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Q&A: Talking with an Australian Economist, Michelle Freund

Jacobs Senior Economist Michelle Freund talks career, her work on our latest hydrogen economy thought leadership paper and #OurJacobs culture.

Jacobs and Yarra Valley Water have partnered to deliver a thought leadership paper which asks ‘what if’ the growth of Australia’s hydrogen industry could be supported by co-located hydrogen production at wastewater treatment plants?

Find out in our latest insights and read more in this International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) feature with one of the paper’s co-authors.

In honor of INWED, we’re connecting virtually with our team of thinkers, dreamers and doers around the world to showcase the work we do every day to #ShapeTheWorld.

For this feature, we talked career, her work on our latest hydrogen economy thought leadership paper and #OurJacobs culture with Jacobs Senior Economist Michelle Freund.

What’s your favorite part of your role?

My favorite part of my role has to be working in multidisciplinary teams. We all work to achieve a common goal but often see that goal differently based on our experience and training. I enjoy bringing that different perspective to a project.

As an economist, I always focus on the rationale for change, the problems we are trying to address and whether the benefits outweigh the costs. By seeking answers to these questions, I often challenge the status quo and hopefully lead to better outcomes for our clients.

We’re publishing this article in honor of International Women in Engineering Day. What inspired you to pursue a career in STEAM?

I feel like it was always there. My dad was an engineer, and I was always drawn to the science subjects at school. Half way through my civil engineering and commerce degree – with the full intention of pursuing a career in engineering – I realized that economics was a better fit for me.  But I’ve always felt that the two disciplines are complementary. Engineers are creative at finding design solutions and economists have to the tools to test the impact that these solutions have on the society. When we work together, we deliver better value for money for the community.

This year’s #INWED theme is #ShapeTheWorld – you just co-wrote a new thought leadership paper exploring the potential benefits of new methods for hydrogen production that’s got major potential to shape the world around us – tell us a bit about that.

Working on this paper was a real highlight for me. Our team included energy market analysts, economists, wastewater specialists and also drew on Jacobs’ global experience and expertise. Not only did I get to work with some incredibly talented people from within our company, but our partnership with one of our largest water businesses – Yarra Valley Water – means our analysis was grounded in a real opportunity.

Sustainable hydrogen which is produced using recycled water and renewable energy, can play an important role in transitioning us to a zero carbon future. However, the cost of producing hydrogen is still too high to make hydrogen competitive with other electricity or fuel sources.  The paper explored the question ‘what if the growth of Australia’s domestic hydrogen market could be supported by co-locating hydrogen production at wastewater treatment plants?”  The case study we investigated found that the use of pure oxygen – a by-product from hydrogen production - could reduce the cost of wastewater treatment whilst improving the commercial viability of sustainable hydrogen production. These results are really exciting as they present an opportunity to commercialise an investment that delivers significant benefits to our environment.

If you aren’t working, what would we be most likely to find you doing?

These days, when I’m not in my home office, you can usually find me spending time with my family. Having two young daughters means that weekends are busy riding bikes, going for walks, playing hide and seek or jumping on a trampoline. 

Most interesting career moment?

One of my most interesting career moments was visiting Wilcannia for the first time as part of a scoping study and business case for the replacement of the local weir. The small remote town, located 948-kilometers northwest of Sydney, has a large Aboriginal community with a spiritual and cultural connection to the river.

Since the weir’s construction in 1942, water had stopped flowing through the town which had an impact on water security but even more importantly, on the community’s well-being. After decades of studies and business cases they had lost confidence in Government’s commitment for this project.  Despite being viewed as a new group of consultants in this never-ending cycle of indecision, the local community welcomed us into their homes and shared stories about the unique challenges they faced. It was interesting to hear the community’s different perspective on the importance of a weir to the cultural and social wellbeing and the experience made me feel more passionate about the project outcomes. I was so pleased to find out that our work contributed to the funding for the weir eventually be secured, with construction due to commence in 2021. 

What’s something you learned in the last week?

Although I met my husband at work many years ago and used to enjoy being in the same office, the same didn't hold true for the home office we are currently sharing. Similarly, the novelty of ‘zoom’ yoga wears off after two months.

Most proud career moment?

Having written the business case for the Victorian State Library redevelopment project, I was proud when Government funding was awarded, and more recently when the works were completed. The redevelopment breathed new life into one of Victoria’s oldest and busiest public libraries and reinforced its position as a world-class cultural institution. 

What’s a story that your family always tells about you?

That as a child, I was painfully shy, refusing to participate in my kindergarten end-of-year show. They can never quite identify the turning point where I apparently could no longer keep my mouth shut!

People would be surprised to know that I….

Hate being the center of attention! [Author’s note: We’re sorry, Michelle – but your interview is great!]

What do you enjoy most about being part of the Jacobs family?

Our caring and inclusive culture. Although we are such a large company, everyone has a voice, everyone matters and everyone has a contribution to make. The effort that has been made in recent years to improve our culture has come from a genuine place and is really appreciated.

I also love the diversity and depth of expertise. There is no question that we can’t collectively answer or a problem that we can’t work through.

About Jacobs

What drives you drives us as we work to build a better world – together. At Jacobs, every day is an opportunity to make the world better, more connected, more sustainable. We’re powered by more than 55,000 people across the globe who deliver innovative scientific, technical, professional and program-management solutions for public and private clients around the world.

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