Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Degree helps Reif broaden engineering perspective

Kathryn Reif

The La Follette School helped Kathryn Reif come out of her analytical shell.

Trained as a mechanical engineer, Reif wanted to learn more about the legal policies that were shaping the future of her employer, Alliant Energy, a provider of electricity and natural gas services in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

When Reif started at La Follette in 2005, Alliant was just beginning to plan installations of major pieces of pollution control equipment. "Legislation was in the works to reduce nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and mercury emissions," says Reif, who joined Alliant as a project engineer after graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a bachelor's degree in 2000. "The years it takes to get to a final rule and the uncertainty Alliant had in knowing how to move forward fascinated me, and I wanted to find out more about the process. This was also a time when utilities began to focus on how they were going to meet renewable portfolio standards. I knew that moving forward in my career I was going to have to understand how legislation plays a role in planning."

In addition to gaining insight into the policymaking process, Reif learned new ways to approach problems. "In the engineering world, answers are black and white," says Reif, who earned a certificate in energy and policy analysis with her Master of Public Affairs degree. "The solution will work or it will not work. A lot of the class work at La Follette is analytical, but I found certain classes help me see some of the other ways of looking at and solving a problem."

The public affairs practice of approaching problems from multiple perspectives helped Reif see new ways of finding engineering and project management solutions. "In policy analysis, you use an analytical approach to creating solutions and you review who benefits from those solutions and the feasibility of implementing the solution," Reif says. "At Alliant, there isn't just a technical solution to an issue, there is also a financial piece, a political piece and a feasibility piece. Learning at La Follette how to see the world through different lenses helped me get promoted to team lead of project engineering after I graduated in 2008."

In May 2012, Reif was promoted again, to team lead of outage management, helping to oversee taking a plant off line to install and upgrade pollution control equipment. "Because there is so much work that needs to be done, we have created an outage management department," Reif says. "My job is to review the risks of the outage associated with outage costs, schedule, safety and unit availability and help create risk mitigation plans. I am also helping budget projects by determining when the best year to complete the project may be from a logistical standpoint as well as a cost/benefit standpoint. I will oversee employees who will project-manage the outage and help to make decisions as things are happening during construction."

During her first semester at La Follette, Reif held a project assistantship at the Wisconsin Department of Administration's Division of Energy. "I helped to analyze the effects of various elements in apartment buildings on energy use," Reif says. "I worked with statistical software to see if there were correlations of factors such as age, time spent at home, side of the building the person lived on, etc. to energy use. We also did tests on buildings to see how the ventilation systems performed and how tight the building envelope was. This project assistantship helped me learn more about the demand-side of energy. I work in the supply side with our generating stations, so now I feel like I am a more well-rounded energy professional."

At La Follette, Reif appreciated the variety of backgrounds and experiences that students brought to the classroom and the support offered by faculty and staff. "La Follette is so passionate about their students' interests and careers," Reif says. "They put a lot of time into each of the students in helping them find internships or project assistantships and classes that fit the student's long-term goal."

"La Follette has many courses to help teach students skills in an effective way that is easy to understand," she adds. "Some people at work don't know where to begin on solving a problem or making a decision. Those who have the tools to review information and come to a quick solution are the people who become the go-to people. That role gets noticed and rewarded."