Conversations with Melissa Low

Melissa Low works as a Research Fellow at Energy and Environment Division of the Energy Studies Institute (ESI), which is based in the National University of Singapore (NUS). Her work takes her all around the globe, to places such as Lima in Peru, Marrakech in Morocco and Paris in France, to discuss the implications of climate change in today’s world and multi-lateral potential for effective action. In the course of her work, she has met and collaborated with government personnel and researchers from various nations – and even met her fair share of climate change deniers!

As a Research Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, what does your typical workday look like?

Melissa Low: My typical day starts pretty early at 8.30 am, and usually ends only at 6 pm. Usually, my day is filled with a lot of reading since the primary output here at ESI is research publications. As a think-tank based in NUS, our funding comes primarily from the Singapore government, so we necessarily have to do some policy work as well.

It is actually quite a unique position that we at ESI occupy because, being based in the university, we are measured by university benchmarks – essentially, research publications. To write and get published in international peer-reviewed journals, though, often takes a long time. However, the Ministry Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for ESI are vastly different. These might involve research projects that pertain to key priority areas for the Singapore government at any point of time, broadly speaking: issues related to energy and climate change, and geopolitical issues that are linked back to energy. We have some colleagues looking at the issues of renewable, clean energy and energy efficiency. My day revolves around climate change research. So, I will pick up readings – for instance, a report from the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – and then synthesise the information, so that it can be made available to the Singaporean public or members of the Singapore government who might need to more informed on these topics. The reverse is true as well: we at ESI might need to make government policies on energy more accessible to the general public or communicate the public’s views on such policies back to the government.

These days what occupies me most of the time are government tender projects as well as trying to get published, which is really quite important for us who are working at NUS. So, there is a need to strike a balance between trying to do academic research and policy research. I sometimes say that my colleagues and I can’t just be ‘armchair researchers’; we should be motivated to go out and speak to people in the commercial sector, people in the government, and speak to all kinds of people. Since we are based far off in a corner of the university, there is a need to go out and talk to people and understand their point of view, and this enriches your research too.

How do things work at the ESI? Is work at ESI done as part of a team?

ML: The Institute is organised into 3 major divisions, though the divisions are there for primarily administrative reasons. I’m part of the Energy and Environment Division. There is also the Energy Economics Division and the Energy Security Division. Each division has about the same number of people, but we do work in an interdisciplinary way and so work across teams. Operations-wise, we have research or thematic tracks. There are 6 broad research tracks we work on such as climate change, energy efficiency, energy in transport, energy in power generation, geopolitics, and competitiveness.

How has your experience as a Research Fellow been?

ML: I should probably mention that I would have been at ESI for a total of 7 years come September 2017, though only 2 years of those were spent as a Research Fellow. I started out as a lowly analyst when I first got my bachelor’s, then got a master’s degree and moved up a little bit, and since I wasn’t ready for a PhD, got another master’s degree and moved up a little bit more. Eventually, though, at that point you’d have to choose whether or not you want to do a PhD. So, if we come down to a question of aspirations: yes, I am planning to apply for my PhD.

But I have to say that I didn’t plan to be a researcher. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geography at NUS in 2010. When I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I worked for a small local start-up NGO called Eco Singapore for 3 months: doing a bit of research for them, writing some blog posts, and working on their quarterly publications. NGO work in Singapore I think has changed somewhat; at that time, it was not well regarded by most parents since it didn’t pay well, so it was thought that there was no future there. My mom actually went around telling everyone that I was unemployed and asked for their help to find me a job.

There was an opening here at NUS and I thought: “Why not? Let’s try it”. I essentially started out doing the same thing: blogging, writing some short pieces, commentaries. Over the years, I found that since I was already working in the university, I might as well go ahead and get an additional degree. So, I completed a Master of Science in Environmental Management here at NUS between 2011 and 2013. After that, I wasn’t quite ready for a PhD so I decided to do a second master’s programme. The programme was with the University of Strathclyde, but based here in NUS, though I had to travel up to Scotland a couple of times. When that was settled, I guess my boss felt that it was a good effort and he said that, “Even though a ‘Research Fellow’ title would seem to suggest that you have a PhD, it kind of makes sense since you’ve been here for such a long time and contributed in many ways”. So, he said, “You know what, you are deserving of a title like that”. I was thankful that he had such trust and confidence in me so I’ve been working really hard to make sense of that title, ‘Research Fellow’.

