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In conversation with (opens in a new window)Paula Carroll

Paula is Associate Professor and NexSys funded investigator in the UCD School of Business. Paula’s background is in electrical engineering. She has considerable experience in both academia and industry. Prior to joining UCD she worked as a Software Developer with the ESB (Ireland’s semi-state electricity company), in Quality Assurance with DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) and in Business Planning and Management (an MIS role) with eir (Ireland’s former incumbent telco). She has also lectured in DCU. Paula was academic director of the Bachelor of Commerce (International) programme from 2013-2017. She is founder and chair of the EURO WISDOM Forum to promote, support, empower, and encourage the participation of all genders in Operations Research and Management Science. Paula coordinates the CHIST_ERA SEC-OREA project Supporting Energy Communities with Operations Research and Energy Analytics, https://www.secorea.eu/


Can you give an overview of your research in Operations Research?

From the outside, it may look like I’m looking at different applications and using different techniques. But in a way, that’s what operations research is about. There are many different problems, and you have to find the right technique for that problem. You need a whole toolkit. It’s not just one approach. There are lots of algorithmic and modelling approaches you can use. It’s all connected, and at the bottom of it all is maths. Operations Research is about creating mathematical models of what you’re trying to solve, usually some kind of optimization problem, and then coming up with algorithms to solve the models. In simple words, it’s about using maths: you’re stating the problem as a set of equations and then applying the algorithms. You can find a solution in the maths world and then translate it back into English to make recommendations to the business stakeholder. The idea can be applied to everything, including supply chains and production, with application areas in health care scheduling, timetabling, infrastructure design or any kind of logistics problem. I’ve been using these techniques since my PhD, which was about designing telecommunications networks. Currently, with smart grids, there’s an intersection between telecommunications and the power system, and I mainly focus on problems within the clean energy transition, like vehicle routing, and understanding heat pump performance.

Can you give an example of problems that can be solved using operations research?

In the electricity sector, there are lots of design problems. I’m looking at how we can adapt network design and unit commitment optimisation models to support Energy Communities. With renewable energy sources, we don’t really know exactly what the net demand is going to be, so it’s difficult for an Energy Community to make strategic design and then operational decisions. Statistical and machine learning approaches help us understand what the estimated demand and supply are going to be.

I’m also very active in vehicle routing problems. Within NexSys, I have a PhD student, Clíodhna Ní Shé, who is working on electric vehicle routing problems and the intersection with the grid.  We generally want to complete our trips in either as short a time as possible or covering the smallest distance. When using electric vehicles, we also need to make sure that you can complete a trip and not exceed the battery capacity, and design charging schedules. We’re looking at this from the perspective of small logistics companies.

Do you get involved in the process of bringing recommendations from your research to companies?

Yes, after translating the problem into maths equations, you end up with sets of results that are zeros and ones, or a set of numbers. There’s a final step where you have to translate the recommendations back into English and give those back to business stakeholders. This can involve writing reports with bullet points outlining recommended solutions or results. This is an iterative process, based on feedback from stakeholders, we understand what’s really crucial for them, and what constraints we can put in or remove from our models.

What led you to decide to study electrical engineering?

When I did the Irish Leaving Certificate and it was time to choose a college, I loved maths. On college prospectuses, I circled all the courses that had a lot of maths. I remember going to an open day where they dimmed the lights and put on a show of thermal signals using heat. I thought that was fantastic! Someone there said engineering was behind the light show. This led me to choose electrical engineering in Kevin Street and it turned out to be the perfect course for me. I absolutely loved it. It was very applied, with lots of maths. I was one of three women in a class of 90 people, but, at the time, I didn’t notice that.

When did you first become aware of gender inequalities?

I had been working as an engineer for different companies when I took time out to look after my children, as many women do. When I tried to come back to engineering, I couldn’t even get an interview. It was very challenging, and in hindsight I understand that my CV just looked different compared to what people were expecting to see. My male peers would have moved around, and I didn’t fit the profile for the types of engineering jobs I was applying for.

So I decided to move sideways. I was very good at writing code, so I chose to do a Master’s in Computer Science in DCU. At the time, it could be done part-time. As my youngest was six months old and still breastfeeding at the time, I was able to do the course at night and stay home during the day. After that, I was back on the career ladder.

I ended up working in what was called Telecom Éireann (which became Eircom) in their management information systems. That brought me to information systems, analytics, statistics. My next sideways move was to come to UCD in 2003 to do a PhD in operations research. As part of that, I did a Master’s in Management Science, which is also referred to as operations research and business analytics. Some of my career involved moving sideways because there were obstacles, and also taking whatever opportunities came my way. I’ve been in UCD ever since.

What attracted you to an academic career?

I love research, as well as teaching. That’s what makes an academic career attractive: you have the flexibility to take on the problems that are of interest to you, take research gaps and address them yourself. It’s very self-directed with lots of flexibility and freedom.

How did you first become interested in gender equity and in identifying a gender dimension in research?

When I was a young student, it didn’t dawn on me that most of the time I was the only woman in the room. It’s just your normal – wherever you are, that’s your environment. But as I progressed in my career, it became apparent to me that things were not the same, that for example, my male peers may have had opportunities that I didn’t get, or that when I stepped out, it was so hard to get back in. And it occurred to me that that tends to happen to women more than it happens to men. I became very interested in that gender dimension.

