Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tao Hong - Energy Education Leader of the Year

Earlier this month, I was honored to be named as the Education Leader of the Year by Charlotte Business Journal (CBJ) at the Energy Inc. Summit.

My friend Alyssa Farrell took a video of the award reception speech, where I gave a "forecast" about the energy industry:
The energy companies will be moving more Gigabytes of data than GWh of electricity. 
Here is the 1-minute speech:


When I was first informed about this award, I didn't realize its prestige. Then I started getting congrats from friends, colleagues, and even the dean. I guessed that it must be something big. After the award ceremony, CBJ put my profile in print and online (Energy Leadership Awards: Putting big data to work for energy). UNC Charlotte also featured the story in its campus news letter.

Since the CBJ article is behind a paywall, I'm sharing the interview with the audience here.

What drew you to a career in education? How long have you been in that field?

Before coming back to the academia, I was working at SAS, one of the very best employers in the world. Part of that job was to teach classes internationally. My primary audience was industry professionals. Through that experience, I found a big gap between what the industry needed in terms of analytics and data science and what universities were offering through various academic programs. I thought I could be that person to help bridge the gap, so I took a mission of producing the finest data scientists for the energy industry and joined UNC Charlotte. I've been on this academic job for almost 4 years.

What’s the most important part of what you do?

I would say students are the most important part of what I do. I consider students as my products. I want to make the finest products for the industry, so everything I do is centered around the students: I try to pick the best raw materials, perfect them as much as possible, and then put them in the best place of the market. As a professor, my job can be mainly categorized in three pieces, research, teaching and services. These three closely tie together. The industry partners bring me their problems to work on; I help them solve these problems and then bring the research findings to the class; then they keep sending me new problems and hiring my students.

How do you see energy education evolving?

I think the evolution of the energy education is two-fold. First, it has to be interdisciplinary. It's no longer the job of one department, such as electrical engineering or mechanical engineering. We have to involve many academic departments to educate the workforce for the energy industry. Some of them should even go beyond the college of engineering, such as policy, economics, statistics and meteorological science.

Talk a little about the BigDEAL Lab. What does that mean for students?

It is the best place to be if you want to be the elite data scientists in the energy industry. BigDEAL students have the opportunity to solve the most challenging analytic problems in the industry; they have access to the state-of-the-art software donated by our industry partners; they can leverage many data sources that no other universities have access to. As a result, BigDEAL students have been taking top places in many international competitions and been chased by many renowned employers in the industry.

What role does UNCC play in the energy industry - both locally and nationally?

UNCC have been training many energy professionals in Carolinas and delivering many fresh graduates to the local energy industry. Nationally, UNCC sets a great example of industry-university collaboration.

What makes UNCC’s research so valuable?

We are fortunate to be located in a large city and surrounded by many enthusiastic industry partners. The research problems we work on are from the realworld rather than ivory tower. They tend to be very practical and meaningful to the industry.

Is there a key initiative you’re working on? 

During the recent few years, I've been experimenting a crowdsourcing approach to energy analytics research. I started the Global Energy Forecasting Competition in 2012. These competitions have attracted hundreds of contestants from more than 60 countries. Many of them are outside the power and energy field. In each competition, we try to tackle a challenging and emerging problem. Right now we are in the middle of the third one, GEFCom2017. The theme is energy forecasting in the big data world. We have also organized the first International Symposium on Energy Analytics this June in Cairns, Australia, to host the researchers and practitioners interested in this subject.

What are the advantages of working with industrial partners?

They bring in meaningful research problems, fund projects, hire graduates, and help broadcast our research findings through their network. Isn't it a sweet deal?

Are educational institutions able to educate enough workers, or does the industry face a shortage?

In my domain, which is energy analytics, there is definitely higher demand (jobs) than supply (workers). I get calls all the time asking for my students, but I don't have enough students to fill in all those job openings.

What’s fun about your job?

Teaching students to solve the most challenging problems for the industry. I very much enjoy both the analytical challenge and the success of the students. 

4 comments:

  1. Congratulations Tao on this much deserved honor, and your recent election to the International Institute of Forecasters Board of Directors! I look forward to serving with you on the IIF Board. See you in Cairns.

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