Alumni profile: Jacqueline Ashmore, Ph.D. '03
Bringing diversity, equity and inclusion to sustainable energy
Recent heat waves and wildfires across much of the country are examples of the ever-increasing impact of climate change. But the risk of adverse effects is not distributed equally. Communities of color and lower-income populations are disproportionately affected by climate change, according to a study by the American Public Health Association, and generally have fewer resources to address its effects. Efforts to reduce the impact must take the increased health vulnerabilities of these populations into consideration.
“If you look at communities that are exposed to particulates from fossil fuel power plants, or you look at communities that live close to highways and thus are constantly exposed to the pollution from traffic, their populations often have a high proportion of people of color,” said Jacqueline Ashmore, Ph.D. ‘03. “Decarbonization is a giant challenge for us collectively at a societal level today. But if we don’t put diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of that, then we won’t truly be solving the problem. I really view them as inextricably linked.”
Ashmore earned her Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and has spent her entire career pursuing her dual passions for sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). She’s now the executive vice president of engineering at New Leaf Energy (formerly Borrego), a renewable energy company that develops solar, energy storage, and wind power. She also serves on the boards of four non-profit energy and environment organizations, all of which have an emphasis on DEI.
“Occasionally, things get done very early in the morning or late at night, but it all feels important,” she said.
Ashmore arrived at Harvard after receiving her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Wanting to continue her education outside of her home country, Ashmore took a train tour along the northeastern United States, visiting several schools before arriving in Cambridge. A conversation with one SEAS faculty member put her in touch with Howard Stone, the Vicky Joseph Professor of Engineering and Applied Mathematics at that time.
“Howard met me on a Saturday morning in the summer, and we talked for a couple of hours,” Ashmore said. “He was very generous with his time, and he was a really compelling person in his curiosity and engagement with me. That was the moment where I thought that if I had the opportunity to work with him as my advisor, that would be incredible. Luckily for me, it all worked out.”
After finishing her degree, Ashmore led the Science and Innovation team for the British Consulate-General for two years, focusing primarily on cleantech and energy innovations. After that she joined the Union of Concerned Scientists as director of program development, and later returned to academia as executive director for Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.
“I was the second person to come on board at the Institute, so I was really excited by getting to build something from scratch,” she said. “I ended up with a lot of direct mentoring opportunities, and what blew me away was how meaningful I found them. I’d lost track of how powerful it is to engage with a student who’s just figuring out what their next, or in many cases, first career step might be.”
Ashmore transitioned from Boston University to Borrego, as it was then called, in September 2021, but wanted to continue to promote sustainability and DEI beyond her job. To do that, she stepped up her involvement in nonprofits focused on DEI in clean energy. She became a board member for the New England Women in Energy and the Environment in 2013, and went on to join the Northeast Clean Energy Council, Browning the Green Space, and All In Energy. She’s still a board member for all four organizations.
“What started me thinking about this were some of the challenges of gender equality, and that really goes back to my time in academia and engineering, realizing we still struggle to draw many women into that field and retain them,” Ashmore said. “It took me time to figure out how I could support underrepresented groups that were not women, groups I wasn’t part of and whose identity I didn’t share. But over time, I came to realize that I absolutely could and should support them, and I became really motivated to step up for people of color and other groups who were struggling in various ways.”
The four organizations all have different strategies for tackling sustainability and DEI. All In Energy enables access to renewable energy and energy efficiency in underserved communities while also building a diverse workforce. The New England Clean Energy Council works to lead the just, rapid, and equitable transition to a clean energy future and diverse climate economy, while New England Women in Energy and the Environment empowers women and advances the industry through work on four pillars: professional development, inspiration, leadership, and community.
“Browning the Green Space has five subgroups,” Ashmore said. “The subgroups help companies become more diverse, equitable and inclusive; help people build careers in the renewable energy space; help contractors who are people of color thrive financially; support clean energy solutions for environmental justice communities; and increase access to capital and financial opportunities for people from underrepresented groups.”
Increasing decarbonization efforts and sustainable energy solutions can be a slow process. Ashmore said one of the biggest challenges her industry faces is keeping climate change in the public conversation despite things like the pandemic, which for many feels like a more immediate threat.
But thanks to Harvard, Ashmore isn’t daunted by big challenges.
“The rigor of learning is incredible and an excellent foundation, whatever you choose to do,” she said. “In doing a Ph.D., you develop confidence in learning pretty much anything fairly quickly. Even if it’s tough at first, you know you can break through. It’s really enabled me to say that I can tackle things I don’t already know, and ask questions until I eventually understand.”
Matt Goisman | firstname.lastname@example.org