Transition Engineering

Susan Krumdieck shares how to navigate your next transition.

Transition engineering encourages engineers to re-think how they approach sustainability in the energy world. Can it help you re-think your approach to your STEM career?

Mechanical engineering professor Susan Krumdieck of New Zealand’s University of Canterbury says the methodology used to engineer the change management of current fossil-fuel dependent systems can help energize your own career. She would know. She invented the discipline; and in so doing, re-energized her own career in STEM. Find out more in this TARATALK with CEO and founder D. Sangeeta.

Don’t change what’s sustainable. Change what’s unsustainable.

When you essentially invent a field of engineering – transitional engineering, in this case – you’ve earned the right to talk and to give advice. That is what professor Susan Krumdieck has done. Transition engineers design and carry out the projects of change that can lessen our dependency on fossil fuels.

Susan’s own career arc has had transitions, too. From business to academia. That comes with risk, she agrees. In the 1990s, she had started a company to work on fuel cells, as a pathway to sustainable energy.

“But fuel cells were never actually going to be a marketable product,” she says. “They were what they were, at the time. They were a palliative (but) we’d pushed the carbon economy too far.”

So that was two years of her life’s work, spent. Was it mis-spent? No, it wasn’t.

“I made a pivot. I went back to academia,” Susan says. “Transition engineering was a new science that I could bring out, and get it out there for everyone to use.”

Essentially, she played to her strengths. “I thought I have a better chance of making a contribution, of making an impact, from the professorial rank than from another.”



1. “Be the catalyst,” says Susan.

She was speaking for transitional engineering, but the advice applies widely. Precipitate don’t prevaricate.

2. Make sure you’re looking, not seeing.

“Look. That’s all transition engineering has time to do,” she says. “It has time to give all engineers the permission to look in the direction that society and science to go in.” That also goes for your own STEM career.

3. Plan ahead.

Again, use the parallels from the last couple of generations in terms of oil and gas dependence. “40 years ago, if we had taken the precautionary approach, we wouldn’t be in a climate emergency,” Susan says. “That is a way we should all be thinking. We should all be thinking long-term planning ahead, being cautious.”


4. Take that risk.

That is what led Susan from Colorado, where she grew up and studied, to Arizona State University to Canterbury University in New Zealand. A job popped up there, it looked like it was in her wheelhouse. No tenure, government funding uncertain. “OK, I’m in!”

5. Look for opportunities to connect – meaningfully, not just an online click.

Susan recalls a distant faculty meeting, in which a university wanted to define its response to sustainability. “It was a real 7-blind-men-and-an-elephant moment” she recalls. “After quite a long time of not really productive working, we had gotten to the point that the thing everybody agreed we needed to do was to define sustainability.” And these were people for whom sustainability was a calling-card. “If we had to wait to define safety or security or survival, we wouldn’t be very successful … you have to work on changing what you’re doing.”

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Susan Krumdieck, Mechanical engineering professor University of Canterbury, New Zealand