Melissa at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2009.

What would you consider the highlights of your job?

ML: To me, one of the major highlights of this job is the great exposure you get. My work, which focuses on climate change and in particular, United Nations negotiations on climate change, is really a global problem that has to be tackled multilaterally. You could try to argue that it is a problem to be tackled only by major carbon-emitting countries, such that if you mobilised the top 10 emitters in the world, you could more or less solve the problem as long as these countries all stopped using fossil fuels. But that’s not the case; we want and need to get everybody aboard for effective change through a multilateral platform. This is still the most viable way, and will be for the foreseeable future.

I have been very privileged to have been able to attend Conference of Party (COP) meetings in a number of countries over the last 7 years. In travelling to these meetings, not only do you get exposure in terms of getting to know all of these places that you would never really think of going to like Lima in Peru, and Marrakech in Morocco – which was the venue for last year’s COP – you get to meet up with all sorts of people on a regular basis. Every year, you go to this big conference and you build up a network of research people who are very passionate individuals, and who also kind of straddle this space between policy and research work. It makes you feel less alone in this effort because, as I said, my team at ESI is very small. But when you get out there, and there are 30,000 people attending this climate change conference, you get the sense that it really matters, after all.

I think, for me, this has always been, and will continue to be, the highlight of my job because it is not only personally fulfilling, but also provides me with professional exposure to reach out and work with a number of people in various governments and in the research community. It also allows researchers like us to showcase our work; we bring our policy briefs, we bring our research agendas and we speak to people about it. And from these discussion, we have found the potential for research collaborations, which is great!

Do you enjoy working in this kind of environment? What would you like to change?

ML: This pertains also to the challenges of the job as well. I would say that, being in research, the pace can be a bit slow for some people. It takes quite a bit of patience to sort of develop your research agenda, to develop your project objectives and then actually get it done. I think, for many young people, we live in an age of instant gratification. I think I’m not bothered too much by it but I think many people will find it tough to be in this sort of situation, and to be in research. Sometimes research findings take 6, 12 or even 24 months to get done. Over the course of those 24 months, a lot of things can happen, you’ll be pulled in different directions, you’ll be expected to do your fair share of service work, your share of manuscript readings, editing and all sorts of planning for and organisation of events. And that does, sometimes, take quite a bit out of you. You get tired, side tracked and sometimes the research objectives just vanish into thin air. Things, people move on from issues. So I think that’s the main challenge of the job, to keep your research area relevant and keep on top of things.

That being said, I would say that if you are an inquisitive person, a curious person willing to ask questions – tough questions, at times – about issues that matter to you, then the duration of the research doesn’t matter at all. You want to get to the bottom of things and that’s all there is to it – however long it takes. If the person on the receiving end of the report knows you are well-qualified and you have an appropriate approach to get to the answers, and both parties can agree that such research will take time, by the time you send out the end product, you will be quite happy with it and the receiving party will hopefully also appreciate it as well. This takes a lot of communication.

One might think that if you’re in research, you’re just sitting behind a desk and just typing away all the time but no, it does actually take a lot of effort to verbalise your thoughts and create relevance all the time for your research. For instance, telling people why climate change is important and why Donald Trump is wrong can be frustrating and it always is when you’re talking to deniers. Patience is a virtue we cultivate here when I talk about duration because you do have to realize that you’re not here to convince everybody. If you can convince one person at a time, that’s good enough.

Putting out informed research helps everybody. I like to say this a lot but it is true: we have a responsibility to put the word out to everyday people. What do I mean by ‘everyday people’? My parents, my siblings, my friends – if they don’t understand a word I’m writing, and typically this happens if it’s in the form of an international peer-reviewed journal, then our job is not done because perhaps only a handful of people will read a journal paper. So, it’s tough trying to balance this policy interface; I do prefer writing newspaper commentaries more because of the readership. The Straits Times has a readership of 300,000 – which is a lot compared to the handful who might skim through your journal article. You spend much of your time each year writing a journal paper, but if you have a sudden writing spark, you may spend only half an hour writing a commentary that goes out there to inform people on these issues – and frankly, it all matters in the end. And it’s nice to work in this quiet part of the university as well so I do enjoy working in this environment on the whole.

What advice would you like to have received at the beginning of your career?

