SERS Stories had the chance to catch up with alumna Sara Ganowski. Sara completed a BES in Environment and Resource Studies (Honours Co-op, with a Joint Major in Speech Communication) in 2017 and an MES in Social and Ecological Sustainability in 2019. She now works as a Project Lead on the Smart Cities Team out of Alectra Utilities’ Green Energy & Technology Centre (GRE&T) in Guelph, Ontario.
What led you to pursue a masters degree immediately after completing an undergraduate degree?
After exploring various areas throughout my undergrad, I found my ‘niche’ when I took Dr. Daniel McCarthy’s ‘Systems Thinking’ course, which led to my Honours thesis. I discovered then that I had a real itch for research and that I ‘wasn’t done.’ I wanted to continue to hone my passion and expertise in energy sustainability with a specialized focus, which I felt would support my future career in clean energy. I felt that the MES would allow me to grow professionally in an academic setting, while building my network before diving into the workforce.
Why did you decide stay at SERS for your masters, when, given the success you had in your undergraduate degree, you clearly had lots of options open to you?
I explored other options, but the commitment to transdisciplinary learning and research at SERS was unmatchable. I truly resonated with the ‘choose your own adventure’ nature of SERS. The School offers graduate students a unique flexibility that empowers researchers of all stripes to learn together under an interdisciplinary umbrella, while pursuing their specific research interests. It was so refreshing to study alongside restoration ecologists, conservationists, policy researchers, geographers, and other energy social scientists within SERS – all committed to building a more sustainable future, with different perspectives to bring to the table. SERS also opens doors for extra-curricular activities, international travel, and professional development opportunities that further enrich the graduate experience. It just felt right, on all fronts, to continue.
What was your masters about?
I was (and continue to be) interested in the social processes that govern energy system change. My masters dissertation focused on the Social Acceptance of Energy Storage in Canada and the United Kingdom, using a cross-national media perspective to understand how public discourse around novel technologies can shape technology development. I applied various social science frameworks to assess the framing and narratives around energy storage in two different national contexts. The project also enabled me to travel to the United Kingdom to present my research at several international conferences – an experience that I will always be grateful for.
How did your coursework help to prepare you for your dissertation?
SERS gave me the tools I needed to undertake graduate research, while offering courses that helped to contextualize my dissertation, with ‘big picture thinking’ (a special thanks to Dr. Robert Gibson for this). Dr. Paul Parker’s course on Energy Sustainability equipped me with fundamental knowledge of energy systems and technologies – while also providing community volunteer opportunities (e.g., with the Reep House for Sustainable Living). I was always impressed with how the program catered to different types of students and research approaches – filling all the gaps required (whether it was mastering research methods or conceptual thinking) for us to successfully complete our degrees.
Was your masters dissertation research part of any broader project?
My masters dissertation was part of a larger pan-Canadian research collaborative called the NSERC Energy Storage Technology Network (NESTNet). NESTNet was led by Ryerson University, and the University of Waterloo was one of the partners. One of NESTNet’s 24 research projects was led by SERS’s Drs. Ian Rowlands and James Gaede – two dear mentors of mine. My involvement with NESTNet started with a Summer Research Assistantship (just after I completed my BES), which later inspired my MES dissertation and allowed me to pursue four publication opportunities. The project’s focus was on the ‘Social Acceptance of Energy Storage Systems.’
Did this open up other opportunities for you?
Absolutely. It allowed me to grow my professional network and apply my knowledge through conferences, industry events, and international travel. It enabled me to step out of my comfort zone, take my work across the ocean, learn from various scholars and mentors, and truly apply a transdisciplinary approach to my work. Being a part of this larger initiative also inspired me to take my work ‘across the finish line’ by publishing two academic articles. Most importantly, the NESTNet connection allowed me to re-enter (after my BES co-operative education experience) the energy utility industry during my MES. Indeed, that connection between my academic activity and my professional interests during my MES helped me land my dream job after graduating (thank you, SERS!).
Can you tell us more about your career now, and how SERS helped you get there?
I currently lead Alectra Utilities’ electric vehicle pilot programs and customer engagement strategy, out of our Green Energy and Technology Centre. So, I went from studying public adoption of emerging energy technologies, to piloting them in order enable a cleaner energy grid in Ontario. I continue to tie in my MES research with my work at Alectra – I’ve even been able to present my published MES research at industry conferences while working here. It’s wonderful to see how industry makes use of the research and work coming out of academic institutions like the University of Waterloo – innovation really does start here. I’m very fortunate to have had my two worlds come together!
Is there anything else from your time during your MES – or even your BES – you want to comment on?
I can’t stress enough how many opportunities SERS students have if they are open to them. In my first year, I heard of this super cool opportunity to volunteer with Student Energy, as an ‘Energy Youth Champion,’ as part of NRCan’s 2017 National Generation Energy campaign. Upon landing the role, I organized a community energy dialogue in Waterloo, developed policy recommendations for the Ministry of Energy, and presented at national conference on youth empowerment in driving a low-carbon future. The culture of community and engagement at SERS also empowered me to lead other climate change initiatives, including Waterloo’s climate change (COP 21/22) campaigns. It’s funny how these engagements can support your longer-term career goals – they not only helped me secure scholarships, but equipped me to succeed in my current board membership positions for ‘Our Energy Guelph’ and ‘Youth Action on Climate Change.’
Finally, do you have any advice to students thinking about whether or not an MES with SERS is right for them?
If you're looking to pursue a career in sustainability – whether it’s in policy, ecology, social science, education, you name it – SERS is a great home. Everything mentioned above was possible because of how SERS is structured, and how committed the School is to engaging, interdisciplinary learning. You’ll truly appreciate the diversity and opportunities, and you’ll have to find your own niche. I say, go for it – you’ll be happy you did!