Science Careers: Interview with Kate Jackson
Name: Kate Jackson
Current employer: Westinghouse and ISO New England
Job title: Chief Technology Officer at Westinghouse and Chair of the Board of ISO New England
Science Career: Engineering Manager
Time working in this field: I have been in the electricity industry for 25 years
How would you describe what you do on a typical day to a student?
Westinghouse designs, builds, and services nuclear power plants. I look at strategic opportunities of new technologies. What problems do our customers have? What issues does our industry need to solve? How can new technologies be developed and deployed to solve those challenges while making money for the company? I spend a great deal of time making sure I understand how electricity is made and used, where inefficiencies lie, and what policy makers are thinking of that could impact our industry. I use that information and lots of competitor analysis to guide investments and make sure that we have new products to offer. I get to think about battery technology, advanced robots, new materials, and even fusion!
ISO New England has the responsibility to run the electricity markets and to ensure reliability of the system in the 6 New England states. As the chair of the board, I run board meetings, provide guidance to the ISO executives, oversee strategy and risk management, and meet with the stakeholders and regulators in New England. People use electricity in everything they do. It is very rewarding to be involved in an industry that contributes to our economic well-being and our quality of life.
How did you become interested in this area of science/engineering?
I love complicated technology that is used in a system. There are always interesting problems to solve that require detailed understanding of how the technology works and how it is used. I have had so many wonderful opportunities to build upon earlier jobs and constantly learn and grow.
What did you study in high school, college, and graduate school?
I took as many advanced science and math classes as possible in high school. I have a physics undergraduate degree. I decided on physics because it allowed me to learn about the theory of how things work. I think that is why I am a good manager, because I can understand the technology but also think beyond the equations. I have a master's degree in industrial engineering management, which gives me lots of insight into how to manage people, projects, and budgets. I have a masters and a Ph.D. in engineering and public policy, which is a degree that allowed me to design my own curriculum. This degree focuses on technology challenges that have big implications for people, society, or companies.
How would you describe your work environment to a student?
I work in an office most of the time. I travel to nuclear plant sites sometimes, where I get to see actual equipment and how the plants are constructed and how they run. I also travel to laboratories at universities and to government labs, where I can see really exciting research and talk to scientists. I travel all over the world to speak at meetings or meet with our team members. I have been to so many interesting places in four continents. The challenge to be in new countries and cultures is wonderful.
What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?
It is critical that you understand technical issues and that you can communicate extremely well. It is not possible to sell your ideas, lead people, or get funding if you cannot get others to understand the value of your ideas.
I have also found that being honest and candid is very valuable. Integrity and passion are two of the most important leadership characteristics to have.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you not like or wish you could change?
I most enjoy working with really smart people that want to make a difference. I also enjoy that I get to learn new things all the time.
I wish that I could have more time to spend with younger coworkers and students.
What was a project that you have worked on that you found particularly interesting?
I got to lead the development of a small nuclear power plant that is being designed to be built in a factory in modules or building blocks. This approach allows cost to be reduced and construction time to be much shorter. This plant is safer, easier to operate, and can help manage the wind and solar that is being connected to the electricity system.
What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field in terms of coursework and extracurricular activities?
I think the best preparation is to be skilled in a technical discipline, whether science or an engineering field, and to be well-rounded in other areas. Take English and history classes, understand the political environment, and understand the world around you. These broad skills are important.
Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?
When I started work as an engineer, I thought that every problem has a right answer, that the world is black and white. Actually, there are rarely clear answers or only one way to solve a problem. When a team is working to solve a problem, they look at the technical best answer, and then they must think about whether it is cost effective. If it is not, it must be changed somehow. Then we must comply with regulations such as environmental regulations or safety regulations. Once all those have been balanced, the idea can move forward. The "perfect" technical answer is usually changed quite a bit through this process.
Is there anything about your profession that you think people misunderstand, or anything you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?
I think that everyone has emotional feelings about the right energy choices. Many of these are based on inaccurate information. Comparing energy technologies and risks is really important if we are to have a safe, reliable, and cost-effective electricity system.
Did you ever participate in science fairs as a student? What was your experience like?
No. I never had the opportunity, but my daughters have participated and loved the experience.
What do you do in your free time?
I travel with my family. This past summer we went to South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. I got to dive with great white sharks. I spend time with my daughters and husband. I love reading, music, and museums. I run, ski, bike, hike and scuba dive.