UMass Amherst PhD Candidate Vivian Ogechi

Finding Community as an International Grad Student

Vivian Ogechi Nwadiaru, a UMass Amherst PhD candidate from Nigeria, conducts research to reduce costs and advance an equitable energy transition in low-income communities and countries.

Though Vivian Ogechi Nwadiaru, an international student from Nigeria, started her PhD program virtually in fall 2020, she immediately felt welcomed and supported by UMass Amherst’s inclusive community.

Nwadiaru credits the African Graduate and Scholars Association (AGASA) with playing a pivotal role in helping her make it through her challenging first year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. At UMass, Nwadiaru was drawn to the research lab of Erin Baker, a distinguished mechanical and industrial engineering professor and faculty director of the Energy Transition Institute (ETI), because it reflected her intersecting passions for engineering and policy. Prior to joining UMass as a PhD student, she received a BEng in metallurgical and materials engineering from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and an MS in energy engineering from Pan African University. She also completed an International Climate Protection Research Fellowship funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Technical University of Berlin and the University of Oxford, through which she investigated Nigeria’s energy transition and proliferation of fossil backup generators.

At UMass, Nwadiaru’s research applies concepts of decision making and mathematical modeling to the fields of energy and the environment, focusing on energy justice policy and development relating to climate change. She combines these quantitative methods with community-centered qualitative research.

Specifically, as the world undergoes a major energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources, Nwadiaru’s thesis aims to develop a collaborative storage model that is fair and equitable while benefiting users at the same time. Collaborative storage would enable neighboring households to lower costs by sharing and jointly owning one energy storage system. Her research seeks to identify possible barriers to collaborative energy storage and allow policy frameworks in low-income communities and countries.

I hope to help engineers understand how to integrate more qualitative dimensions and human-focused work into energy optimization models.

Vivian Ogechi Nwadiaru

“I focus on understanding how to quantify the benefits of energy storage primarily from a cost perspective, while allowing for autonomy, control, and resilience among low-income communities,” Nwadiaru explained. “While the cost metrics are known, other values that communities care about need to be elicited, which is why I combine modeling with tools like focus group discussions, semi-structured interviews, and participant observation. This helps me communicate the needs of the community with more depth in my energy storage dispatch model and integrate key equity and justice components.”

“Vivian’s work is really cutting edge, combining qualitative research in communities with quantitative modeling, to get insights about how to achieve an equitable energy transition,” said Baker, Nwadiaru’s advisor.

Nwadiaru’s work currently spans Nigeria and nearby Holyoke, Mass., where she conducts community-based participatory research with a team of interdisciplinary researchers led by Krista Harper, professor of anthropology and public policy. Her research is carried out under ELEVATE, a graduate training and research program affiliated with ETI. In keeping with ETI’s mission, ELEVATE seeks to contribute to economic inclusion, equality, and justice while achieving rapid and effective decarbonization of the economy to protect human and environmental well-being.

“I hope to ultimately provide insights and recommendations for policymakers on how to design policy incentives such as demand response programs, where historically marginalized groups can actively participate in the energy transition and a net-zero future. This has great benefits for our joint sustainable development goals and ensures that no one is left behind, especially those in developing countries,” said Nwadiaru. “I also hope to help engineers understand how to integrate more qualitative dimensions and human-focused work into energy optimization models.”

As part of her graduate training, Nwadiaru has interned at leading energy research organizations such as the Electric Power Research Institute and Argonne National Laboratory. She is currently teaching a first-year seminar in UMass Amherst’s College of Engineering, where she introduces first-year students to the hidden curriculum of college and key concepts in operations research.

Nwadiaru was awarded a College of Engineering Dean’s first-year fellowship and a Spaulding-Smith Fellowship, given by the Graduate School’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement to outstanding doctoral students from historically underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She also received a Predissertation Grant and a Supplement for Public Engagement from the Graduate School.

During her graduate experience, Nwadiaru has made many valuable connections within the UMass community. She credits the College of Engineering, as well as multiple offices and student organizations on campus, for helping her thrive. Welcoming and supportive professors, professional development trainings on topics like time management and research communications, and conferences geared toward women of color have helped her grow both professionally and personally. Nwadiaru continues to be active in AGASA, and values the monthly opportunities to connect with other underrepresented students in different areas of study through the Spaulding-Smith Fellowship.


This story was originally published in October 2023.