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Researcher Spotlight: NREL Behavioral Scientist Paty Romero-Lankao Sees Technology Through a Human Lens

June 21, 2019

Woman standing near train in busy transportation corridor

Paty Romero-Lankao has spent her career focused on the interactions among people, mobility, the built environment, and energy systems. Photo by Dennis Schroeder

NREL Behavioral Scientist Paty Romero-Lankao remembers the moment when she decided to pursue environmental research. She had just told her respected undergraduate adviser in her hometown of Mexico City that she wanted to write a thesis on the sociology of the state—a heady topic for a young student to tackle.

"She said, 'Don't be stupid. Work in environmental sociology,'" Romero-Lankao laughed. "That got me started with environmental issues."

She took that advice to heart, and since receiving her bachelor's degree in sociology from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 1985, Romero-Lankao has focused on the interactions among people, mobility, the built environment, and urban energy systems.

She completed two doctorate degrees in sociology: one in 1997 from Universidad Nacional and another a year later from the University of Bonn in Germany.

To further her investigations, she joined the National Center Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, in 2006.

"It was all new," she said. "I learned to work with modelers. There were climatologists, hydrologists, a lot of the physical sciences," she said. Yet Romero-Lankao came from a different perspective. "I wanted to understand—and was obsessed with—the factors that empower people to deal with threats and take advantage of environmental opportunities."

There's a clear thread between her NCAR and NREL research, and when she arrived at NREL in July 2018 as a senior research scientist in NREL's Transportation and Hydrogen Systems Center, she brought those insights. She also holds a joint appointment with the University of Chicago's Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, where she is a research fellow.

"If we focus on how energy is translated to humans, we see it is electricity and gas—what we need to eat, sleep, commute, heat our houses," she said. "If we can provide this in more sustainable and equitable ways, maybe that will help people understand things are changing" in the environment. This could allow them to make important connections in their lives.

The Impact of Sociology

She's begun facilitating the spread of these ideas. Last month, Romero-Lankao led a two-day workshop that drew a range of talent from diverse scientific domains—from engineering and applied mathematics to the social sciences. The group looked at ways to integrate end-use electricity generation and consumption technologies from electrical vehicles, buildings, solar, and wind technologies with other analytical capabilities—and is planning to write a white paper on the topic.  

Romero-Lankao sees this type of path as an opportunity. "NREL is on top of a huge energy transition," she said. "We're already working on the technologies and simulations. Guess what—people use those things," such as solar energy and electric vehicles. "How people behave and make decisions—what drives fear and culture—are social science questions, not technical ones," she asserts.

Over time, she expects to "join forces with engineers and scientists, gaining a more accurate understanding of how people connect with technologies," Romero-Lankao said.

She's already collaborating with NREL transportation researchers and is investigating partnerships with researchers in other domains as well.

"Expanding our center's research to include the human element has long been a part of our strategy, so I was very excited when I first met Paty and learned about her work," said Transportation and Hydrogen Systems Center Director Chris Gearhart. "Since bringing her into NREL, she has been a dynamic and innovative force for integrating the social sciences into our more traditional engineering approach to mobility research. I am really looking forward to seeing where she takes our research going forward."

Romero-Lankao is eager—yet realistic. "We are trying to resolve some puzzles. Energy ones are challenging." Answers aren't obvious. "I wish you could create a formula—takakakakaka—make some algorithms and voila—that's it." She sighed and shook her head. But she's not discouraged.

Life Challenging Expectations

As a girl, Romero-Lankao was a disappointment to her mother. "She was expecting me to get married as soon as possible," Romero-Lankao smiled. Growing up in a poor neighborhood of Mexico City, the youngest of six had other ideas. Marriage could wait.

And when her father, who'd studied engineering and worked as a designer, asked the teenager what she'd like to do for a living, Romero-Lankao had a ready answer. "I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life—I just knew what I didn't want to do."

An avid athlete as a teen, she later discovered the joy of research. School became her passion. And although she did eventually marry, she kept her eyes on scholarship. After finishing her advanced degree in Germany, Romero-Lankao returned to Mexico as a university lecturer. She was on a tenure track, but eventually felt constrained.

The social scientist looked abroad and found NCAR. There, she felt at home with an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving. She examined the intersections between urbanization and risks associated with food, energy, and water systems. "I worked a lot at NCAR to understand what makes people change—and what factors prevent them from changing," Romero-Lankao said.

She learned, for example, that most people don't like it when you tell them there's a looming problem—and that they only have minutes to react. Change requires a different approach.

That perspective informs her life. For a number of years until recently, she worked on a Boulder County initiative designed to foster inclusivity, increase disaster resilience, and build vibrant and prosperous communities. And like Denver, she said Boulder is dealing with increases in traffic and population, as well as a perceived lack of diversity. These are "challenges the city and county need to address" in the areas of gender, race, and economics, she said.

Romero-Lankao's work in the community mirrors her research at NREL. "I'm excited by the problems, but we need to find solutions that aren't only technical." And that's where her life connects to NREL. "All the things NREL cares about are not only technical."

The social scientist will continue to study reactions—both society's and her own. The latter subject amuses her. "I'm driven," she admits. "One value I pursue, not always successfully, is balance."

But she's trying to change—and if anyone understands how people do that, it's Romero-Lankao.