associated with U.S. air pollution.” 

Given these estimations, Abel is exploring how future air quality might be helped by incorporating the use of alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear.

“One way we’ve successfully managed pollution in the past has been to install technological controls, things that capture the bad stuff coming out of the tailpipes of cars and smokestacks of power plants,” Abel said. “One of the issues with these technological controls, however, is that they require energy to run, so those power plants have to work harder to produce the same amount of electricity. Unfortunately, that means that, while we are capturing some of the bad chemicals, we are actually increasing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. What I’m studying is what would happen if we invested more into clean energy and renewables like solar, wind and nuclear, which are emission free, as an alternative or supplement to technological controls. I have examined historical power plant emissions as well as how solar energy could offset emissions of health-damaging pollutants and greenhouse gases.”

At this point, Abel has just a few months left of his Ph.D. program with the Nelson Institute. During that time, he plans to finish answering these questions through modeling and interdisciplinary research. Once he has completed his degree, he hopes to continue to his interdisciplinary work in a space that allows him to answer these tough questions while using what he’s learned at the Nelson Institute and at IIASA to make the world a better place. 

“The blessing and the curse of my work is that it’s interdisciplinary and it touches a lot of topics such as energy, air quality and health,” said Abel. “So, that means there are a lot of very different potential jobs that appeal to me. In whatever role, I hope to build a career that allows me to continue to do policy relevant work that has a positive impact on how energy impacts the planet, human health, the economy, and people’s lives.”