Mike Quashie received his PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2018. His research and thesis focused on the optimization of energy management system planning for advanced microgrids. Today, he is the Director of Analytics and Model Development at Arcus Power Corp.
Q: I will start with the first question. What made you interested in a PhD in electrical engineering?
I’ve been interested in electrical engineering for a long time. I was fortunate in my undergrad to have a scholarship to go to Moscow to a specialized university, the Moscow Power Engineering Institute. So my undergraduate training has always been geared towards power systems or electrical engineering, and that influenced my interest in electrical engineering and my interest in seeking more.
Q: During your undergraduate, did you know you were going to go for a PhD or did you have a job in mind?
During my undergraduate I didn’t actually know I was going into a PhD. The scholarship system was such that you finish your schooling and then return back home and help. After my undergraduate, I went back to Ghana and then had the opportunity to work there. I was fortunate to be on a project where we were looking at alternative energy solutions for one of our major industries. That rekindled my interest in power systems and seeking advanced knowledge in that area.
I looked at profiles of what researchers at McGill were doing and it was really interesting to me. My decision to go to McGill was influenced by the caliber of researchers they had and the kind of research they were doing in electrical engineering.
Q: Did you encounter any challenges or setbacks during your PhD?
There were definitely challenges because I was moving through many different cultures. I moved from Ghana at a younger age to go to Russia—and that’s a different culture altogether. Then I came to the US for a Masters—which is also an entirely new culture—then I came to Canada—and it was a different culture again. The great thing about McGill is that it was very diverse compared to all these places I had gone to. Having people come in from all over the world meeting under one umbrella to share their knowledge was really great.
It was very challenging to adapt to all the cultures and to try to be flexible. The educational system was quite different in each place so my brain was constantly trying to adjust to one system or the other. Moreover, my supervisor was quite tough. During those initial stages, it will always be challenging until you get to understand what is really required of you. Then, things become a little smoother. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who was very good-hearted even though he was very tough. Let me take the opportunity to thank Prof. Joos for his supervision and his friends Drs Chris Marnay and Jim Reilly who were very supportive of my work. I would also like to thank Prof. Jassim and Prof. Bouffard for their support.
Q: How about the connections you made or communities you were a part of? Do any of them stand out to you?
When I was at McGill, we had the McGill African Student Society (MASS), where you got a great group of people for social support. There was also a strong Ghanaian and Nigerian group of students at McGill’s Macdonald campus—I actually met my wife at the Macdonald campus. She was doing her PhD there while I was doing my PhD on the downtown campus.
When it comes to the professional aspect, we had the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and also the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). You go to conferences where you can present work and you meet other professionals and get to understand what are the problems being solved, how what you are learning can be applied in certain areas and get to know people in the industry.
Q: What did you find to be the most valuable experience, if you could pick out just one from your time in graduate school?
It depends…outside graduate studies, meeting my wife is one of the greatest things ever [laughing]. When it comes to something related to research, I think the most valuable experience would have been my first paper getting accepted. That’s something that makes you feel good. It’s a great achievement for a graduate student. You feel very good and then after that, publishing becomes the norm.
Q: Could you describe what you do now?
Now I’m the director of Model Development at Arcus Power. I develop algorithms for asset optimization, for power arbitrage, or dispatch of power assets. I use machine learning or AI applications in power systems. Aside from that I also use deep learning algorithms to forecast the peak demand in the province and forecast what the prices will be.
Q: Is there any connection between what you did as a grad student and what you’re currently doing now?
There is a huge link between what I did during my graduate program and what I’m doing now. During my graduate school, most of what I did was advanced microgrid planning and operations—optimizing power dispatch plans based on predicted demand. In those days machine learning and AI was not a thing, so we were doing stochastic and probabilistic estimates of load. That’s all transitioned to data science and machine learning now.
Q: Can you describe how you got into your current job, and if you had any factors in mind when choosing that position? Salary, location, things like that?
I started as an analyst and then moved up to become the manager of model development within six months or so, and within a year became the director of model development. When I started, it was a green startup that had potential. The trick with startups is you have to understand the industry and know the potential of the company that you’re joining.
It took a long time for the power industry to adapt to renewable energy. In the same way, I saw that it was going to take a long time for the power industry to fully adapt machine learning and AI to the industry. So seeing a company which was taking one step ahead in that industry I saw a future in the company. That’s what drove me to that company. I wasn’t so concerned about how much I was being paid; I was more concerned about the future of the company in that space.
I remember one piece of advice that a professor gave openly: it’s not about the money when you are looking for your first foot in the industry. It’s about the experience. Once you get into the industry, and you get this experience that you can talk about, you can actually move to wherever you want. The most important thing is getting your foot in the industry.
Q: Is there anything you wish you knew before starting a PhD?
I wish I knew people who had gone through similar paths so that I would have been well prepared for the journey. My expectations weren’t super clear. If I had friends or mentors who had already gone through the process prior to joining the program, they could have told me what to expect, what not to expect, and what the process is going to be like. I would have been well-prepared coming in. I was coming in with a very naive expectation of finishing in three years, but anybody at all who has gone through a North American PhD program would tell you that three years is quite ambitious. If you know that you might end up spending an average of five or more years of your life in this program, that information can help you plan your life well.
Many thanks to Mike for sharing his PhD narrative!
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.