Wear All the Hats!: Melissa Chan Climbs Boulders and Saves the Earth

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Breaking BarriersUnsung Women's Project

Welcome back to the newest installment of the Unsung Women’s Project! We’ll be highlighting amazing women in STEM, sharing the stories of all of the incredible, meaningful things women have done in their STEM careers that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.

Dr. Chan has over 15 years of experience in evaluating energy technology innovation to satisfy regulatory and policy goals related to energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, energy security, and environmental issues. Dr. Melissa Chan has contributed to utility microgrid planning, remote community power supply, and energy internet of things (eIoT) strategy. She is active in the Boston MA entrepreneurial clean tech, fintech, and Blockchain development communities. At Modern Grid Partners she developed cost models for communication network deployment and supported smart grid business case development. At Navigant, she led smart grid pilot evaluations and designing strategy for smart grid assets, microgrids, eIoT, and other emerging technologies. While a research fellow at Harvard University and a program analyst at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Dr. Chan advised policy makers, scientific researchers, government R&D program managers, and published in peer reviewed journals about current and novel energy technologies.

In your own words, can you describe what your job is and what you do on a daily basis?

I have two jobs on paper, and to kind of make a joke about it, I’m trying to do all of the things, all at the same time. I started my own consultancy about a year ago, and because running one company wasn’t enough, I started a second company a couple months ago with a friend. So, on the one hand, I’m trying to start the consultancies. I have a day job as it were with clients, and then the second job with my friend is a tech startup, which we’re building a little piece of hardware and software around, and so it’s trying to now be the champion of this thing and tell people about it and get support and develop it– all at the same time. So pretty, pretty busy, but it’s a lot of fun.

Growing up, could you share how you learned?

I have to say, I’m still learning how to learn! When I was a kid, I was just sort of a “wonder child” in a way. Learning was really easy for me; school was really easy. My mom was really involved with teaching me things when I was little– I learned how to read when I was three, and I knew all my multiplication tables already when I was five, so I was really ahead of the other kids. School was easy all the way through high school. Then, when I went to college, I didn’t know how to learn yet because I never really had to, and to be honest, I didn’t really learn how to study for college tests until my last year of college. I didn’t really do well in college until I was about to graduate. It was tricky for me because after I started my first job, I realized that all the people at the lab I was working at who were doing the most interesting things all had doctorate degrees, and to get into most doctorate programs, you have to have a really, really good academic transcript– and mine was like binary; I either did really well or I did really poorly and it was because I didn’t know how to learn, but fortunately I got accepted into the program that I did because of my work experience and because I demonstrated passion for the topic.

Even today, though, I’m still learning how to learn, and the way I’ve come about this is by watching people all around me to see how they do things, and what works for them. I really pay attention to the people I admire. It’s not necessarily that I have this one person who I really look up to, like a boss or colleague or whatever, where I think, “Oh, this one person is totally awesome, I’m going to copy everything they do.” It was more like seeing how different people handle different situations or prepare for different things, which really helped me start to see myself as a “student of life” in the sense that we’re always learning, and there are so many things and people that we can learn from outside of a traditional classroom setting.

You completed your PhD while working full-time, which is crazy! Can you share a little bit about how you managed to do that?

I had absolutely no social life, I’m not gonna lie– there was no work-life balance. I worked full-time at this national lab, and they were really supportive. I did my coursework at two courses a semester for four years. My job would let me leave during the day to go to campus for courses, but I had to make up that time by coming back to work later and staying late, and then I would go home and do coursework. It was especially hard when I had group projects and things, because it was so hard to manage to meet with people when you aren’t a full-time student and you have this whole other set of responsibilities from your job. My classmates were always really accommodating, but it was a lot of juggling, especially when I had business trips and would be in a different timezone and things like that.

The school I went to required what was like a residency for my program, where you had to have at least one year full-time as a student to get your PhD, so I did eventually have to leave my job to do school full-time. There was this three-month period, though, where I was working full-time and doing my qualifiers for my PhD, and I ended up using all of my work vacation for that year just to work on my qualifier, and that was really, really difficult. I was so focused on work that I would forget to go grocery shopping, and to eat, and do all of these vital things. It mostly worked because I was young and single and didn’t have a family, and I could just make working all the time my life– but I’m not sure I recommend that, unless you’re willing not to have any free time.

So you mentioned that a whole host of people inspire you generally, but is there anyone who inspires you today?

On a personal level, I think the most inspirational person to me is my husband. He’s always inspiring me to be a better person in so many ways. Professionally, it is more of an amalgam of people that I’ve met over time– there’s people I admire for their technical capability and ability to pick things up quickly, or people who I think can think about things more creatively than I can, and I just watch these people and try to figure out how they do those things. It’s been more of a realization that practice makes perfect– that these people I admire are always pushing themselves just like I am, which has really pushed me to think about what I should be learning next and what’s important to consider in solving problems in general.

