Where I Wanna be

Growing up around my country’s premier hydroelectric power station forever changed my life. I was always fascinated with the generation, transmission and distribution of electrical energy. I set about reading (I had been doing that since I could speak, thanks to my parents). I’d take my dad’s tester (a screwdriver equipped with a circuit for detecting electricity by turning on a light) probe around the sockets in the house, opened up some radio box, trace the electrical circuits and whatnots. By the age of 9 I had a pretty good idea of electrical wiring standards for homes and consumer appliances.

Kainji-Dam
Kainji Hydro Dam (Source: The Guardian Newspaper)

I still couldn’t quite figure out how electricity was generated. Playing around with other kids we’d always hear what I would now call a ‘myth and legends’ kind of stories of how electrical power was generated with water. The story then was that there were turbines right under the hydro dam spill ways. That isn’t true. The spillways were in fact used to relieve water pressure on the dam, control flooding in the upper river Niger, or allow some water into the reservoir a second hydro dam on the same water course downstream. I always I knew something was amiss of that story; there were pieces missing from the puzzle—how water is converted to electrical energy. Later on during my undergraduate education, I got to understand it was actually the kinetic energy of water being converted into electrical energy. There was still a missing piece (lots of pieces) – how can just rotating some blades with the kinetic energy of water can give electricity. It turns out that missing puzzle was going to be my impetus for studying electrical engineering and today in the major field of electrical power systems at the highest academic level.

To continue the story, by the time I was 9 I was well read enough to know all the levels of education in Nigeria and at large— Bachelors, masters, and PhD! As at then, very few people at that age would know this. In my final year of primary school (age 10) we were taken on an excursion to the hydro dam. It was breathtaking, I was in awe for a week after that. The vibrations, the slow rotating turbines, the enormous sound of the water, I could barely stand with the vibrations, and a walk up the stairs about 70m high to the reservoir. A few months later after reminiscing all the moments during the excursion, it was a done deal that I would study up till the highest level just to satisfy my curiosity on how electric energy was generated and transmitted. Nothing could change my mind!

The fact that my state of origin in Nigeria at the time (Ekiti state) had the highest number of academic scholars and professors seems to reinforce my determination to take my curiosity of electrical power system to the highest level possible! Getting through high school I was willing to settle for an engineering degree, given the peculiarity of the Nigerian educational system, electrical/electronics was like Medicine. Every brilliant kid that wasn’t studying medicine was studying electrical/electronics or computer engineering; the competition was that high. But fate wouldn’t have it any other way, electrical engineering all the way.

All along, have heard and being told of the travails of the PhD process. Not a second was I fazed, not a day did I even think about what I heard; not a night did I lose sleep, nor any moment spent on why i wanted to study up till the doctoral level. All I ever did through high school, bachelors and above, every plan, every step taken, and all the energy was towards that goal of studying at the highest academic level. By the age of 14 I had a plan all figured out up to the point of getting a doctorate (not a plan on what comes after that, autopilot mode I guess). No job and no amount of money could divert me from that goal. I had quite a few opportunities to choose the supposedly ‘scenic’ and high paying job path, I opted instead to go for the jobs that paid literally nothing so long as it was in the path of my goal. Including teaching in a 2 year college literally for free for more than a year surviving on my savings and living as cheap as I could. I was just convinced all the sacrifice would pay off at some point. I think this is awful true of every typical PhD out there and sadly our bane! The power of curiosity, information, and knowledge to me outweighed the gain if i were to go to the industry after a Bachelor’s degree. By the time I was at the bachelors’ level, all the courses I took were based on the sights I had on the future. At 18, I knew I would study abroad. I found my desire and determination just too good to waste and I knew the educational system in Nigeria was just good enough up till the bachelor level.

Going ahead was now in my hands even knowing the difficulties that lie ahead in affording a foreign education, but I had to get out to prove I could compete at the highest level. I had just one goal!

