Q&A with Lefu Maqelepo, a PhD Candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, USA

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Lefu Maqelepo

Doctoral student Lefu Maqelepo studies Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States. He was determined to delve deeper into his chosen field, and for students contemplating postgraduate study, he was willing to share about his academic journey and experience and what others can expect.

Please share a bit about your background.

I grew up at Ha Phoofolo, a small rural village in Berea, about 20 km north east of Teyateyaneng. I attended a local primary school, did my first 3 years of high school at Cana, and finished the last two at Sacred Heart.

From there, I went to the University of Botswana, where I obtained a Bachelors’ in Mechanical Engineering in 2016. I worked for a year at Onepower in Lesotho before enrolling for a Masters’ of Science Degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Africa in Rwanda in August 2017. I finished the MS degree in December 2018 and am now enrolled in a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy at CMU.

Why are you doing a PhD?

During my time at Onepower, and while doing the MS degree, I dealt with problems that often intersected with the engineering world and the public policy world. That is when I realized that there exists a big gap between these two worlds, which often lead to misunderstandings that in turn act as bottlenecks in engineering projects.

I got interested in the program I am in because it offers a unique opportunity for engineers to tackle engineering problems where public policy is of great importance.  I am specifically interested in energy problems.

With problems like global warming, sea level rise and severe droughts and storms, the world is in dire need now more than ever of experts in both fields to figure out the best possible way of making the world a live-able place by the year 2100 and beyond. To realize this, there is a need to move from fossil fuels dominated energy industry to renewable and sustainable energy solutions. I aspire to contribute towards this dream. 

What was your journey like towards studying in the US?

The journey towards studying in the US was demanding and needed a lot of hard-work and thorough preparation. There are standardized tests (GRE and TOEFL or IELTS) one must take. Before applying for schools, one has to research broadly and thoroughly about programs they are interested in. This usually involves looking at and comparing schools and their requirements, then talking to faculty members in schools of interest who share similar research interests.

A research proposal is always handy and sharing it with them can attract their interest to talk further because they normally receive thousands of similar emails anyway, so it must set on apart. Luckily for me, I talked to professors that had taught me and had worked with before, so this part of the application journey for me was not the hardest.

There is also a part of recommendations, which normally come from bosses and former professors/lecturers. It helps to hone great relationships with these people so that they may be willing to write recommendations. In my case, my former boss whom I had last worked for in July 2017, wrote me a recommendation in October 2018.

Share a bit about your experience as an international student.

To be honest, my PhD advisor helped me tremendously with settling down. My research group is awesome, and my classmates are equally welcoming. These all made my transition easier. A PhD is challenging, one needs to have tons of motivation, and willing to put in hours and hours of work into research.

As a PhD student, most of the studying happens outside of the classroom and is self-directed, which can be stressful at times. Fortunately for me, the people around have always been ready to chip in and offer advice and help, even the professors in my department who are not necessarily my advisors. Besides the hardships, I would say my experience has been good thus far.

What type of skills and experiences do you think have been key to your success?

Well, I would not call it a success yet, but I believe I am on the right trajectory. I work HARD! It is easy to cite hard work, but it takes more than just hard work.  I have never shied away of rejection, so I try as many opportunities as possible.

I also try to network as much as I can and be very specific, direct and concise about what I want from people. I value honest feedback, so I have always sought feedback from people I know will offer brutal, blunt, truthful and constructive criticism. I am as highly critical and demanding to myself too.

What’s been particularly rewarding about the path you’ve taken?

I have always wanted to do work that can impact as many people as possible, especially in Sub- Saharan Africa. While I cannot boldly say I have seen results yet, I am happy with the kind of research work I am doing.

To give a sneak peek into what I do, my current research is aimed at helping electricity supplying utilities maximize returns while ensuring affordable, clean and sustainable energy.  The reward I get, and which I value the most, is happiness. There is nothing more gratifying than following passion, and actually forging a career out of it.

What previous professional experiences have helped you the most?

It must be, without a shadow of a doubt, a semester long internship between January 2015 and June 2015 at Onepower (then Solar Turbine Group). All along, I knew I wanted to do work that could touch as many a lives as possible but had not yet figured out what that might be. That is when I got exposed to the kind of problems I am tackling at the moment.

More than anything, the level of responsibility bestowed upon me during that internship was nothing short of weight, and that really helped me grow astoundingly as an engineer.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Do I really have spare time? Well, maybe I make it. I joke to those around me that I need rehab because I am addicted to soccer. I watch and I play. And err…there is a lady in my life, so I try to make as much time to talk as I possibly can.

What are some of the future career opportunities for someone in your route?

There are ample career opportunities. One could work as, and this is by no means an exhaustive list: an independent consultant, work for the government and advice on policy, work for large technology oriented corporations like IBM, Tesla as a researcher, work for organizations like the AfDB, World Bank as policy advisors, go into academia, or even work for utilities like LEC, LHDA, CBL, spearheading projects.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue the same career path as yours?

I believe this should apply to all career choices. Choosing a career is like choosing a spouse, taking vows to never walk out. Passion is a necessary ingredient. Motivation and drive to succeed against the odds – because believe me some days will be hard – are of paramount importance.

And, I would make a naïve assumption that everybody knows that engineering is quite challenging. People should be willing to put in hours, sometimes extra, to get things done. The field is constantly evolving, one must learn their whole career lives, which also makes an unquenchable lust for learning all the more desirable.

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