As far as inspirations when you were growing up, you talked a little bit about your mom teaching you things– was she one of your big inspirations?

Absolutely, I mean– who doesn’t love their mom? I have to say, I really feel like I’m so lucky to have had the parents that I had. We immigrated here when I was very young, and my parents come from such a different culture and time. They were growing up just after World War II in mainland China, so they lived through the cultural revolution, which was a really violent time. They came to North America and I was born in Canada, and I just think back on how my childhood was so stable and solid by comparison to them as an adult. I’m just so lucky that I had every opportunity because of my parents. Growing up, something that I got from my parents was that, you can just do anything. My other friends’ parents would be like, “oh, if you want to do this thing, why don’t you try it?” My parents were more like, “Well, you’re just going to do this.” I feel like that’s really carried me through a lot of decisions in my life, personally and professionally, like, “Oh, you’ve never run a company before? Start two!”

Do you have any stories from when you were younger where you realized that this sort of thing was what you wanted to do? Since you work in energy now, why did you choose to do that?

It’s funny, when I was eight years old, I wouldn’t have been like, “I’m going to be an engineer!” I’m still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. Even a few years ago, if you had asked me what I’d be doing now, I’d have said I’d probably still be in consulting, advising utilities on clean technology. Something that I’ve realized over the course of my career is that you can’t really plan.

With starting my new company, I worked with my partner’s wife, and someone had told me that he had also started his own consultancy so when we first met, it was initially as a networking opportunity to compare notes. We had lunch and we realized that we both had this mutual passion for clean energy and clean tech and trying to inspire people to make “green” decisions. From there, we just started brainstorming together, and it was like a relationship I’ve never had before– we just clicked on so many levels. A year ago, I wouldn’t have said, “I’m going to start a software company,” because personally, I’m still learning to code by taking a self-paced course to try to learn Python.

When I was really young, though, I thought I might become an architect, but in college I selected engineering as my major mostly because I thought that it seemed to be the most flexible thing– obviously, the curriculum itself is really rigid, but it trains you really well for a whole host of job possibilities.

Did you study environmental engineering, or something else?

I actually studied chemical engineering, and in the last few months I’ve kind of kicked myself and wished I studied electrical engineering, but when it comes down to it, once you study one type of engineering, you can draw analogies fairly easily across the disciplines.

How did you get the idea to start your own consultancy, and how did you and your partner get the idea for your new software company?

When I worked for other consultancies– consulting for electric utilities in the smart grid space, which is basically setting up IT to manage how electricity is delivered to customers and how they use it– there’s always this question of how utilities companies can use all this data to better serve their customers. I had this realization that there’s so much information now about their distribution network and about how people use electricity and when they use it, and why not do what Facebook, Google, and Amazon do with their data about us, and combine that with public data to offer more personal recommendations to customers? So that’s where the idea for my consultancy, Kendril, came from.

My newest company, Camberline, was just incorporated on July 13th of this year. We came up with that idea because I had been wondering about how you can improve resiliency in the face of climate change– how do you do that? My partner and I circled around a bunch of ideas but he came in with his experience in consulting in the clean energy industry, and we wondered– what if you were able to create a financial incentive for people to install their own behind-the-meter energy initiatives? Behind-the-meter means on your own premises, so that would apply to solar panels on your roof, or a Tesla in your garage– but how do you create the incentive for someone to buy something like that? If you create the right circumstances where financial incentives, say with time of use rate, which you can think of as kind of like your data plan for electricity, can you then support this?

We germinated on the idea for a while, and I went back and asked a lot of the people who I was talking with before I met my partner, and they all seemed to think it was a good idea, too; it was received better than any of my previous ideas. I knew it would be challenging to implement, but I was really excited about it. What really nudged us to incorporate is that we started working with a law firm, and they said that for startups they’ll do delayed fees, so that you can get up off the ground and you don’t have to pay until you reach a certain amount of revenue. That’s a risk for them because you might not ever reach that point, but they were willing to take that gamble on us, which made us feel like there might be some legs to our idea. So, we went ahead and incorporated.

What would you say is your superpower? You seem to learn really fast!

I wish I learned faster, actually! To me, I think my superpower is that people tend to open up to me really quickly, which I think comes from me being an empathetic observer of other people. My husband says, “why, everywhere we go, can we not get through a supermarket without someone telling you their life story?” We were at a drugstore before Christmas and this woman next to me in line told me this long, detailed story about all the places she had looked for after-Christmas wrapping paper. And afterwards, my husband was like, “How did that happen? That wouldn’t happen if it was just me there,” and I think it does come from me being a very gentle observer of people, which I think helps me learn. I watch people and I learn from them, and I think it also helps to relate to people.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career?

