A work trip to Africa inspired 2015-2016 Taber Scholar John Flanagan to pursue the degree in Energy Systems. He had earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and French in 2008 from Loyola University, and then went to work for Pearson Education. “I worked in their North American Higher Education Mathematics Software Development Division. I developed assessment software for higher education math classrooms,” he said. “While there (in March 2015), I was in an impoverished area south of Cape Town. I noticed that the people had limited access to electricity. It got me to think about energy and its relation to the quality of life. I had been studying renewables independently for about a year, and it felt like this was a good thing for me to be pursuing.”
Flanagan spent the summer of 2016 working for Saha Global and installing solar charging stations in rural areas in Ghana. Native female entrepreneurs own the stations. “This empowers women to be in business and provides access to electricity,” Flanagan said.
“During my summer in Ghana I witnessed how a successful non-profit brings solar energy solutions to areas where energy poverty is high,” he said. “I learned the dynamics and scope of non-profit work including how an enterprise identifies and embeds itself inside a region and how to thoughtfully and collaboratively provide a solution with the buy-in from the people you are helping in a culturally sensitive way.
“This (Fall 2016) semester I’m taking a design class called Sustainable Products for Subsistence, where I will work on a product design and develop a business model to serve people living in subsistence. The course brings together businesses and students to develop products and services for subsistence. I hope to learn the methods of how a for-profit business model can provide solutions and enhance quality of life and contrast its efficacy and outcomes with non-profit work.”
Flanagan finds himself drawn to studying how electrification can impact communities’ economic status. “I’m hoping to primarily work on this in the long term, but it might be a side project as I network and figure out my own business or someone else’s business.”
In addition to courses for the degree, Flanagan is taking an entrepreneurship class with the Technology Entrepreneur Center at Illinois to learn how to develop business models.
For his project, Flanagan worked to design and build a thermal response test device to measure in-situ properties and study subsurface thermal dynamics to gain understanding and implementation of ground source heat pumps. “The project went so well that someone is moving on to the next phase of this effort as part of their MEng project,” said Flanagan.
Learning to collaborate with professors and university technicians was among the main lessons Flanagan, a May 2017 graduate, took away from his experience, along with design and construction scheduling, field experience and hands-on building experience.
The MEng degree helped Flanagan secure his current position with the wind engineering team at a Chicago-based firm that develops wind farms, solar, thermal, and energy storage projects.
“The degree program gave me an opportunity to make a pivot in my career from project management to project engineering,” he said. “Program directors and administrators were genuinely supportive of my pursuits; the coursework is challenging and rewarding. I would recommend this program to somebody passionate about seeking a career in fields related to energy and sustainability.”