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Discussions are important, but networking is key

Master of Science in Environmental Studies student Alex Burke wanted to cultivate a personal and professional network. The Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs mentor program helped Burke do just that.

The program paired Burke with Mike Zimmer, a national expert on energy policy and executive in residence at the Voinovich School. Because Burke’s academic interests are in renewable energy, Zimmer’s history gives Burke opportunities to network in the field.

“I work with him on identifying people who can help advise him on his career,” Zimmer said.

Networking is not just about getting a job, but also seeking advice and engaging in new conversations. The conversations helped Burke gain a better understanding of the field and move forward in his work.

Zimmer’s experience in energy policy stems from his time as vice president and assistant general counsel of the American Gas Association and work on the National Energy Plan in the late 1970s. Since then, Zimmer has helped establish and promote a number of energy initiatives nationwide, such as cogeneration and renewables.

When the two meet, they often discuss quantifying sustainability and the state of renewable energy. This includes examining the holistic understanding of the field, from technology to law.

“The most striking discussion we’ve had is on the additional values of solar energy,” Zimmer said. “The metrics are strong on the economic costs and benefits, but there are other externalities that are not as economically valued but still add value.”

“Quantifying sustainability is difficult,” Burke said, “but this is growing in academia. If we can quantify these results, we can make smarter decisions.”

While Burke is uncertain about his path after graduation, he knows that his academic interests also extend into the discussion of decision-making processes influenced by quantifiable results.

“I’m trying to encourage him to enter the workforce before pursuing a Ph.D.,” Zimmer said. “I think it’s important for him to get to know himself personally and professionally through a work experience. I believe he’ll come to value and have a greater context on the work.”

Through the mentorship program, Burke developed a greater understanding for his field and strengthened his position against rational counterpoints. His understanding of other positions allows him to become more mindful of his work.

“The value added to me professionally and academically is much greater than the time I invested in the program,” Burke said. “The benefit that students are getting out of it is invaluable. It is one of many things the School does that has made a substantial mark on my life.”