I think the biggest one was that I have to be continuously learning. When I finished my doctorate, I first had a really great post doc, and after that I landed my first job at a consultancy. At my first job, I really had this big ego, thinking I knew everything, but I didn’t. I was like, “I have this Harvard postdoc and I have a PhD from this top program, and I know how to do all this stuff,” but my credentials didn’t mean i knew everything. I still don’t know everything, and that was a huge realization for me– realizing there’s this whole universe of things that I still need to learn, and that I should accept that I’ll need to be constantly learning in order to do well at anything, unless I want to have a job that’s the same thing over and over again. I learned if I always want to be solving interesting problems and creating, I would have to be constantly learning and be willing to have mistakes pointed out to me to try to learn from them.

Sometimes, when people will point out mistakes or new ways of thinking of things, it’s still difficult for me to accept that criticism and take it and move forward with it. There’s still a little trip up inside, where I’m like, “no, why won’t you let me just keep banging my head on the wall?” when obviously that’s not productive for anyone.

It seems like learning to accept criticism has been a career challenge for you– what have been some of your career successes?

I feel like my successes have been a lot more personal than career-related. There are plenty of things on my resume that people look at and say, “wow, that’s amazing,” or “your credentials are great” and things like that, but for me, I think my greatest achievements have been in growing as a person. When I look back at everything I’ve done, to me, it’s things like learning to manage a team, and learning to manage myself by being a person who’s easy to manage. It took me a long time to learn those things. The successes to me have been about being a part of a successful team or partnership by learning to work with other people.

So to you personally, how would you define success in your career?

I’ve been really successful in a lot of things careerwise, like starting projects and this new company and my own consultancy. I was talking to a friend the other day about starting my own company and it got into the usual talk about money, time off, vacations and all that, and if I cared about those things, I probably would not have started my own company– I would have worked somewhere where there’s already something that’s built that I could support. Success to me is in solving challenges, though, and in challenging myself, in and out of a career. My hobbies are really around challenging myself, like running a marathon, or climbing a giant rock, or even just something like baking a really complicated cake.

What’s something that keeps you up at night?

I think probably the same as anybody else, like wondering when the pieces are going to fall into place, or wondering how I’m going to manage a difficult problem or conflict. It’s not usually anything in particular.

If you had three more hours in a day, how would you spend them?

I love this question because it leads to all these fantasies of who would have those extra three hours with me– would everyone have three more hours, or would it just be me in a vortex of some sort, where everyone else was frozen? Because if it was just me, I’d probably do really boring things, like take naps, at least for the first few weeks. Then, when people start noticing and telling me, “Wow, you look so well-rested,” I would probably just use the time to work more. If there were other people with me in the vortex, though, I’d use the time to catch up more with the people I care about.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have around clean tech or clean energy?

One of the first things that people say when I tell them I work in clean tech is something along the lines of, “Oh, like solar panels, I have friends who got solar panels on their roof,” or something like that, which is fantastic, but it’s not what I do! I think the field is still even now getting defined within the industry. When I started, clean energy wasn’t even really a thing. It was considered a part of environmental engineering, which is also a really broad field– there’s water, soil, and air emissions management, and then over time, it evolved to clean energy, which there isn’t a nice, neat, definition for. When you’re on LinkedIn, you can choose to say that you work in oil or petroleum, or you work in renewables, or you work in consulting; there’s no “clean tech” or “clean energy” option.

For me, that’s one of the things that’s really neat about working in clean energy, because it’s more like working towards an end goal. There’s a problem and there’s a solution that you’re looking for, but you can get to that situation very creatively, which is something I don’t think people realize. You can draw solutions from many other industries, including tech and software, like what I’m working on now. In the end, you’re supporting lower carbon emissions or less intense lifestyles, but the way you can do that can vary so much.

What is something that someone who knows you well would be surprised to learn about you?

I think something that surprises people is that I have the same fears and anxieties as everyone else– I have a few friends who say like, “Okay, superwoman, what are you up to next?” and I say, “Well, after I slow down a little bit and take a breath like everyone else does, I’ll probably get right back to what I was doing.” People will also say to me that they really admire my confidence or my ability to just jump into things, but it’s still scary to throw yourself out there! I still have those doubts. I think everyone does.

Other than what we’ve already covered, what do you geek out about?

Lately, I have a lot of hobbies. I’ve decided this year that I’m going to make good use of my library card, and so I’ll go to the library and just pick up something that looks good, and I’ll read it. I don’t always finish them– I’ve gotten over feeling like I need to finish books, if it’s not any good I’ll bring it back– but I’ve been trying to go a lot and get a whole bunch of things. I’ll get cookbooks and thumb through and pick recipes which is fun to make things you’ve made before in a different way.

I also really like rock-climbing, so I’ve read some biographies of rock-climbers. I recently read a biography by Alex Honnold, who’s famous for climbing without ropes. Climbing anything without a rope is terrifying! A pitch is about one length of rope, and he’ll climb over thirteen pitches without any rope. I was just so curious, you know, how does he think– like, what is that? How does someone do that? It was refreshing to read that even he feels fear like a normal person, and that he just compartmentalizes it. It was a very interesting thing to learn from someone who I haven’t met, but who I can observe and learn from through something like this.