Under the spotlight Dr Rebecca Ford, Chancellor’s Fellow

Rebecca Ford is a Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, working between the Departments of Government and Public Policy, and Electronic and Electrical Engineering. Rebecca joined the university in June 2019.

Tell us a little about your career so far…
Although people tend to view me as a social scientist, I actually trained as an engineer. In my DPhil I started to push the boundaries, looking at how to bring a people focus to engineering in the context of smart home solutions for energy management. I wanted to explore the technology development with a social science viewpoint. To make any real changes to engineering practice, people are key as you need their buy in.

After finishing my DPhil I spent the next five years working with social scientists in New Zealand, focusing on energy demand, renewable energy, and smart grids. During this time I worked at both Victoria University of Wellington, and University of Otago, where I served as Deputy Director of their Centre for Sustainability.

About three and a half years ago I moved back to the UK to manage a large multi-disciplinary project at the University of Oxford, looking at challenges and opportunities to integrating renewable energy into electricity grids. During this time, I was part of a successful project bid that led to the creation of the UK’s Energy Revolution Research Consortium (EnergyREV). My role in this consortium, which spans 22 universities and over 50 researchers, is as its Research Director, so I get to work with academics from a variety of disciplines and a wealth of different expertise to drive research on smart local energy systems.

During my career I’ve really aimed to cultivate a multi-disciplinary approach to the research I am involved in, which largely explores how people interact with energy systems, and how social science and technological insights can be co-developed to better inform policy.

What is your role within the department/school?
My role is split between the School of Government and Public Policy (GPP) in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Electronic and Electrical Engineering (EEE) within the Faculty of Engineering. Within GPP I’m undertaking research as part of the Centre for Energy Policy and within EEE I sit with the Institute for Energy & Environment. I joined the University of Strathclyde in 2019 as a Chancellor's Fellow.

I’m teaching on a new cross-faculty courtse that focuses on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and this can be taken by any student, at any point in their degree. I’m keen to continue this theme of cross-departmental research and looking to grow on this in future.  

Right now, the largest part of the my role focuses around EnergyREV, which takes up about 80% of my time. The University of Strathclyde leads this £10m UKRI funded research consortium, which has been formed to drive forward research on smart local energy systems. Energy systems around the world are going through a phase of rapid change. Smaller scale, decentralised technologies associated with solar, wind, storage, sensors and control systems are developing at a rapid pace and presenting considerable market opportunities. The  research we are doing in EnergyREV aims to support the growth of successful local energy system solutions across the UK as part of the Government's Prospering from the Energy Revolution programme (PFER).

What has been the most memorable moment of your career to date?
One of the most fun research projects I was involved in was when I worked for the University of Otago and travelled to Vanuatu to work on a project evaluating the rapid transition from kerosene to solar LED lighting across the country following a project (Lighting Vanuatu) funded by Australian Aid. The Lighting Vanuatu project was trying to address energy poverty issues in the country by increasing the access of rural households to handheld solar lanterns, reducing household dependency on the use of kerosene for lighting. Our research project was trying to understand whether these solar powered lighting systems were economically, socially, and environmentally appropriate for Vanuatu, and for other developing countries.

Taking part in the research was amazing because we got to work alongside the Vanuatu Energy Department and local enumerators in conducting the research (which meant we managed to engage with local communities on a level that can be quite hard to do without long term in-country connections) and we also got to travel to some of the country’s most remote islands. During this research trip, we became totally embedded in the local culture – sleeping on the floors of people’s homes in the local villages, taking focus groups under mango trees, and eating fresh fish on the beach that had been caught by an islander who had gone spearfishing earlier in the day. Flying home, our six seater plane couldn’t take off because there was a cow blocking the runway – that’s how remote the area was!

Ultimately, I got to do research somewhere completely out of my comfort zone and got to be part of a team that was really making a difference to people’s lives, as kerosene is problematic to people’s health and safety. Our evaluation helped in making recommendations on how to support future projects like this and a number of these recommendations were made to the Energy Ministry in Vanuatu.

What initially attracted you to the University of Strathclyde?
I wasn’t initially looking to move and I didn’t know much about the Chancellor’s Fellowship Programme, but a colleague based at the University mentioned it to me and facilitated some further conversations with staff across the two departments I am now working within. They made it really feel like a place where I could get involved in developing new and exciting research and teaching surrounding energy and sustainability.

A big part of my decision to come here was due to the people. Being here feels like a place where you are encouraged to grow and develop something meaningful. When I lived in New Zealand, I noticed a big part of their culture was having a connection to place, which was something I had never felt or experienced. But being here in Scotland, I’m starting to feel that same connection. I already feel like I’m more at home, despite having never been here. It’s definitely a different vibe up in Scotland than it is to London. It’s far more people oriented, and it feels like there is a genuine push for social good.

Tell us about the research you are currently involved in:
My research is about sustainability transitions and sustainable development. It looks at how people interact with energy systems, and how social, environmental, and technological insights can be co-developed to better inform policy for sustainable development. I take a multidisciplinary approach to my work, and I believe in the importance of research for impact, and in bridging the gap between different forms of knowledge to advance solutions tackling climate change.

I am currently involved in the EnergyREV Research Consortium. We were formed at the start of the year, and I can already see exciting work underway. We have our first annual assembly this month, and we will start to publish findings on a regular basis shortly after. Have a look at our website www.energyrev.org.uk for more information, and to see blogs, newsletters and more!

Keep up-to-date with Rebecca's research here:

Published date: September 3, 2019