Jessica Lin-Powers ’00: ‘Your career will probably be non-linear and that’s okay’
Renewable, sustainable energy is both the focus of work and a metaphor for the career journey so far of Jessica Lin-Powers ’00, who has renewed and re-invented herself more than once.
Through her studies at UNC–Chapel Hill and Morehead-Cain summers studying monkeys in Kenya and collecting water quality samples in Alaska with the United States Geological Survey, Jessica said she developed a love for the environment and field work.
“Any job I’ve maintained long-term has always involved both,” she said of her career arc over lunch with Morehead-Cain prior to the 2023 D.C. Regional Event this past spring.
Jessica landed a job straight out of college as a research environmental scientist at RTI International (RTI) in the Triangle, where she led a team of scientists, economists, and programmers supporting water quality modeling and analysis for the EPA and National Park Service.
The alumna’s experiences at RTI confirmed that her decision to study environmental science and engineering at Carolina through the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health had been the right one and given her the right skillset for the field, she said.
After four years of environmental consulting, Jessica moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to pursue a dual degree in business and environmental sustainability at the University of Michigan.
Graduating in 2007 with an MBA and master’s degree, she joined GE’s Renewable Energy Leadership Program to rotate through commercial and operations roles in the business, working on the wind turbine and solar product lines in the United States and China. Projects abroad took her to Brazil, Mexico, and China, where the alumna witnessed sustainable change from the ground up.
“I loved the international work and felt excited to be part of the energy transformation in these countries,” she said.
After finishing the program, Jessica took a permanent role in the wind field services executive team to manage the operations and maintenance of GE’s fleet of more than 10,0000 wind turbines from the Atlanta headquarters. The unpredictability of day-to-day field operations and periodic client and site visits to wind farms across North America made for, at times, chaotic but gratifying work.
When life veers ‘wildly off course’
After four years with GE Renewables, Jessica married and relocated with her partner to Washington, D.C., necessitating a job change. She joined the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to support the U.S. Department of Energy’s long-term wind power strategy, particularly the country’s strategic shift towards accelerating offshore wind power.
“I intentionally chose a role that would be fulfilling but somewhat less stressful and require less travel than GE to ease our early family years with babies and toddlers and aging relatives,” she said.
It proved a prescient job switch. Jessica’s life “veered wildly off course” in upcoming years. She married in 2010, purchased a home in 2011, and had her first daughter in 2012.
“Life was progressing ‘according to plan,’” she said.
That is, until her second pregnancy in 2015 took a sudden turn for the worse. While fortunately, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Jessica almost immediately underwent an emergency organ transplant. The life-threatening event and aftermath drove a “major re-set of life plans,” as the alumna described it.
The confluence of events left her with the difficult decision to leave the workplace to focus on personal healing and raising her children full time.
Six years as a homemaker gave Jessica time with her children in their early years. The health scare post-birth gave her a perspective to treasure those times in spite of the “daily drudgery” of motherhood, she said.
Time away from professional work also allowed her to rekindle old hobbies, such as piano and dance, and find new interests. She mastered home fermentation, making small batches of kombucha and yogurt. Jessica has no regrets.
“The time away may not have built up my resume, but I needed that restoration period for myself and for our family. It was not wasted time,” the alumna said.
Rejoining the workforce
With both kids in elementary school, and the COVID-19 lockdowns over by 2021, Jessica returned to work. In her current role as an energy projects director for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) in D.C., she now develops large-scale energy infrastructure projects in low-income countries.
Her portfolio of countries so far has included Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Ghana. Her technical projects have focused on hydropower plants, transmission lines, energy efficiency programs, and utility operations. The role has brought back international work to her role, an aspect she missed, with visits to her portfolio countries two to four times per year.
The mission of the work motivates her to go to work every day, she said.
“Energy is truly the lifeblood of economies today. A country cannot develop unless it has energy security and its citizens have reliable access, and we cannot address climate change without totally changing our energy systems and trying to do it equitably.”
Jessica said her career has been far from linear, but it has been deeply fulfilling. From her own health challenges and family life, Jessica encouraged young alumni to “invest in their identities beyond work and to prioritize self-care.”
“Your career is just one aspect of your life, so please don’t underinvest in the rest.”