MEM Eleanor Johnstone Builds a Path to Make it More Natural to Live Efficiently

During her time at the Nicholas School, Eleanor Johnstone MEM’17 has studied public transportation and urban energy efficiency in two of the largest cities in the American West. She arrived at this juncture by way of the Maldives, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal.


Johnstone was on a solid career path using her undergraduate degrees in English and African Studies. She worked as a journalist in New York and in the Maldives and as a contractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C., and Ghana. While living in Ghana, she visited Nigeria and Senegal.

Then she decided to pursue a master’s degree.

“I began to think about what drives me. I realized the environment is something I never got tired of wondering about, and was growing increasingly concerned about,”she says.

Her experiences living abroad drove her decision to shift her career in an environmental direction. In the Maldives, she saw the pollution clogging the islands and the community’s extreme vulnerability to rising sea levels. In Ghana, she saw the effects of frequent droughts, which caused recurring blackouts in the hydro-electric power system.

Johnstone enrolled in the Nicholas School in 2015 to study energy and the environment, which she sees as the way for her to make the best impact. “It all comes down to energy, and creating areas that make it natural to live more efficiently,” Johnstone says.

Maldivian capital Male

During her first year at the Nicholas School, her coursework included Tim Johnson’s green building class, a project management class at the Pratt School of Engineering, and a class on green building innovations at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In summer 2016, she completed a Stanback Internship with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Boulder, Colo. Her project focused on improving green transportation in nearby Denver by working with the city to manage parking assets and promote less driving in order to reduce traffic congestion.

“I liked digging into the math and science behind these daily, almost subconscious activities that we do just to get around, and then zooming out to consider which approach would be best for the city and client we were dealing with,” she says.

During her internship, she had the opportunity to apply skills learned in her energy modeling classes with Dalia Patino-Echeverri, Gendell Assistant Professor of Energy Systems and Public Policy. At the end of the internship, Johnstone had produced a model that showed how a change in parking prices would increase public transit use.

“I began to think about what drives me. I realized the environment is something I never got tired of wondering about, and was growing increasingly concerned about”

She built not only on her modeling skills but also on her previous communications experience. She observed presentations by RMI staff, participated in discussions about effective professional communication with colleagues, and gave presentations about her own work, including a final presentation at the end of her internship.

“It was immensely useful to start building that muscle in a collaborative setting so that one day I can ace a public speaking assignment,” Johnstone says.

She also expanded her communications experience by writing blog posts targeted to a national audience.

While at RMI, Johnstone began reaching out to professionals in San Francisco about developing a master’s project around sustainable urban planning. She eventually connected with two volunteers at the San Francisco 2030 District, including Kimberly Seigel MEM ’07, who works with real estate company CBRE and serves as the chair of the district’s data committee.

The San Francisco 2030 District, which became Johnstone’s master’s project client, is a collaborative effort to create a high-performance building district in downtown San Francisco. It is part of a national network of building owners whose goal is for existing buildings to reduce carbon emissions, water use, and energy use by 50 percent by the year 2030 and for new buildings to be carbon neutral by that time.

In order to reduce emissions and water and energy consumption by 50 percent, you need to know what your current consumption is. That’s where Johnstone comes in. Part of her project is determining baseline transportation emissions associated with each of the 40-plus buildings in the San Francisco district, based on employee and tenant commuting. She is trying to determine factors such as how far people travel to go to each building and how they get there—walking, biking, driving or public transit.

One way Johnstone is assessing each building’s commuter carbon footprint is through a survey that building owners will distribute to their employees and tenants. The survey also aims to identify how likely people are to change their current transportation mode and what their options are.

In fall 2016, Johnstone was able to bring the Nicholas School on to the 2030 project as a community partner with the San Francisco district. She says she hopes this partnership can open avenues for future collaborations between Nicholas School students and faculty and the San Francisco 2030 District.

“The goals of the 2030 Challenge and the San Francisco district really align with a lot of the types of things that Nicholas School students are interested in and some of research that Duke’s energy sector as a whole is interested in,”she says.

Aside from her master’s project, Johnstone also is the events coordinator for the Green Roof and Orchard Workforce (GROW), a student group formed in 2015 to manage the rooftop garden and courtyard area between Environment Hall and the Levine Science Research Center. As one of the six founding members, she has helped organize workshops and events centered on turning the gardens into productive, beautiful spaces.

To further her professional development while at the Nicholas School, Johnstone has participated in and even led Career Treks to meet with energy professionals across the nation. (Nicholas School Career Treks allow small groups of students to
travel to companies and organizations involved in environmental and natural resource issues. These visits can include information sessions and/or networking for master’s projects or jobs.)

On her first trek, a trip to Austin, Texas, organized by the Nicholas School Energy Club (NSEC), Johnstone had the opportunity to see the range of career opportunities available in the energy field.

“I realized I could still fit in, even with my liberal arts background,” she says. These treks have allowed Johnstone to better understand the dynamics and landscape of the renewable energy sector and also to develop her leadership skills by working with other Nicholas School students to design and lead trips.

After missing out on a school-organized professional development spring break trip when it reached capacity, Johnstone and six peers decided to organize their own career trek to meet with San Francisco energy professionals. Using their Austin trip experience, the students identified companies to visit and created a budget before presenting their idea to the Nicholas School Career and Professional Development Center and the Duke University Energy Initiative. Both helped sponsor their initiative along with Bold Rock Cider (which isowned by a Duke graduate who is an environmental enthusiast).

“That trip was a one-time opportunity,” Johnstone says, “and the whole experience, thanks to my team, reinforced for me that you really can get a lot done with a balance of grit, curiosity, confidence and humor.”

In addition to these extracurricular activities, Johnstone has worked in her second year as a consultant for the Nicholas School Communications Studio and a grader for Johnson’s green building class.

After graduation, Johnstone plans to continue working on issues around urban sustainability. She is most interested in transportation planning and design and building energy efficiency improvements. Ultimately, she says she wants her work to serve communities.

Johnstone is grateful to the Nicholas School for “setting us up with the tools that we need to move forward and have an impact.”

But it is not just the coursework that brought her to Duke. “I chose Duke not just for two years but for the long term. Part of what I see here is that there’s a giant alumni network which, in my experience so far, has been incredibly helpful,” she says. “I’ve become a player in a network that has a huge reach and therefore a huge ripple effect.”

Freelancer KATI MOORE MEM’16 served as the Nicholas School’s communications assistant until she graduated.