“Intern Spotlight” is a series about former CEC interns, detailing their experiences at the organization and finding out what they are up to now. Over the years, hundreds of interns have helped CEC with its environmental programs while gaining useful skills and connections pertinent to their future careers.
As part of a two-person sustainability team at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Kristin Van Abel is responsible for the entire campus sustainability program. A former CEC intern and Bren School of Environmental Science & Management graduate, she now provides strategic planning support for Caltech in all of the school’s sustainability initiatives—from climate and energy to water, transportation, and waste.
Tell us briefly about your role as an intern at CEC:
I worked with another intern conducting a market energy study of the commercial and nonprofit sectors in Santa Barbara County, in order to find out what type of energy efficiency measures they had undertaken and whether they had considered installing solar. We wanted to understand their motivations and what barriers were preventing them from moving forward.
We also did statistical analyses on commercial solar and reviewed all of the state and local solar incentives, to get an idea of what the solar market looked like at that time. We were trying to identify whether there was a role for CEC to play in helping move the solar market along in the county.
From day one, we jumped right into the project. The first month of the internship we designed our study and then did a whole bunch of interviews. It was an interesting and exciting process for me because I hadn’t been involved with a project like that before.
What skills did you learn, and have they been useful to you since?
Caltech has a relatively robust energy management program, and we’ve moved forward with installing a good bit of solar and doing energy retrofits. Some of the financing mechanisms that we’ve used are ones that I first learned about while at CEC, and it was useful for me to start my job here already understanding those mechanisms.
More broadly, I learned how to design a project from start to finish, draw conclusions from collected data, and write a research report, which is something I do often in my current job. With any sustainability project we recommend on campus, we have to make a business case for it. We go through that same process of collecting information, doing the data analysis, conducting qualitative interviews, polling stakeholders, and compiling it all into a report for our facilities directors and business and finance vice presidents, so they can make the decision whether or not to move forward.
Also, one of the great things about CEC is how well run they are as a true business, which some nonprofits struggle with. Moving forward, if I choose to go into the nonprofit sector, I would take those lessons with me. Everything we did at CEC was very savvy, looking at how to move the mission along and in a way that allows CEC to sustain itself. We were marshaling all of CEC’s internal knowledge to provide a needed service in the community, and thinking creatively about how best to use the funds you have and get them to stretch as far as possible.
Is there anything notable about how you were mentored by the staff at CEC?
It was just a great collaborative learning environment to be in. All of the staff members were very supportive of the interns, to the point where you didn’t feel like an intern. You felt like you were part of a team. That, I think, is sometimes a hard thing for an organization to do when you have people who are cycling through for short periods of time. I even extended my summer internship for another six months and helped with other projects that came out of the market study we did.
Any advice for potential interns?
CEC looks for interns who are enthusiastic and supportive of their mission. They want people who are problem solvers and who aren’t afraid to take on some of the harder challenges that we have at the intersection of the environment and policy. They want folks who will keep their creative steam moving forward.
Can you point to an experience in your life that placed you on an environmental career path?
I remember always being interested in environmental issues, public health, and being a good steward of resources in general. I grew up in Alaska, and when I was little my parents had a boat that we would take out on Prince William Sound for three or four days at a time. We’d go into these small coves and get out and go exploring. One time I found an eagle feather and was amazed by it, but my parents knew that it needed to be left where it was. That was the first time I learned what an endangered species was, and it led me to being interested in things outside our human world. It took me a little while to figure out that I could take that interest and passion and make a career out of it, but I did, thanks in part to CEC.