Published: Sept. 9, 2020

CU Boulder alum, now employed by NREL, discusses the importance of his interdisciplinary background for his career

From the looks of his accomplishments thus far, Trevor Stanley has lots of energy, so it makes sense that he’s working in the realm of energy.

Stanley graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2019 with a BA in environmental studies, summa cum laude, along with minors in computer science and geography and certificates in geographic information science and energy. While in school, he volunteered for several nonprofits and served as a panel coordinator for the Conference on World Affairs.

A native of Fort Collins, he now works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden as a software engineer in the Economics and Forecasting Group.

The Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine asked him five questions about his studies, work and goals, and that exchange follows:

Trevor Stanley

Trevor Stanley is a software engineer at NREL

What prompted you to pursue a degree in environmental science with a minor in computer science?

Initially I was an international affairs and environmental science double major, as I wanted to work on international energy and climate policy. My choice to pursue a degree in environmental science with a minor in computer science was ultimately underpinned by philosophical and practical considerations; I knew that I needed to go beyond my niche in order to make meaningful change in this area.

Several classes exposed me to different kinds of economic, energy and climate modeling and how these are used to inform policy. Fascinated by these, I fervently took additional courses in statistics, economics, computer science, geographic information science (GIS) and numerical modeling. Computer science quickly became a passion as well as a means to perform better modeling.

You now work in an energy-modeling group at NREL: What do you see as the biggest challenge to improving our energy system?

Working in the Economics and Forecasting Group at NREL allows me to research both socioeconomic and technical challenges to improving energy systems. Ultimately, this intersection requires me to consistently practice making sense of ambiguity and embrace differences in analysis techniques. An emerging theme among different kinds of renewable energy sources and energy end uses is the need for integrated systems that can coordinate between one another.

Improving collection, analysis, and integration of data from the many kinds of sensors and IoT (Internet of Things) enabled devices (a type of hardware that transmits data over the internet) will allow for more efficient management of energy systems with large amounts of renewable energy; however, this will also lead to additional cybersecurity challenges that will need to be addressed.

In addition to your major and minor studies, you earned two certificates. Why is interdisciplinary research and scholarly work important generally and to your work specifically?

I try to practice purposeful leadership. For this reason, I pursued a fifth year of undergrad in order to complete the geographic information science and energy certificates, conduct a thorough honors thesis, practice soft skills as being a resident advisor in the dorms, and to participate in the National Security Innovation Network-sponsored Hacking for Defense program.

My previous experience working on diverse teams and projects prepared me to effectively coordinate the team to develop a novel machine learning based IoT network analysis tool for the National Security Agency. Our team’s interdisciplinary work on and commercialization of this widely applicable tool was selected out of a national pool of over 100 other teams to pitch at the Founders Fund (a venture capital firm) headquarters in San Francisco.

Our tool was successful because it both incorporated interdisciplinary techniques and was tailored to be used in interdisciplinary contexts. These kinds of tools are what I’m continuing to develop at NREL and will develop going forward because their positive impact can be scaled so effectively.

The way energy is generated and used globally is diverse.​"

Tell us about your work in the realm of diversity, and why diversity matters?

It’s difficult to understate the importance and value of diversity in any context. If you aren’t able to work effectively across disciplines and nationalities, it’s extremely limiting. In college, I made sure to get involved in as many of these contexts as possible and practice this skill so that I could be more of a “T-Shaped Person.”

My experience working on diverse teams and projects is something I draw upon every day at NREL where I’m working on international teams and projects that make use of both my broad knowledge and narrow expertise. More recently, I’ve led the open sourcing of the Distributed Generation Market Demand (dGen) model (a model that simulates the key factors that might affect future market demand for energy sources like solar and wind) and have been working with a diversity of professionals from global companies, institutions and governments to foster both usage of the model as well as community-driven improvements to the model.

The way energy is generated and used globally is diverse. I’m excited to collaborate with these diverse audiences to improve the dGen model as a powerful international tool.

What are your long-term goals?

My eventual goal is to work with groups like the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, Anduril, Founders Fund and others to create and invest in technologies at the intersection of energy and cybersecurity. This intersection speaks to me because of the potential scale of impact and added value in different verticals, specifically in the environmental, defense and healthcare sectors.

To this end, I intend to pursue a graduate degree in computer science and artificial intelligence so that I can more effectively leverage emerging techniques to create tools and datasets that both advance understanding and capabilities in these dynamic verticals.