Interview with the inaugural recipient of the Zema Energy Studies scholarship

4 min

Lakshan Bernard is the inaugural recipient of a new PhD scholarship program being launched by Monash University today, in partnership with AEMO.  The Zema Energy Studies Scholarship is named after AEMO’s former CEO and Monash alumnus, the late Mr Matt Zema.

Lakshan, from the Faculty of Engineering at Monash, said he was honoured to receive the scholarship which will provide him the opportunity to expand his knowledge in electrical engineering and contribute to the future of emerging energy markets.

We sat down for a chat with Lakshan.

Energy Live (EL): Hello, and welcome to Energy Live, Lakshan. Firstly, congratulations on your success with the Zema Energy Studies Scholarship.  

Lakshan Bernard (LB): Thank you and thank you for having me.  

EL: To start off the interview, can you give our audience some insight to your background and academic history?  

LB: Sure. My passion for learning started when my dad taught me about maths and computer programming at a really young age. He is an engineer and probably a big part of why I pursued a career in this field.  

In my teen years, I was selected to join Melbourne High School and I really enjoyed that environment because it meant being surrounded by high-achieving peers and being motivated to self-study.  

When it came time to choose a university, I went with Monash because of its reputation as an esteemed engineering faculty. After my first year, I decided to study Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering because of the fascinating applications. I did well in my studies and was able to do a summer research project with Dr Reza Razzaghi, who is now going to be my main PhD supervisor. That was my first experience to research and power systems, and I learned about how new technology is being added to power system, and the need for statistical tools to process the large data. This also gave me my first taste of research, and the importance of sharing the research outputs and collaboration. I really appreciated the collaborative environment in the Monash University power engineering laboratory as well as excellent facilities (like the real-time simulator and phasor measurement units) that allow for cutting edge research. 

In my final year, I took an elective unit on power systems and was intrigued by how rapidly it is changing. I then realised how much I had to learn and wanted to contribute to the field, so I decided to pursue a PhD. 

EL: I understand you’re completing an internship now – how is that going?  

LB: Yes, I was excited to get some industry experience before I embark on my PhD journey so I’m currently completing an internship in the Network Intelligence and Analytics team at AusNet Services. 

EL: And can you talk to me about the application process for the Zema Energy Studies Scholarship? 

LB: I first learnt about the Zema Scholarship by my lecturer, Dr Reza Razzaghi, who encouraged me to apply for this scholarship. At this stage I only knew that AEMO was the market operator, so I went to look at what sort of projects they work on. I was amazed by the scale and importance of AEMO's work in maintaining a stable electricity system and designing the future of Australia's energy system. That made me want to apply for the scholarship, so I had to submit an application of interest and then I was invited to submit a formal application. This was reviewed by the scholarship committees at Monash University and AEMO. 

EL: What are you hoping to achieve over your three years PhD experience?  

LB: My PhD doesn’t start until March, so I’m currently reading a lot of literature and consulting with AEMO to explore where I can deliver the most value.  

My main goal is for my research to address a current or future problem that we are likely to encounter as the energy sector shifts towards renewable technology. The broad direction I am looking at is how we can use big data to predict and prevent large instabilities in the grid. 

The main academic supervisor for the PhD will be Dr Reza Razzaghi, who is a Lecturer in the Electrical and Computer Systems department at Monash University. Since we are tackling a multidisciplinary problem, the PhD will be co-supervised by Prof. Rob Hyndman, who is a Professor of Statistics in the Econometrics and Business statistics department at Monash University. I am extremely grateful for my supervisors and aim to learn as much as possible from them, as well as how they apply their research to solve problems in industry. 

EL: Exciting stuff! What interests you about Australia’s energy industry and what are some of the key developments you would like to learn about? 

LB: I think the availability of vast quantities of streaming data is extremely interesting. The real challenge is processing this data to get insights into the power system. This is why this project will be multidisciplinary - you need to understand classical electrical engineering methods of analysing a power system and improve them using new statistical tools. 
EL: Last question: what’s one piece of advice you will give you other students looking to build an academic career around energy? 
LB: The energy sector is transitioning rapidly, so I think this transformation is a great opportunity do highly impactful research. It also means that there are exciting collaborations between academia and industry, like the Zema Energy Studies Scholarship.  

I think it’s also important to get exposure to certain things whenever you can. Doing a small research project with my lecturer ultimately lead me down this road to doing a PhD so I would say it is good idea to reach out to your faculty to get a taste of research and keep an eye out for industry collaborations. 

EL: Awesome, thank you for joining us Lakshan and I’m sure we’ll be in touch throughout your journey.  

LB: Thanks for having me.  

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