As fate would have it again, time over time, the finance to study abroad came in what I would best describe as an ‘act of God’. This taught me, you should never take an eye off your goals, no matter what the difficulties are, once there is a will, there would be a way. Once I got to Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, all the courses I took, all plans I made, internship, thesis, everything, had the final goal in mind. Plans include to try to publish any notable work I would do. Even if I knew I would perfectly adjust in an industrial set up, I had a gut feeling I will one way find a way to come back into academic research, so why not just spend more time looking for PhD positions rather than applying for jobs. I did! But not before I made contact with the industry (as a backup, you never know). By the second month of my thesis (December, 2015), I had a PhD offered to me literally on a platter based on the performance of a 4 month research I did during my internship at Philips Lighting Eindhoven. But I did not stop applying not to pick from the first choice given to me. That decision to keep applying proved to be a master stroke. I wouldn’t be where I am right now otherwise. I applied for several other PhD positions and I remember applying for almost a dozen and I had high expectations for all except one — Marie-Curie ITN. I talked with my then PhD supervisor he told me, it’s difficult, but don’t let that discourage you. Just take it seriously like you’d do any other application.

After a couple of failed interviews, and a little bit of disappointment, in March 2016, I got a mail that I’d been selected for the first stage interview. I felt that ‘high’, I couldn’t wait! Through the first interview to the second, and probably a third. After all was said and done and the shortlist was published, I was the second in a selection of 3 candidates. It was gut wrenching when I was told, but like always I remained calm. After all I still had one egg in the basket.

After running out of options, move on with the only option I had left. I made the call to the responsible supervisor for the PhD position that was offered to me in December, Dr. Willem D. van Driel (Supervisor at Philips Research, now a professor at TU Delft). Within 2 weeks I was at Philips Lighting to sort out the details of the project, the direction, etc. Everything was done, save approval by the main promotor a full professor at the university and administrative procedures at TU Delft, but it wasn’t as straight forward as I’d hoped. Further interviews with the professor and a post doc, then the head of department, and at a point I wasn’t sure what was going on. After each interview I had an assignment that was more than all the assignments I ever had at TU Delft. It got so exhausting considering I was still working on my thesis at the time and was about to give up, too many people were involved. There seem to be some conflict of interest.  So I called Willem and I asked what was going on, he told me, not to worry about, but at some point I started to fret. I never mentioned it previously, the PhD position was in Microelectronics, some distance from my background in electrical power system and that would require to literally take a recipe of courses (let’s put it that way) that would be equivalent to 1 year master in microelectronics. Frankly, it wasn’t a good fit, but I believed I could do it. Meanwhile as a backup, a fomer industry supervisor was willing to take me in as a junior research associate at Philips so I know I would have a job.

While waiting, around first week of June, I got a message from the Marie-Curie project supervisors in Barcelona that the first person was no longer starting the position. In fact, I froze after reading up till that point.  To keep it simple, I was asked to take some days to accept the position. Took me about 10 minutes or less (just enough time to compose a message).

Ever since, I can’t seem to get high enough the knowledge I had amassed, it’s been my impetus — curiosity.

My topic revolves around solving possible problems we might encounter in the future towards a 100\% dependence on RES. It borders around a combination of electrical power systems and control engineering as a tool to solve any challenges. The major facilitator for this transition is expected to be power electronic interfaces. However, power electronic are not with their challenges. First, we have to find out possible problems we may encounter and the root causes. Despite power electronic interfaces being a solution and a problem, they are fully controllable devices and can be controlled 100s of times faster than conventional generators. The end goal is to exploit the controllability of power electronic interfaces (to solve the problems created by power electronics) as these will dominate the future as RES are increasingly integrated and system reinforced to improve flexibility and I carry out my Research at the Catalonia Institute for Energy Research (IREC) under the  tutelage of Dr. Jose Luis Dominguez-Garcia and Dr. Oriol Gomis-Bellmunt at the University Polytechnic of Catalonia (UPC), both in Barcelona, Spain. Both Supervisors are known experts in the field of DC grids, wind power, renewable integration, power electronics, and power systems. More details about my work will be posted shortly.

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