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October 14, 2019

“What are you going to do after you graduate?” For recent grads Elizabeth Palchak and Daniel Fredman, the question was answered before they finished their degrees.

Prior to receiving their PhDs from UVM’s Rubenstein School, the two Gund Institute for Environment Graduate Fellows both applied for a behavioral energy consultant position at VEIC, a sustainable energy company headquartered in Vermont, with offices in Washington, D.C. and Ohio. 

Instead of choosing between the two, VEIC hired them both.

“When we decided to hire a specialist in behavioral science and energy, we weren’t sure we would find anyone with the right expertise in Vermont,” said VEIC’s Emily Levin. “We were delighted to find not one, but two, behavioral scientists right next door at UVM.”

Since joining VEIC, Fredman has worked on the Efficiency Vermont Sense Program to study how real-time energy-based feedback and incentives impact the behavior of renters in Burlington. Currently, he is working on finding ways to use smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo, to help customers save on energy costs. 

Palchak’s work at VEIC, including the Energy Choices Challenge and Energy Equity Metrics project, has focused on finding creative solutions to easing the “energy burden” on low-income Vermonters. Palchak hopes that her work will help utility companies to better reach and serve all their customers. 

“Elizabeth and Dan have been fantastic additions to the VEIC team,” said Levin, “and they are applying their behavioral science knowledge to develop innovative strategies to help people save energy and carbon.”

Palchak and Fredman recently took time to discuss their time at UVM, life in Vermont, and their efforts to improve energy efficiency by changing human behavior.

What did you study at UVM?

Palchak: Working with Chris Koliba and Jennie Stephens, my work brought insights from behavioral science to questions of how people use energy, specifically residential energy use.

Fredman: I used the backdrop of Vermont’s changing energy system to study how renters could contribute to energy efficiency programs despite the classic “split incentive” problem. Elizabeth and I ran an experiment that provided renters either real-time feedback through an in-home energy display (IHD), a set of financial incentives to reduce their consumption overall and at specific times, or both. In terms of subject matter, most of my studies were about sustainability science, behavioral economics, and data science.

Where are you from?

Palchak: The Heartland – Marshall, MI. Before Vermont, we were in Wyoming.

Fredman: I grew up in the northern suburbs of New York City (Westchester County) but lived in Chicago for 6 years before returning to UVM to do my PhD. I’m a UVM ‘03 undergrad, and have now spent almost half of my life in Burlington! 

What attracted you to do your PhD here?

Palchak: The interdisciplinary approach to environmental problem-solving was most important. As someone who is interested in the role of humans in environmental questions, the intersection of social science and natural resources excites me. Plus, Vermont is beautiful, and I can ski, climb, and run up mountains to shake off the stress!

Fredman: Two main things. First, as I considered options for my PhD, my (now) wife and I were eager to find a way to move back to the Northeast (and Vermont, if possible). Second, UVM’s Smart Grid IGERT ended up being a perfect fit for the subject matter I wanted to study and, as a federally funded research program, offered better funding than most of the graduate programs I was looking at. I became a part of Gund after taking Brendan Fisher and Taylor Ricketts’ seminar on behavioral economics.

What academic contributions did you make that you are most proud of?

Palchak: I’m proud of the connections I’ve found between academia and industry. The bulk of my work at UVM was applied and we tested behavioral feedback technology that we can now make recommendations on at our company. I see many more opportunities to get students and faculty involved in the practical application of their research.

Fredman: I’m most proud of doing research that takes theory into practice and actually matters to the entire energy industry. I hope this process helped build trust with local utilities and shows how IGERT and UVM help the state. Last summer, I published and presented one of my papers at the ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency & Buildings, a major conference that happens every 2 years. I’m also proud that the work I did during my PhD is evolving in new ways during my day job at VEIC. 

Where did you travel while at UVM?

Palchak: The Gund made it possible for me to attend the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference twice. This opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of my field and allowed me to meet other scholars and students squarely in my discipline. All of the sudden, I was not alone!

Fredman: In August 2016, Gund and IGERT made possible my first trip to the ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings in Asilomar, CA (I recently presented part of my dissertation at the 2018 Summer Study). Other travel included a conference in Chicago on Big Data & Cities and the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change (BECC) Conference, where I also presented parts of my dissertation work. Gund was also responsible for an outstanding on-campus workshop with COMPASS for science communication.

Was grad school all work, or were you able to play too? What did you do for fun outside school? Any highlights?

Palchak: Playing was crucial for me! It allowed me to balance the intellectual rigor of my days. In the winter I skied as much as possible, usually at Mad River Glen or in the backcountry. I also started ice climbing. Lake Champlain is amazing in the summer and we had some excellent days in the Adirondacks. Looking at the ‘Dacks all day and then getting over there, is pretty satisfying. In Vermont, people love to play – you can find that community here.

Fredman: I made grad school (mostly) all work and banking play time for later, although definitely made it to Gund social events when possible. This helped us save up for awesome trips later - the day I submitted my final dissertation draft, we took off for a week in Iceland!

What’s on your Vermont bucket list?