ML: I would say, to know not to think that you can win all the battles and not to sweat about the small stuff.  In work, you will always encounter some form of politics, somebody might try to get you down but ultimately, stay on course. Find what you like doing and once you have that in mind, you may not know what the end goal is but you know what you are good at, so just keep doing it until something happens. And don’t sweat the small stuff. There will always be people who will say things about and criticise you. But you’ll get there in the end. Having the benefit of retrospection is not something many people have or bother thinking about, but if I were to rewind my life to 7 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I would make it past 5 years at NUS. Possibly, I thought that I would have or might have moved into doing policy work full-time, or actually joined the government in some capacity. But then, being in this space which sort of straddles the both policy and research work is quite unique as well, that’s why I have stayed the course.

What are your top 3 professional aspirations for the future?

ML: Well, a PhD is definitely in the works; the reality is that there are pressures at work, so that has to be built into my aspirations. My colleagues do somehow expect that if you’re going to continue a career in academia, most people do find value in pursuing a PhD because of the kind of rigour that it puts you through. So that’s one, the PhD. Then, I would put high-impact academic publishing as another of my aspirations. I don’t mean just academic journals but also more work such as producing policy briefs or working papers that are much more widely read.

And thirdly, related to that, is to break down the barriers, the old thinking that universities and some old academicians have, which is that international peer-reviewed journals are the only way to be recognised. I think that that has to change because it is a very narrow way of thinking, a sort of narrow publication outlet. In this information age, young people are so savvy with their computers, and yet they will hit many paywalls for top-tiered journals. Researchers are actually not paid a cent to publish journal papers and these publishers keep all the earning from such paid access, which could be something like 40 USD per paper. So, I really don’t see the point in this model. I would much rather publish an in-house policy brief – sure, it’s not an internationally-acclaimed publication, but honestly it’s free for download for anybody. This means I can send the link to 100 students and all 100 can download it. And they don’t have to be from my university, they could come from any university around the world that has access to the internet.

So, I would consider this my 3rd aspiration. The 1st being a PhD, the 2nd being high-impact publication and the 3rd is seeing people in the upper echelons of the university, in NUS or around the world, changing their mind set, to stop or move away from thinking that journal publications are the main measure of an academic’s success because it’s very, very tiresome to work months and months on a piece and have only perhaps 5 or 10 people read it. It’s not satisfying and produces very little impact. So, just moving away from that model will be an aspiration for me, to be a part of such a movement.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

ML: If I do end up pursuing and graduating with my PhD, I would imagine myself being part of the university – maybe not this university, but definitely in academia, and possibly in a teaching position. If I remain in this position then, with somewhat the same role but having bigger responsibilities such as to lead projects, to apply for big grants on climate change policy research, I think I will be quite happy with that too. In 5 years, I’ll be 35, so it’s also a very interesting time to be around.

For many, many young women going into their professions, as far as logistics go, it’s been proven that many women drop out of the workforce around that time for obvious reasons: family, being primary caregivers – though I would encourage against this if at all possible. You don’t have to take a step back at work. The longer you are in any position, any job, you do have some flexibility accorded to you. Your colleagues will eventually know that you are not slacking off at work; you are contributing and you do have benefits like childcare leave, parental care leave and the government is doing a lot of good with all the pre-school policies.

So, I would encourage young women not to be afraid to taking on bigger responsibilities into their late 20s and 30s. It’s very tempting to take that step back – and I don’t blame them if they choose to do so – but it’s very difficult to get back in after that. I hope at 35, I’ll still be around because I really want to be an example for younger colleagues here as well and not to simply leave the workforce.

Which skills do you think are the most relevant/applicable to your position?

ML: Adaptability, aligning performance for success, meeting leadership, planning and organising, follow-up, building partnerships, formal presentation, building trust, communication, stress tolerance, continuous learning, and valuing diversity.

Would you consider these skills to be pre-requisites, or do you think these can be picked up over the course of the job?

ML: Much of it has to be picked up. It doesn’t matter what your education background is, I think a lot of these skills that you pick up at work just have to be picked up at work: working with people of all ages, different backgrounds, and adaptability in working with all people being one of these. Some people are natural communicators, some have very good presentation skills, and these skills can be harnessed and enhanced. By and large, for a lot of the skills I have picked out, especially in this line of research and policy work, you have to be very open to facing challenges. And with traits like tenacity and adaptability, these don’t really get the chance to develop unless something bad happens to you for you to learn these lessons. If you don’t hit a curve ball in your research, you will never get the chance to learn from it.