This civil engineer turns to math to make energy more affordable 

Destenie Nock designed algorithms to help people struggling to pay their utility bills

Civil Engineer Destenie Nock stands in front of a gray starburst background. She is a black woman with medium length, curly hair. She is wearing a tan blouse with black swirls and patterns.

People often hold beliefs about poverty that are "just incorrect," says Destenie Nock. These misconceptions can make it hard to help households struggling to pay for energy and utilities. Nock’s company, Peoples Energy Analytics, uses computer algorithms to help people get assistance.

Courtesy of D. Nock

In college, Destenie Nock taught math to students in Malawi, a country in East Africa. But there wasn’t always enough electricity for the school. That meant the lights wouldn’t turn on, and printers and lights wouldn’t work. In addition, students often didn’t have the supplies they needed to complete their work or attend classes. Nock also noticed that many girls dropped out once they started getting their periods.  

“I was devising ways to teach math without having to use paper,” says Nock. “And [of ways] to sew reusable feminine pads so girls could stay in school.” 

Nock came up with some creative solutions. Working with local painters, Nock designed a “pathematics” runway on the school grounds. It​ was​ based on a similar tool she’d seen in the United States. ​The runway ​let students work out math problems without pencils and paper. And Nock taught girls how to sew feminine pads she designed herself. “That experience really made me want to work in energy, because if kids had access to computers, then the lack of paper in the country would not be as big of an education barrier,” says Nock. “I realized I could impact classrooms overseas if I helped build a better energy system.” 

Today, Nock teaches civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. She also cofounded a company, Peoples Energy Analytics, that uses computer algorithms to help identify U.S. households struggling to afford gas and electricity, so they can get assistance. In this interview, Nock shares her experiences and advice with Science News Explores. (This interview has been edited for content and readability.) 

What inspired you to pursue your career? 

In high school, I ran an after-school tutoring program at a local elementary school for my Girl Scout Gold Award. We tutored third- through fifth-graders in English and math twice a week. I really loved seeing kids who once struggled in these subjects finally get it. We played math and spelling games, and by the end of the tutoring session kids really seemed to be enjoying learning. From this experience, I planned to become a high school math teacher.  

When I started college at North Carolina A&T State University, I didn’t get a scholarship for math education, which I needed to teach math. I really needed the assistance. My dad, an electrical engineer, mentioned that there were more scholarships available in engineering, so I switched to electrical engineering with a double major in math education. I hoped to pay for my teaching degree with scholarships from electrical engineering.   

While student teaching in a local high school, I realized that working in public schools was extremely challenging. I was supposed to teach Algebra 2 to kids that were still in Algebra 1. There was not much room for games, as I was trying to help students just grasp the basics. On top of this, the students all get frustrated with you. Going through that made me shift my focus to becoming a college professor and more on engineering. 

To become a professor I needed a PhD, which led me to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. While I enjoyed the educational side, I experienced a lot of financial hardships in grad school. At one point we couldn’t pay our energy bill and had our lights disconnected. We ran out of oil to heat our house in the winter. It got very cold, very quickly — to the point where I could see my breath inside. We decided to pay our heating bill before the electricity bill so we wouldn’t run out of oil. We didn’t even realize that the thermostat and heating wouldn’t work without electricity. It was this big wake-up call: As a person in the energy sector, I felt I should be able to solve these problems for myself. Yet I was struggling. 

How did you get to where you are today? 

I’ve always tried to balance my love for math with my desire to help people. How do I make sure that the human connection doesn’t get lost in a bunch of math equations? Math can help us understand the world. But sometimes it misses everyone’s unique story. The more I hear people’s stories, the more I realize each person is just trying to build a better life for themselves and their families. Combining this with my experience in grad school, I realized I wanted to make a career for myself in poverty work grounded in math, coding and data analysis. 

How do you get your best ideas? 

I talk to people. I ask people about their struggles and share my own. I’ve also gotten a lot of ideas from my own story. I have journaled since I was a kid, and not too long ago I went back and read my life story as told by me. I feel like I am one of those people who overanalyzes their life story to see what’s there. Over the years, I learned a lot about myself and how much I tried to cover up the fact that I was struggling. This made me realize a lot of other people probably do this, too. So now I build algorithms to try to find people who are struggling but may not show it.  

What’s one of your biggest successes? 

I created an algorithm showing that many low-income households don’t use a sufficient amount of energy. When people don’t use enough, they could be at risk of having their pipes freeze, getting hypothermia or dying of heat stroke. Most utility companies and energy planners will assume that people set their thermostats where they want them. My work has shown that isn’t the case. In the summer, low-income groups will wait longer than high-income groups to turn on their cooling systems. People put themselves at a higher risk of heat illness and death by waiting to turn on their air conditioning system.  

During the winter, the opposite happens. Low-income groups tend to turn on their heating earlier than high-income groups. This most likely results from poor insulation in their walls, which lets in a lot of cold air. Low-income people typically live in older homes that don’t hold heat well. It’s recommended that homeowners set their thermostats at 65° Fahrenheit [18° Celsius] or higher to keep their pipes from freezing. This is more expensive if you don’t have enough insulation.  

That feeds into other work I do, such as advocating for bill assistance and insulation upgrades. Using my algorithm has helped me work with utility companies to try to advocate for change. Before I had the data, it was really hard to get people to listen. Now, I can actually show that this is a problem throughout the United States. That is why we built Peoples Energy Analytics, because we realized we needed a company to help us work with utility companies.  

What was one of your biggest challenges and how did you get past that? 

Many people have not experienced being low-income. There are a lot of perceptions about poor people that are just incorrect. Many times when I mention people who struggle, I get a sense that people have an image of someone living out of their car and dressing with holes in their shirts. This is a portion of struggling people, but there are so many more that you would never recognize on the street. During the pandemic, 20 million Americans were behind on their energy bills. So many people struggle to pay their energy bills, yet energy is essential to everything running smoothly in your home. Without energy (electricity and heat), your refrigerator, heating, lights and water would cease to operate.   

What piece of advice do you wish you had been given when you were younger?  

It’s OK to not know what you want to be when you grow up. Try to get good skills along the way, and everything will be fine. That was something I undervalued when I was young. Now I’m a person with four different degrees (electrical engineering, applied math, leadership for sustainable development and industrial engineering), and now I work in civil engineering and public policy. So if you ever wanted to know what somebody looks like when they couldn’t make up their mind, that’s probably it.  

In one study, Nock and her colleague ​​Luling Huang found that lower-income households experience energy poverty in ways that look different in winter and summer.

Aaron Tremper is the editorial assistant for Science News Explores. He has a B.A. in English (with minors in creative writing and film production) from SUNY New Paltz and an M.A. in Journalism from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Science and Health Reporting program. A former intern at Audubon magazine and Atlanta’s NPR station, WABE 90.1 FM, he has reported a wide range of science stories for radio, print, and digital media. His favorite reporting adventure? Tagging along with researchers studying bottlenose dolphins off of New York City and Long Island, NY.

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