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H.S. Udaykumar: The Reluctant Engineer

H.S. Udaykumar (left) and graduate student Matt Mercer with the Hawkeye Solar Cooker, which is designed to provide a sustainable method for cooking food.

H.S. Udaykumar (left) and graduate student Matt Mercer with the Hawkeye Solar Cooker, which is designed to provide a sustainable method for cooking food.

India native H.S. Udaykumar (Uday) recently took his parents on a pilgrimage to the Himalaya Mountains. Even as he struggled to drive on the rough, narrow roadways, Uday was struck by the beauty he saw around him.

Then Uday noticed his father, a civil engineer, gazing at the hills with an altogether different look in his eyes. His father asked, “You know what would be a good idea? A ropeway connecting these two hills.” Uday cringed, and at that moment, something he had known for some time became crystal clear. “My dad’s the real engineer at heart. I’m a reluctant engineer,” he admits. “I still don’t want to be an engineer most days.”

Uday is an IIHR research engineer and a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. He uses computational methods to solve complex issues. “I find myself drawn to problems that are difficult,” he says.

A Voice for Change

But what Uday would really like to do is to drive energy policy at the state or national level, influencing policy-makers as a writer and scholar. He’s interested in the social and behavioral issues that impact the way we use energy. He wants to make a difference.

It all started with a project in India focused on deforestation. Uday learned, to his amazement, that about one-third of the people on the planet cut wood every day for fuel. India in particular is facing a deforestation crisis. The loss of forest ecosystems and wildlife shook Uday. “That was a huge wake-up call for me,” he says. “I started thinking about energy in a very different way.”

The experience seemed to open parts of Uday’s brain that had been dormant until then. For years, he had been an engineer who believed that technology could fix the world’s problems. “It became clear to me that it’s not technology that fixes problems — it’s behavior,” Uday says.

After his experiences in rural India, Uday began to re-examine the assumption that technology can be harnessed to save the world. “No amount of technology we create will solve the world’s problems as they stand today,” he says.

“When you start questioning your fundamental assumptions, then you’re in trouble!” he says.

Making a Difference

Uday is trying to figure out how to leverage his role as a researcher, educator, and scholar to influence how society at large thinks and acts on energy choices and policies. Meanwhile, he is finding ways to make a difference. Uday is writing a book on energy and society, and working with NGOs to bring about meaningful, sustainable changes in rural India. He teaches a course on green energy each summer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He works with students in his Energy Systems class and the UI Power Plant to figure out ways to move the university’s power plant toward a more sustainable operation. Uday also led a project that developed the Hawkeye Solar Cooker with a group of UI students. The cooker uses solar energy to cook food, and boil water, reducing the need to cut firewood.

It’s just a start, but Uday says working with students gives him hope, because they are so tuned in to the problems that started him on his odyssey. “I think younger people have a gut sense that something is not right,” Uday says. Uday’s family includes wife Sarah Vigmostad (an IIHR assistant research engineer) and two daughters, Mira (12) and Vidya (5).

For Uday, the new chapter in his career has been somewhat unexpected. “I surprise myself all the time,” he says.

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Last modified on June 29th, 2015
Posted on April 6th, 2015

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