As an undergraduate, Andrea Watson developed her love of the natural world by studying biology. During this time, her interest in marine life created opportunities to study in Costa Rica and Australia, where her attention quickly turned toward protecting fragile and changing ecosystems. This prompted Watson to reconsider the direction of her career and eventually saw her graduating with a Master of Engineering in Engineering Management degree from CU Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science.
“I recognized that I wanted to do something in the climate change space,” says Watson. “One area I could have worked was studying the impact of climate change on the natural world. Of course, biologists do that, and the work is important, but I wanted to be a little more focused on solutions. So I became interested in renewable energy.”
Watson started her career in renewable energy working for a small startup company in Wyoming that installed small wind and solar energy systems on properties, including schools and off-grid homes. She then moved to New York, where she worked for the city as their solar energy coordinator.
“That role was really interesting,” says Watson. “At that time, Con Edison, the utility company in New York, had safety and reliability concerns about solar photovoltaics deployment on rooftops within the city boundaries. I helped the utility and community come together to find solutions.”
In recent years, attitudes have begun to shift as more large corporations put their weight behind clean energy.
“Big companies that rely on huge computational needs, like Apple and Facebook, are looking for clean energy to run their data centers,” says Watson. “Amazon would like to run their entire fleet on electricity for deliveries if they can find affordable technology to do that. Those companies are positioned to make a difference if they lead in that energy solutions space.”
Finding Renewable Energy Solutions: NREL
Watson was recruited from her job in New York to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), where she initially worked as a researcher. NREL is a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory dedicated to energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.
“NREL looks at the challenges and opportunities that come with transitioning to a power system based predominantly on clean energy technologies,” says Watson. “My current role as Laboratory Program Manager for Strategy is a lab-wide position, helping the laboratory stay focused on what we want to accomplish over the next five to ten years.”
According to Watson, it’s NREL’s job to find creative energy solutions to help the nation achieve its energy goals and transition to a clean energy economy.
“Wind and solar energy are likely to be a huge part of the transition,” says Watson. “We’re talking on a terawatt scale here. There are both challenges and opportunity with this kind of transition that NREL will be involved with, from critical materials and sustainability to clean pathways for developing fuels, materials and chemicals.”
In addition to clean energy technology development, NREL also looks at issues relating to energy distribution, ensuring the grid remains secure and reliable.
“As our energy needs change, our traditional grid system will also change,” says Watson. “NREL is pushing leading edge research that will help us operate a grid system that is resilient, reliable and affordable as we see more and more clean energy integration."
NREL also looks at the challenges of “hard to decarbonize” sectors.
“These are areas like aviation fuel, long haul trucking, shipping, and industrial processes” says Watson. “We think about the pathways to producing the energy-dense fuels that those sectors need. We are looking at using renewable energy to convert CO2 or water to some of the fuels, chemicals, and materials that we need. Today, these items are overwhelmingly produced from fossil fuels.”
Environmental concerns are not the only reason why Watson is so passionate about a clean energy future.
“We want to see renewable energy be a good choice for a lot of reasons,” says Watson. “It’s certainly the most cost-effective. The vast majority of new electricity generation capacity is wind and solar energy because it’s incredibly cost-effective and is also very quick to build and deploy. But it’s also got to be reliable and secure, and contributing to good, well-paid jobs.”
A Career As a Renewable Energy Specialist
Watson has worked at NREL for 12 years and has been promoted twice, initially to group manager and then, in November 2020, to her current position where she is responsible for leading strategy for the laboratory.
It’s Watson’s job to work with NREL’s executive team and researchers to consider the various challenges, solutions, and pathways to a clean energy future and work toward creating a strategy to reach these goals.
“I'm putting in place an actual strategic plan for the laboratory,” says Watson. “I don't come up with the strategy alone. Instead, I work with all the executives to develop a strategy that has a deep level of ownership and commitment from NREL leadership.”
Watson is also responsible for setting KPIs for the laboratory on the strategy to track progress and measure against targets which allows NREL to make investment decisions and prioritize its resources most strategically.
According to Watson, the biggest challenge in her job is creating a strategy that takes the organization to the place it needs to be in five or ten years, motivates everyone in the laboratory, and is something everyone can get behind.
“I think one of the things that makes it easy to attract talent at NREL is that we have a vision that matters,” says Watson. “We have a mission space that matters, and we are trying to make a positive impact and make the world a better place.”
Watson has no doubts about the importance of the work she is involved with at NREL.