Palchak: I can’t say enough about the summer concert series at Shelburne Museum. It’s magic. We get big names like Brandi Carlile and Old Crow Medicine Show and the food trucks are awesome (including free Ben and Jerry’s!). It feels like a big community gathering with all of your friends, lots of kids and the Adirondacks in the background.

Fredman: The good news is I get to stay here! I would love to visit all the communities in the state. This fall, we found hikes that were each near an apple orchard so we could try all the various cider donuts and figure out who makes the best one! That may change to cheese or beer in future seasons.

How did your personal life change while at UVM? Did you develop any new life skills or experience personal growth?

Palchak: With my closest colleagues and friends, I dug deeply into habit formation, productivity strategies, self-confidence and leadership. My self-awareness and discipline improved immensely. Most important for me was finding like-minded female colleagues to discuss the challenges and opportunities for women scholars and leaders in academia and industry.

Fredman: Well, I got married! Overall, both working on my PhD and being at Gund definitely helped me develop stronger time management and organizational skills. This is probably a feature of graduate school, but between the work I had to do - with the people I had to do it with - and the support system in place, you can’t help but become a better, faster, more effective researcher.

Looking back, what would you say are Gund’s best qualities?

Palchak: Somehow, the Gund attracts smart, funny, good people. These are people who are curious about the world and want to address big, gnarly challenges. Getting these people together to learn and think, in a conference room or over a beer, gives me hope that we might solve some of the complex problems confronting us. And Taylor Ricketts is a boss.

Fredman: Essentially, the community. I was part of both the IGERT and Gund communities at the same time, and moving between those two worlds, which were both intentionally quite interdisciplinary, and the team of staff and faculty orbiting around the students really made it special. 

What will you remember most about your time at Gund?

Palchak: I’ll remember a few key classes sponsored by the Gund. I helped author the Vermont Climate Assessment with Gillian Galford, and Brendan Fisher’s class on behavioral economics sent me down this career path. I’ll remember walking into the Johnson House and having several interesting conversations before even reaching my desk.

Fredman: This period marks the end of a long relationship with UVM as an undergraduate student, employee (I was an admissions counselor) and graduate student. I expect to maintain relationships with faculty, staff, and friends from across the university and Gund, and will also remember the physical campus environment (which I think has an influence on all the people who interact with it!) as welcoming and enriching place.

Favorite events?

Palchak: The Gund Slam! It was relaxed and fun, and a powerful way to learn about the amazing research at the Gund. In addition, Gillian Galford organized a major press conference when we authored the Vermont Climate Assessment. This provided invaluable experience in addressing the press and speaking in front of a large group.

Fredman: Gund teas and seminars. The ideas and conversations batted around at these events are so enriching and interesting.

What was it like juggling grad school and a professional career?

Palchak: It was an adjustment. Because I value time away from work, it was hard to find the time and mental energy needed for my dissertation when I wasn’t at VEIC. On the other hand, my research had new meaning when I knew I could apply what I was learning to a great job in my field.

Fredman: When pressing work deadlines lined up with grad school work, it could be stressful. However, most times, I was lucky to feel like my work-related life was augmenting and enriching what I was doing for my research, and vice versa. 

How do you like your new job? Why?

Palchak: My new job helps me answer “the why” of my PhD.  I can apply exactly what I learned at UVM to what I do every day. I feel lucky. I love the intellectual challenge and the practical applications of our work. At VEIC, we are actively addressing climate change; it feels important.

Fredman: I love how my job is a direct extension of my PhD work. Almost every day, I get to draw on the experience I gained while completing my dissertation at UVM. It’s not static either. My job also helps me continue to grow in the areas I got to study as a graduate student.

How did your time here prepare you for your career?

Palchak: I was hired because of my research at the Gund. The Gund helped us execute our behavioral experiment at UVM by providing funding, a physical space to do our work, and intellectual support for our ideas. I was also exposed to big thinkers through the Gund, such as behavioral economist Steve Polasky, behavioral scientist Shahzeen Attari, TNC’s Sheila Reddy, and the late and brilliant legal scholar Lynn Stout.

Fredman: Some VEIC colleagues have said that when the jobs we currently have were offered (for a behavioral energy consultant), they were not sure of the national applicant pool available. Little did they know there were two of us in VEIC’s own backyard! I think that speaks to the forethought and resources UVM put in place to encourage the type of research Elizabeth and I did. Gund and UVM IGERT was, to me, a very supportive environment that encouraged our individual research interests and let us work in areas that let us have a direct impact in the world.

Any advice to students entering grad school?

Palchak: Early on, find your people. Attend the events and chat with faculty. Ask lots of questions. Develop good work habits early, invest time in learning about productivity and how to maintain long periods of focus. Get outside – it’s good for your soul and your brain. Move. Find time away from your computer. Lean on your colleagues and friends – you’re all in it together.

Fredman: You’re ultimately in charge of (and responsible for) your education and a successfully defended dissertation. Advisors will advise you and graduate programs will have requirements, but I would encourage students to think deliberately about the coursework they choose and relationships they form… and how these ultimately chart a course to your final goal (graduating, in this case). These courses, instructors, mentors, friends, and classmates will all add or detract to your personal sanity and success!  

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