Solving the Problem of ‘Energy Poverty’
Rachel Joseph, E’23, chemical engineering, is on a mission to ensure that everyone—regardless of their income, address, or race—has access to clean, affordable, and renewable energy.
Joseph’s focus on solving the problem of “energy poverty” is part of a journey that began in summer research programs she participated in following her sophomore and junior years in high school in Somers, New York. At Northeastern, her interest intensified, leading her to envision a career combining her passions for science and public policy. Her desire to make a difference through public service surely contributed to her recent nomination for the prestigious Truman Scholarship, an award that provides financial support for graduate students seeking to dedicate their careers to public service. She was also nominated for the Udall Scholarship, which recognizes leadership in service of the environment and the health and well-being of Tribal Nations, providing awardees with mentorship and training.
A research focus
Joseph was not familiar with the term “energy poverty” when she first entered Northeastern, but it soon became a key aspect of her research. A course she took in her second year with Professor Jennie Stephens—Energy Democracy and Climate Resilience—changed everything. “This course was not in my engineering curriculum,” she says. “It was a public policy course where I was exposed to different people from different educational backgrounds and perspectives, mostly graduate students. We talked a lot about energy poverty and how climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities. I realized there was a much broader field than what I knew about in high school.”
During the course, Joseph participated in a semester-long research project where she worked with a local community stakeholder, Gregory King, in an effort to expand the Office of Clean Energy Equity in Massachusetts. “We developed a program using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to visualize household energy burden, which is the percentage of household income that is spent on energy costs,” she explains. Joseph’s team mapped out the energy burden throughout the state, particularly in “Environmental Justice” communities.
The research experience solidified her interest in reducing energy costs as a percentage of income for low-income, minority communities and ensuring that renewable energy programs target these communities. “It opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. “It was the first research I’ve done that was less focused on STEM and more with the intention of bringing policy changes.”
Her research project led to an internship in the summer of 2021 at Power Options, a non-profit energy consortium where her main role was developing fleet electrification programs for municipalities or non-profits and making it more affordable for non-profits to procure access to clean energy.
Gaining engineering experience
Joseph’s co-op experiences served as valuable opportunities to further develop her technical skills. At her first co-op at Viken Detection, a Burlington, Mass., startup, she developed a product for a chemical analyzer to detect trace amounts of narcotics and explosives for application in the national security industry. “The work was quite a bit outside of my comfort zone and areas of interest,” she explains, “but I found the experience valuable because it helped me further my skills in product development and analytical chemistry.”
In her current co-op at Tesla Motors in Fremont, Calif., Joseph is definitely in her comfort zone, developing battery technology for Tesla’s products. “My interest in battery technology stems from my interest in renewable energy. That’s where it comes into play,” she explains. “It’s Interesting to work on the battery side of things to continue to drive down the cost of electrical vehicles and make them more affordable over time.”
Leadership and community
Joseph’s commitment to making a difference is also evident in her student group involvement. She served as co-chair of the Undergraduate Student Government’s sustainability committee during her second year, and for the past three years has held an executive board position with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). “SWE offers a great sense of community for women pursuing engineering,” she says. “Sometimes it can be discouraging to be the only woman or woman of color in an engineering class. It’s really nice to have a place where you feel comfortable asking questions and sharing experiences. Organizations like SWE really help to keep women in the engineering field.”
Through SWE, Joseph also serves as the representative for the COE diversity, equity, and inclusion community. “It’s helpful to hear where the college is in its DEI efforts, to voice student concerns and hold our organizations accountable,” she says.
When she graduates in 2023, Joseph views law school as her likely next step. “I’m interested in the intersection of engineering and policy in the energy law realm,” she says. “I see myself pursuing some role in the public service sector, making policy to implement renewable energy programs at the national level and making it more accessible to neglected communities.”