Carnegie Mellon University
October 20, 2015

CEE Summer Spotlight - Leslie Abrahams

CEE Summer Spotlight - Leslie Abrahams

Leslie Abrahams, a joint PhD student in Engineering and Public Policy and Civil and Environmental Engineering, spent her summer as an associate with RAND Corporation, an international research organization that seeks to develop solutions to public policy challenges. Leslie sat down with us to talk about her research project, which studied quality of life and how the military uses fuel on their contingency bases abroad

Can you explain the project you were working on?

The army is trying to implement improvements to quality of life for the soldiers when they are deployed on these bases, and one of the key factors in how soldiers perceive their quality of life is the type of housing they have. We were looking at how improvements to soldiers’ housing influence energy consumption on the bases. That’s important because all of the fuel for the electricity on the bases has to be delivered by the army. Depending on where the base is located that can be pretty costly, and it’s a source of vulnerability for both soldiers and civilian contractors.

To answer these questions, we first modeled how different types of shelters influence energy consumption. Next we looked at different strategic choices in power systems, such as different types of generators and micro grids, to try to understand how enhancing fuel efficiency can balance out some of the increases in electricity demand associated with quality of life improvements.

What did your research show?

Quality of life improvements, especially changes to soldiers housing, can as much as double the electricity demand. However, we found that there are cost effective investments that could be made to successfully increase fuel efficiency to ensure the increased electricity demand does not dramatically increase the fuel demand. This is important because delivering fuel to military bases is very expensive and the convoys that transport the fuel face hazards from environmental conditions and enemy fire.

How will your research be incorporated into the operation of actual army bases?

My work contributed to a larger project for the Army G-4 (Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics), which focused on helping to prioritize quality of life support while balancing the other challenges, such as avoiding unsustainable logistics burden. This work will be incorporated into broader regulations being developed by the Army to increase self-sufficiency, reduce supply demands, and reduce waste on contingency bases.

What skills have you gained from this project with RAND?

From working at RAND this summer I advanced my communication skills and learned to think about energy issues from a different perspective. When you get thrown into a project that’s already well underway, you have to independently get up to speed really quickly and figure out how you can use your skills to meaningfully contribute to the project. To be successful as a Summer Associate, it was important to clearly communicate what I knew from my own research here at Carnegie Mellon and how I was thinking about this project’s research challenges to people who had really different backgrounds. This type of interdisciplinary communication was really interesting and an important skill to develop.

I also had to translate my results to people who didn’t have a background in energy, and then I had to take it a step further and refine the results down to a few sentences for a larger briefing to our clients. They didn’t have time for all the details but needed enough information to understand our results and their implications. Having this practice distilling my research into a meaningful but high level overview for a decision maker will help me make my own research here at CMU more impactful and influential.

What was one of your favorite aspects of this summer experience?

I really enjoyed getting to interact with the other summer associates because they were from backgrounds that were very different from mine, such as history, economics, psychology, and sociology. I got to hear about a wide variety of projects and I learned new research methods from different fields. RAND really focuses on interdisciplinary work, so that type of environment is pretty reminiscent of CMU, especially in CEE and EPP. It was really interesting to see the types of interactions that we try to cultivate here at CMU successfully resulting in meaningful research out in the real world.

How did you get connected to RAND for this summer?

I’ve known about RAND for the past few years and I’ve definitely admired their work. They have a really strong reputation for thorough and meaningful policy analysis. And then I started working with my advisor, Costa Samaras, and he had been an employee with RAND in Pittsburgh as a senior engineer and policy analyst for five years prior to joining CMU as an assistant professor. Seeing the caliber of his work and the types of research topics that he’s interested in reinforced my belief that RAND would be a great place to work.