“I work in a very exciting world right now,” says Watson. “We are at a point where I think we can change the world. We are at a precipice. The policy is coming into alignment, and the United States is extremely motivated to see a lot more clean energy deployment. I think we can get to really high levels of clean energy in the near future, and that would be a game-changer.”
How Does The EMP Degree Help You Meet Your Professional Goals?
It was while initially working as a researcher at NREL, that Watson enrolled in the Engineering Management Program (EMP) at CU Boulder.
While Watson isn’t 100% sure she was promoted to her current position because she had the EMP degree on her resume, she is certain that the Program helped set her up for success in the role.
“Thanks to the training I had received in the EMP, I had the confidence that I could do strategy,” says Watson. “I felt comfortable stepping into a 100% management role focused on long-term strategic planning.”
Watson references a class on quality strategy and value as being particularly useful.
“The professor, Dr. Daniel Moorer, was phenomenal,” says Watson. “I'd taken other strategy courses, but what made this one different was that it wasn’t overly rooted in economic theory. It was about how you set and execute a strategy within an organization, and that's just what I needed. The professor laid out a way to trickle down a strategy from leadership through all the parts of the organization and shared the theories behind how you align people to that strategy. I appreciated that.”
Watson highlights the fact that despite its name, the Engineering Management degree is not a technical degree.
“A lot of students in the EMP already had their master’s degrees in technical fields and were doing it as a pathway into management positions," says Watson. "Even though it’s in the engineering school, it’s not an engineering degree. I think it is more similar to a management or business administration degree, which is going to help people be successful in management within their engineering or science institutions.”
EMP: A Degree Tailor-Made for Working Professionals
Watson says many things appealed to her about the Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder, but it was the fact it was tailored to the needs of professionals that made it especially attractive to her.
“I was aware that CU Boulder has an excellent engineering school and a good business school, so those things were on my mind,” says Watson. “However, one of the most important things to me was the way the Program was designed to cater to professionals.”
This was key for Watson because she did not want to make sacrifices at work to find the time to study for her degree.
“I'm ambitious at work,” says Watson. “I was going to school to be better at my job—I didn’t want to lean out of my workplace.”
Watson also appreciated the fact that CU Boulder did not require her to take an entrance exam to join the Program.
“I just had no interest in trying to figure out how to study for the GMAT while working full time,” says Watson. “As a working professional, I didn't see myself gaining anything through sitting for that test. I didn't feel I needed to demonstrate through a test that I’m competent enough to do a master’s degree. Instead, it set the tone that professional experience speaks for people, and that dictates who they admit. That was super important to me.”
By making the EMP more accessible to professionals, Watson believes CU Boulder was able to enhance the Program further.
“Many people in the class had real-life experience, and they were bringing that experience to the table,” says Watson. “I appreciated that and felt it added value to the Program.”
Balancing Work and Education With Online Learning
Despite living in Boulder at the time of enrolling in the Program, Watson knew she wouldn’t be turning up on campus very often.
“I traveled a lot for work, and the Engineering Management Program was accommodating to that,” says Watson. “Thanks to the opportunity to attend class online, I was able to be a fully engaged student remotely.”
Watson describes CU Boulder’s online learning platform as excellent.
“They had video lectures that you could watch asynchronously,” says Watson. “So you didn’t have to watch them at a specific time. However, the professors worked hard to motivate you and made sure you kept on schedule and were ready for your assignments.”
As a remote student, Watson never felt at a disadvantage to those attending the Program on campus.
“It was just like being a regular student,” says Watson. “What I liked about the online format was that the lectures were recorded with in-person students in the room. So it wasn't quite as dry as some online programs where you just get a disjointed voice over a slide. You get to know the professors as personalities because they are up there truly lecturing.”
Watson also benefited from the flexible approach to the number of classes she had to take each semester.
“I wasn’t in a hurry to graduate,” says Watson. “It took me about five years. I took one or two classes, so I was able to get it done around work on a couple of evenings and on the weekend."
Watson describes the Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder as the "perfect fit" for engineering, science, and technology professionals to complement their careers.
“The Engineering Management Program was an incredible experience,” says Watson. “If you are looking for a master’s degree and you are a professional, it’s a ‘no regrets’ option. I would definitely do it again. I was able to manage my studies around my professional and personal life, and at the same time, I got a great education that helped me in my career.”
If you would like to learn more about CU Boulder’s EMP offerings, you can speak with an advisor or request more information. Just visit the CU Boulder EMP website or contact: Kendra.Thibeault@colorado.edu or call 303.492.0954.