Interview with a student: research, chocolate, sensors and dogs!
1 April 2011
Jenny Love is a London-Loughborough Centre PhD student based at the UCL Energy Institute (UCL-Energy).
After reading Physics at Oxford University she moved on to do an MSc in Built Environment: Environmental Design and Engineering at UCL and is currently in the first year of her PhD at UCL-Energy.
Q: After studying physics, what attracted you to an energy-related postgraduate degree?
A: I was actually looking for an industrial graduate scheme in renewable energy but hardly any existed since energy companies tended, at the time, to recruit for fossil fuel engineering rather than renewables. I found out about the UCL Energy Institute and thought that a PhD would allow me the freedom to develop my interests in a way that wasn't possible elsewhere. I never thought I would end up in energy demand reduction (as physicists tend to focus more on energy supply), let alone in the built environment, but I love it!
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your research and what you are trying to achieve?
A: I am in the first year of my PhD so the research I am doing is very much in its infancy. I am looking at occupants in houses and how use of space, temperature and heating behaviour are related. Findings were published showing that energy demand doesn't decrease as much as our models predict it should when dwellings are retrofitted, and I am trying to unpack the reasons for this. Some of it is modeling error, but there are other factors too. My hypothesis is that an increase in dwelling fabric efficiency and/or a new heating system sets off a feedback loop of increased internal room temperatures, increased use of space and increased heating. I'm trying to demonstrate the relationships between each of these potential changes.
Q: What methods are you using to collect and analyse data?
A: I am using both monitoring and modelling techniques. In terms of monitoring, I am simultaneously measuring occupant presence in rooms, temperature and heating behaviour, before and after retrofit
I will carry out a longitudinal study to get one month's worth of data before the retrofit in winter 2011 and another in winter 2012. The sample size won't be big enough to form generalised theories but it should at least demonstrate effects which are so far only anecdotally documented.
Since no one has collected this type of data before, there isn't a well-developed theory, and there aren't datasets about where people are in their homes. Also, there's hardly any data on detailed temperature fields in homes. So there is a modelling aspect of my research which will work with whatever datasets we have, such as time-use data, and find ways of inferring space and energy use. This obviously introduces all kinds of uncertainty but using data on people rather than building physics as the starting point for predicting energy use is quite interesting, I think.
Q: It's early days, but have you already carried out some fieldwork?
A: I have carried out a pilot study, where I tested out equipment, procedures etc. on a small scale, which was useful in terms of knowing what is and is not feasible. One example of a necessary refinement is that my occupancy sensors were detecting my dog!
Q: You are a physicist, so how are you dealing with the social science aspects of your research?
A: I’m impressed with certain aspects of qualitative social science, such as the explicit statement of error - which some physicists like to leave out! I don't feel adequately trained to be dealing with attitude variables but think I can measure behaviour, which I’m defining as observable. A bit like quantum mechanics, the act of measuring behaviour changes it - for example if you put cameras in people's houses they're not going to act as normal. In physics you have different kinds of error, including disturbing the system and error in the measuring device itself (precision error). Here I have exactly the same situation - and have to find a measurement strategy that will minimise the sum of these (and other) errors.
Q: Do you think you were well prepared to start you PhD research?
A: Definitely, my MSc dissertation and my supervisor were great when it came to training me in how to think. Specific useful things that came up were: what is science? What is modeling? What is the use of modeling? How do you visualise and communicate the complex results of models? I feel very privileged to have had the level of support I received.
Q: What do you think your research will contribute to the bigger picture?
A: We have very little data on what people do in dwellings, so any contribution to this field would be beneficial, especially detailed temperature and occupancy data. I am also working on ideas for developing new sensors, and new ways of measuring things, with other students and staff at UCL-Energy, which will hopefully lead to us being able to capture occupant behaviour in situ as an alternative to self-reported questionnaires.
I also hope that my research will help attribute the so-called 'rebound effect' to different causes and show that it is not just occupants who are to blame.
This information could eventually inform government on how they should retrofit and provide some reasons for the unintended consequences of retrofit.
Q: Are you confident that your research will continue and flourish?
A: Yes, I guess I am. I have a lot of support from many different sources, both within the UCL Energy Institute and elsewhere at UCL. I have a second supervisor in UCL Maths, and have called upon the Computer Science department and the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis in the past for help. I also know that I can rely on other UCL PhD students, even if I have to bribe them with chocolate!
I find it very helpful having other students around me at UCL-Energy, and getting their feedback at the regular student seminars that we hold is invaluable. As part of the London-Loughborough Centre, I can also call on the more engineering-related expertise of the researchers at Loughborough University - I really am spoilt for choice.
Q: What concerns you the most about the next few years of your PhD?
A: At the moment everything is very theoretical, but at some stage it will all become very real! I will have to find dwellings to monitor and I will only have one shot at collecting data as it is a longitudinal study.