Isabel Diersen, an undergraduate at Harvard University, USA, writes about her 2020 summer placement with the UK green tech company, EcoSync, supported by the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy. This blog focuses on the challenges and delights she encountered, and her experience of working remotely and establishing relationships with a team of people she’d not met before. You can read a summary of the technical work she did as part of her placement here.
My name is Isabel Diersen, and I am a rising third year student at Harvard College. This summer I have been working remotely as an intern with a new sustainable technology company in Oxford, United Kingdom called EcoSync. From my home in Chicago, it has been an adventure, navigating the intricacies of new technical challenges, different time zones, and the other quirks of remote work. During this time, I am grateful to have had incredible supervisors, particularly Dr. Helen Gavin, Dr Zsuzsa Mayer, and Gabor Mayer, and with their guidance and insights, these past few months have been truly enriching. During this time, I picked up on some of the key ingredients that made this remote internship successful, and I am excited to share my experience here.
March 2020 marked the beginning of a very different reality. Amidst global health concerns, upheavals and relocations, as well as other drastic changes, I found myself sorting old and new affairs, including my summer plans.
In the months before the coronavirus pandemic reached the forefront of the international consciousness, many of my peers and I were looking into different summer opportunities, searching for a placement that would give us insight into and experience in a field we may pursue after graduation. I realized a few years ago that my most fulfilling and engaging experiences were largely ones I had come across independently, as with these, I was often given greater input to shape my time and work and transparency of my daily expectations. Thus, while some of my friends were busy with applications and interviews, I was writing emails.
Part of my vision of a better world is a more sustainable world, and so the emails I was sending were all to individuals associated with sustainability technology research. During previous summers I had learned valuable research and computation skills, and this summer I was hoping to apply these to a field I was passionate about and planning on pursuing after college. Another part of my focus was on universities in England as I had spent the previous summer assisting research at Imperial College London, and I was eager to return to the sprawling parks and covered markets I had fallen in love with.
From preliminary internet searches, I found the Oxford Energy Network’s website, and from this I found a few individuals whose research interests stood out to me. The response rate to cold emails is often thought to be low, but in my experience, particularly with those in academia or at nonprofits, rarely have I received no response (especially with a follow up) and even more rarely has someone responded with a rejection to my request for an opportunity or advice. There are many possible reasons for this, but I like to think it is chiefly because people want to help others, particularly young people eager to learn and work.
During the week immediately following my initial emails, I received one response with the rare answer detailed above and some silence. Then I received an email from Dr Helen Gavin. After a few correspondences back and forth, she described an opportunity with EcoSync, a new company based in Oxford developing technology to reduce wasteful heating. This project would allow me to apply the skills I learned during previous research projects and develop others to actively reduce emissions and mitigate wasteful energy practices, essentially the complete package.
Another exciting part of the opportunity was the prospect of working and living in Oxford for the summer but, spoiler alert, that did not happen. Instead of strolls through the Oxford Botanic Garden or excursions to the Bodleian Library, I filled my free time the first few weeks with Avatar: The Last Airbender and field trips to my kitchen. It wasn’t quite the same.
Helen and I had regular meetings in order to discuss nontechnical aspects of the internship and inadvertently to capture those moments of spontaneous conversation I had lost in the transition from a physical office space to a virtual work environment. During one of these calls, Helen described her regular morning bike commute to Oxford, a relic of when she was expected at her office that she had continued during the pandemic. From this chat, I attempted to start an early morning walk-around-the-neighborhood-park routine. My first and last morning stroll was refreshing and startling – I was not aware so many people were awake, let alone out and about at 8AM!
Early morning exercise did not ultimately mesh well with my night owl tendencies, so I took a different page from Helen’s book: cycling. I decided to overcome my fear of biking around Chicago and started going around the city daily. It not only provided a great way to get some fresh air and made up for the exercise I lost by not walking everywhere while on a campus, but also gave me structure for my day.
An afternoon bike ride energizes me for the rest of my day and lets me burn off any nervous energy from the beginning. During the short trip, I can think through a bug in my code or I can clear my mind and focus on not getting hit by a car!
The more technical part of my internship, or the majority of my placement, was not adversely affected by the shift to remote. When comparing this summer to my experience the previous year, the many hours spent independently reading about code, writing code, and then debugging code remained the same. However it was the interpersonal aspects which were different.
The effect of being in the same room and the chance to decipher body language cannot be discounted when it comes to developing relationships. I realize that when remote working, particularly with new people, we must give purposeful deliberation to social interactions, as getting to know one another strictly virtually and then to feel comfortable enough to be more vulnerable, such as asking for help, is no small feat. I was fortunate to have warm supervisors who bridged a 6-hour time zone difference with weekly check-ins, frequent Slack messages encouraging me to ask any questions, and emojis (I cannot overstate how welcoming is a smiley emoji after you have asked six different questions). I was also introduced to many different people within EcoSync whose expertise applied to different pieces of the projects I was working on. The combination of these details and introductions allowed me to navigate brand new tasks like designing and building an API with the confidence that there was a support network stretched out across the world that I could rely on.
In my first couple of weeks I experienced a feeling of nervousness when joining a meeting, but this quickly dissolved into an excitement to see familiar or new faces. By the end of my time with EcoSync, I was very sorry to say goodbye, and hope it’s more of a see you later.
A future for everyone
Though I enjoyed the challenge of tackling new tasks and learning new skills and I cherished seeing people other than my family, what was most outstanding about my placement with EcoSync was the impact of the work I was doing. To be involved in developing software for technology that is making the world a cleaner place with the help of individuals so knowledgeable about this work, and the field of sustainability, was invaluable. There was also a sense of reassurance that even with all the ways the world has been turned upside down, there are groups of people continuing to work towards a more sustainable future, a future for everyone as we try to overcome the challenges we are facing.
Thank you to everyone who made my summer months as wonderful as they were, and I hope to visit Oxford soon and meet you all in person!