In this new blog series, we ask Energy Department researchers about their life as scientists working with energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Our aim is to inform readers about how scientific research is performed, learn from the people who produce our technological marvels, and to increase awareness of how this work impacts our nation’s energy needs. This is the second in a three-part series.
This interview is with Caroline Draxl, Senior Researcher, National Wind Technology Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In this role, she works as a meteorologist with expertise in numerical modeling for wind energy applications and renewable energy systems.
1) How did you decide on a career in science?
I was an A-grade student, but after high school, I didn’t know what to do. After earning a degree in tourism, I worked in a hotel on an island and decided to do something more challenging with my life. I was fascinated by the clouds moving over the island, so I decided to study meteorology. Without a strong math background, it was challenging. When I excelled in a very hard physics exam, I saw it as a sign I should continue. I loved it and it felt just right.
My master’s degree thesis was on wind energy potential in the Austrian Alps, and from there, I stayed in this research area.
It felt good to do research, and apply it to something that can better the world in many respects. I decided to move to Denmark (the country with the highest wind energy penetration) to pursue a doctorate in wind energy forecasting. Research visits brought me to the U.S. (National Center for Atmospheric Research). I knew very soon that being in Boulder, surrounded by many great scientists from different research centers, is where I am meant to be.
2) What kind of research do you do?
I work for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at the National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) as a numerical weather prediction modeler. The NWTC is the nation’s premier wind energy research facility. I study wind resources in various countries, research the layer of the atmosphere where wind turbines operate (the Atmospheric Boundary Layer) over land and off-shore, and study the coupling of the mesoscale flow features (on a kilometer scale) to the microscale (tens of meters). The coupling of mesoscale flow features to the microscale is important for wind energy forecasts as well as detailed wind farm simulations because it very accurately simulates atmospheric movement and turbulence.
3) What are the biggest challenges you've encountered?
Science by itself is a challenge — constantly being on top of the latest scientific discoveries, finding new directions and strategies to follow, and publishing your findings. Those are the challenges that I enjoy. In fact, I need challenges in my day-to-day work to be happy.
Some of the bigger challenges I have encountered include combining work and family life. It helps very much to have a supportive family and work environment like we have at NREL.
"Science by itself is a challenge — constantly being on top of the latest scientific discoveries, finding new directions and strategies to follow, and publishing your findings. Those are the challenges that I enjoy."
4) What advice would you give to a young student thinking about becoming a scientist?
Follow what you want to do, and not where money or opinions drive you. There will be a way to make enough money and follow your passion.
Know that you can do it — nothing is too hard to be done. Sometimes it just takes a while. When something seems impossible, take a step back, breathe, and think again.