The research environment has evolved and there are now additional requirements from EU and national funding agencies to make sure that we consider gender dimensions. In the research sphere, it’s about making sure that there are opportunities for women to have a STEM career and not have to make so many sideways moves.

I got very interested in how all of this happens, what happens, why, and what we can actually do. Some people would say: do we need to do anything? Is it really a problem? I think part of what we need to do still is build a bit of awareness that there are still issues.

And there are instruments like those directives from the EU that can help and things like including gender dimensions in the research content is something that’s very new and very challenging. You know, with all challenges come opportunities.

In a recent (opens in a new window)paper co-authored with Prof Eleni Mangina, also in NexSys, published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, you looked at the gender dimension in various climate and energy national plans. What did you find?

We took the National Energy and Climate plans (NECP) of EU member states and, using very simple natural language processing techniques, we compared the words in the plans to sets of words that are known to have gender associations, such as man, woman, son, daughter, etc. Essentially, we were quantifying how strongly associated the words in the NECP plans are with these sets of words that are male oriented or female oriented. We found that all the NECP plans had words that were more male oriented than female oriented. This isn’t surprising, really, when you think that these business plans are written by economists or engineers and, within those disciplines, that’s the vocabulary they work with. We mention in the paper that care needs to be taken with the language used in these policy documents so that gender equality and clean energy ambitions are addressed at the same time.

Last year you co-authored another (opens in a new window)paper which dealt with gender. Can you tell us about that?

That particular systematic literature review, published in the journal Energies, was looking for gender mainstreaming in energy policy or energy research. We found there’s not a lot of it yet, but this will change because of EU policy. In EU gender equality action plans, gender mainstreaming is a tool used to insert gender into all policies. For example, in all research funding policies, you have to identify your gender dimension. We can’t see it yet in any of the clean energy transition policies. In the transport sector, for example, we know that women in general have different transport needs, they may often be moving with children or maybe caring for elders, so they may have different transport needs. If none of that is factored into the design of clean transport systems, we’ve missed the needs of a very big section of our population. In future years, we should see more exposure, awareness and actions, related to gender dimensions in the clean energy transition.

What do you see as the role of research culture and of rules and regulations in encouraging gender equality?

To move the dial and achieve any progress on gender equality, we need a mix of the carrot and the stick. It’s about recognising and putting in place incentives that entice people to do things and, if that isn’t working, introducing rules to make things happen. Systems are resistant to change – if a system seems to be functioning people often feel it doesn’t need to be changed, can’t be changed, or is too hard to change. And that’s where the rules come in. And that can cause conflict, but with all those challenges come all of those opportunities, and that’s where, within a research culture, you can reward people for engaging in those changes that are necessary. This notion applies to the plans and legislation around the clean energy transition as well.  We might have a target which is a soft constraint and something that is a hard constraint, an absolute that you have to achieve – it all ties back to the maths in the end!

What are some actions that researchers can take to help address gender inequality?

Senior career people – editors on the boards, conference chairs – have the opportunity to lead and step out of their comfort zone to become those champions and become aware. I think we still have a huge problem in that people are not really aware that there is a gender equality problem. As human beings, we’re all biased, since we have limited capability to understand everything from every perspective. But we can make an effort to understand that there are other dimensions, other things going on that may be impacting on other people that have not impacted on us. It’s about making other people alert to that as well.

You are founder and chair of the EURO (Association of European Operational Research Societies) WISDOM Forum to help achieve gender equality in Operations Research (OR) and Management Science (MS). How did this come about?


In 2019, I was on the local organising committee of the EURO conference in Dublin, and the program committee asked that we run an event on women in OR. I held a very nice panel discussion with some of the senior women in OR and entitled it ‘The tonne of feathers’.

I wanted to convey the idea that women are often asked to do more, lots of little things – sitting on interview panels, reviewing, and many other contributions from teaching to pastoral care. Each individual thing may not seem to count for anything, but when you put them all together the impact can be large. Women have all this extra burden that they may be asked to carry, which is not rewarded and makes career progress a bit more challenging.

At the end of it the conclusion was: we have to do something about gender equality in OR. This led to me setting up the EURO WISDOM forum. As part of this, we decided we would start an initiative to increase visibility for early career researchers, and run a set of webinars where we connected to the early career women with some subject matter experts in the discipline.

It’s very useful on a personal level to find a network of people that are in the discipline because there aren’t a lot of OR researchers in Ireland, and it’s been very nice to find a really supportive network of people who are interested in looking at this particular aspect of it as well, supporting women in the discipline.

What is it about maths that you love?

I find maths a really satisfying area to work in. It’s like a logical puzzle sometimes. When you are working on maths models or implementing or designing an algorithm, and it is a bit of a puzzle, you have to step back and look at the equations and take your time to figure things out. That’s very intellectually satisfying. Plus, when I apply these techniques to clean energy transition type problems, it’s not just abstract, it’s meaningful. I find that really rewarding. We know we need to make changes quickly to a secure, clean, equitable energy system. I feel the work I do is relevant and meaningful in this regard.


Hosted By: University College Dublin Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
E: nexsys@ucd.ie