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Profile: Susanna Sutherland

Published February 2019

A workshop panel presentation with Lee Riedinger turned into a life-changing opportunity for Susanna Sutherland. Now an alumna of the Bredesen Center, Susanna works with cities all over the world to address climate change.

Taking the Plunge

A long-held interest in environmental sciences has led Susanna Sutherland to champion sustainability and resiliency in the face of a changing climate. After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental studies and biosystems engineering technology from the University of Tennessee, she was employed by TVA, first to do reservoir permitting, and then to be part of their river scheduling team, routing water flow for hydropower, recreation, and flood control.

Eventually, she was recruited by the city of Knoxville, first to oversee a waterfront redevelopment planning process and later to help manage Department of Energy (DOE) funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). She became the first director of Sustainability for Knoxville and built the sustainability office from the ground up, managing a host of projects that covered everything from energy efficiency to recycling to the city’s first climate action plan. “As a smallish city in the southeast, we were scrappy and resourceful in our approach. That’s the Knoxville DNA.” And it worked – the office won many awards and accolades recognizing their efforts.

In 2013, Susanna was invited to be a panelist in a workshop as part of the University of Tennessee’s Green Economy Initiative. Another panelist was Lee Riedinger, director of the then quite new Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. “Our program is so young we won’t be able to help Susanna today,” Lee said in his presentation, “but in ten years or so when we have all these graduates out there, we can!” Susanna responded, amidst chuckles, “I want to know more about this program, because I think I want to be a student!”

Roughly four months later, she was enrolled in the Energy Science and Engineering (ESE) doctoral program in the Bredesen Center.

“It was very scary to quit my job and start a consulting company and a doctoral program simultaneously. But Lee believing in me like that, and working with me to structure my entry into the program so I could work while also being a student was a life-changer.”

“Eat the Frog First, Every Single Day”

While she knew that meeting the demands of a city director’s job would be out of the question while progressing through the ESE program, she also knew she didn’t want to risk losing her connections in the field. So after ensuring the Office of Sustainability was left in highly capable hands, she branched out on her own, starting a consulting company that specializes in solving problems related to climate change issues.

Needless to say, starting a consulting company and pursuing a PhD at the same time is a big undertaking. “It was really nose-to-the-grindstone,” she said, “but I wanted both things that badly.” And for the four years between entering the Bredesen Center and graduating in 2017, she followed a piece of advice from Jon Shefner, the UT professor who had organized the workshop that first introduced Susanna to the Bredesen Center. “Eat the frog first, every single day.”

“Every day was just this giant frustration. I’d wake up in the morning and have so many things to do and no idea how to get them all done at once,” she said. But every morning, she would beat the sunrise to do schoolwork before working with clients all day, returning to schoolwork in the evening if she could. Jon’s reminder was her screensaver.

“After the combo of managing a doctoral program and new company, I’m not afraid of much anymore. I know my capabilities and limits well now because of that time.”

Bridging the gap between theory and practice

Susanna’s dissertation covered the energy-water nexus, investigating how a city water distribution system can be used to offset energy consumption. Now with her PhD in hand, she is continuing to work on her growing consulting company, Sutherland and Associates.

As a consultant she wears many hats, managing people and grant funds, advising networks, and doing research. But she notes that having a specialization from her PhD work has given her a valuable expertise, something that brings people to her door with questions. And, she will be making direct use of her dissertation research in an upcoming project that will create a framework to de-theorize the energy-water nexus. “It can be really hard for the theory and tech coming out of [academia and labs like Oak Ridge] to get traction on the ground – to actually become something useful to the people who are laboring within energy and water systems on a daily basis,” she says. “Integrating water and energy systems at the local level hasn’t yet been practicalized, in spite of all the writing out there on it. It’s still not approachable to someone in charge of meeting daily demands. It’s still too big.” Through her work, Susanna intends to translate the theories behind the energy-water nexus into practical advice and applications that utilities can understand and implement. To both develop and give that guidance, she communicates directly with cities and their utilities, determining their needs and how to meet them.

Now that her school days are behind her, Susanna offers advice and encouragement for fellow doctoral students. She echoes the counsel she was given as a student: “Schedule your dissertation. No part of it just happens. Create a plan, stick to it with equal parts tenacity and adaptability, and you will graduate.”

She also stresses having confidence in your abilities and reaching out to people for help when you need it. “No one is an island. Tap your support networks, and know that it’s worth it to push through to the other side. Once there, you know that whatever life throws at you is manageable with hard work, persistence, and people who are invested in your success.”

By: Megan Lilly