Brian Gerke follows the second law of thermodynamics: He likes to spread his energy in different directions.
An English major who also studied physics—not physics for poets, but a rigorous second major in physics—Gerke has always prized a full, diverse life.
So even though it wasn't an easy decision after 10 years in cosmology research, he stepped off the well-trod path leading to a faculty position a year ago to pursue energy-efficiency research.
"Basic research is very important and exciting; I'm really glad I spent a decade in cosmology," Gerke says. "And that preparation has served me very well in my new technical field, where I'm using my training to produce more immediate outcomes."
It turns out that helping to set national energy-efficiency standards is a great career for someone with a PhD in physics (from the University of California, Berkeley) and three years of experience studying galaxy formation at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (based at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University).
And for someone who's sung in a madrigal choir, painted a 50-foot portrait of Waldo at the Burning Man festival in Nevada and rowed for a Cambridge University boat club, the job offers variety of its own. Gerke gets the chance to help craft policies that serve multiple interests: saving people money, growing the economy and reducing the severity of climate change.
A senior scientific engineering associate, Gerke is one of seven physics or astronomy PhDs working in the Energy Efficiency Standards Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The PhD comes in handy.
"We're frequently faced with trying to model a particular sector of the market that's complicated and difficult," Gerke says. "A sophisticated background in data analysis and modeling is essential to getting that done."
How's this for applied?
Thanks to the Energy Efficiency Standards Group and the US Department of Energy, which oversees both SLAC and Berkeley Lab, your refrigerator uses only a quarter of the energy of a 1975 model, despite being larger and self-defrosting. Other home appliances have also seen big drops in their energy consumption because of efficiency standards.
On a national scale, this adds up to smaller utility bills, fewer power plants and fewer polluting emissions.
The DOE standards began with analysis work on refrigerators in 1979 and have since propelled major advances in the areas they cover: residential and commercial appliances, lighting products, office equipment and more.
Altogether, those products account for an estimated 82 percent of home energy use, 67 percent of commercial building energy use and 50 percent of industrial energy use.
"These are significant numbers," Gerke says. "It's important that we get the standards right to save everybody the maximum amount of money and energy."