Having worked on Capitol Hill, Phillip Duran understands how important policymaking and technical analysis skills are in the political world.
Wanting to develop a professional career in which he can apply his technical background in engineering to pressing policy issues, Duran came to the La Follette School to pursue a Master of Public Affairs degree, in addition to a master of science in environment and resources at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. "My concentration on energy policy and science includes current energy policies, traditional and alternative forms of energy technology and the byproducts of energy consumption like air pollution," he says.
Duran earned a bachelor of science in electrical and computer engineering in 2008 from the University of Texas at Austin, and he attended the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. "I have taken a somewhat broken road to my current career path," he says. "After graduation, I wasn't convinced that a purely technical job was right for me."
While an undergraduate, he found teaching as a professor's assistant to be rewarding. "That experience led to teaching English as a second language at La Universidad Polytecnica in Quito, Ecuador," Duran says. "For over a year, I was convinced that teaching was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I would likely be teaching now, if I hadn't been lucky enough to spend some time in the Galapagos Islands. The contrast of an amazingly unique natural environment, an economically struggling local population, the influx of affluent tourists and the inevitable impact all of that had on the islands' ecosystems resonated deeply with me. I became much more interested in how humans interact with their world and began to research ways that I could pursue that interest."
Energy policy was the connection. "I felt that the intersection of policy and science would be the way in which I could most substantially contribute to society," Duran says, "and with my undergraduate background in energy systems, it was a natural transition for me academically."
Duran got a taste of public policy before enrolling at La Follette when he spent a summer in Washington, D.C., as a staff member for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology. "I saw firsthand how critical policy and technical skills are in the political arena," Duran says. "Public policy can help shape the way humans interact with their world."
The two master's degree programs helped him refine his policy and technical skills and he appreciates that the flexibility of the La Follette School's program advanced his exploration. "I pursued my interests in energy by taking various courses around campus while maintaining a bond with La Follette students who I saw each week in 'core classes,'" Duran says.
The La Follette School's small size facilitates faculty engagement with student work. "The La Follette School faculty is highly experienced in real-world situations, at the top of their fields in academia, and probably most important, they truly care about teaching," Duran says. "The faculty ensure their students get the most they can out of each course. The quality of courses at La Follette is top-notch."
"Professor Greg Nemet has been a huge help throughout my time at UW-Madison," Duran adds. "I have taken courses with him and he is a member of my thesis committee at the Nelson Institute. His work on energy policy and his mentorship has been invaluable."
Duran won a fellowship through the campus graduate Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment that is funded by the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship. "The CHANGE certificate concentrates on interdisciplinary work and teaching its students to bridge the gap between multiple disciplines and professions to create sustainable solutions in a rapidly changing world," Duran says. "As an NSF CHANGE-IGERT fellow, I can pursue the CHANGE certificate and continue my academic studies and research."
He also won the Foell Energy Analysis and Policy Graduate Student Award that is given to an energy analysis and policy certificate student whose academic goals are to utilize analytical assessment techniques to inform energy policy and decisions.
Both of these awards have let Duran to concentrate on his research at the campus Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, where he will continue to work this summer. "There I am using multiple analytical and modeling techniques to estimate the air quality improvements associated with the use of renewable energy in the eastern United States," Duran says.
He will apply his policy analysis training as he considers the political, technical and economic feasibility of increasing renewable energy generation in the United States. "Skills learned in La Follette courses enable me to make these assessments," Duran says.
In addition to that work, Duran and a team of students created an energy flow model for the campus Office of Sustainability. "The framework will help them better understand energy flows on campus, increase efficiency where possible and make sustainability decisions in the future," Duran says.
With another team of students, Duran consulted with the Energy Center of Wisconsin on a policy analysis project. "We worked on solutions for Commonwealth Edison and the Illinois Commerce Commission to better measure and document the benefits of their energy efficiency programs," Duran says. "This public affairs problem is particularly interesting because any new proposal must take into account the desires of the Illinois Legislature, the interests of energy consumers and the well-being of utilities like Commonwealth Edison. In short, we must balance political, economic and technical feasibility in our consideration of potential solutions."
Since coming to the university in 2010 Duran also has worked as research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, and as a visiting researcher at the Center for Community Modeling and Analysis in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
A 2013 graduate, Duran wants to find a job where he can use everything he has learned, perhaps in a position with a university energy research facility, a national research lab, or as staff member for a legislative committee, non-governmental organization or consulting firm. "In all of the work I hope to be part of, the policy analysis, economic analysis and statistical analysis skills I learned at La Follette will be critical," Duran says, "as will the knowledge of public management and policymaking. These are extremely employable skills sets, and I see myself continuing to use them all in the future."