Modelling change

  • July 4, 2013
Modelling change

Yanna Antypas talks about her work modelling climate change scenarios with the US Department of Energy.

When she started her academic career, Yanna Antypas [2004] was fascinated by optics and the idea of seeing things with new eyes.  This search for novel approaches has taken her from a PhD in Materials Science and Metallurgy to modelling climate policy designs at the US Department of Energy.

The Gates experience, she says, played a big part in inspiring her transition from academia to policy work where she has been inspired by the idea of making a difference.

Yanna’s work involves an interdisciplinary approach to climate change. She says: “There is an increasing imperative to integrate environmental and economic solutions, which suggests reframing the energy/climate debate in terms of national and international security. This could potentially give it a greater political priority and bring benefits across issue areas – climate, energy and economics – as well as address geopolitical and humanitarian concerns.” 

As an example of how linking issues up can bring benefits all round, Yanna highlights how afforestation in Africa, incentivised by carbon markets in developed countries, can unintentionally impoverish or even displace entire farming communities. If afforestation is done well, under an appropriate legal framework which takes into account other issues, she says, it can serve the interests of investors and local stakeholders as well as help meet climate goals. 

Since leaving Cambridge, Yanna has worked as a policy analyst and energy modeller in the US Department of Energy and the independent Energy Information Administration co-located at DOE headquarters in Washington, DC.  Her work involves conceptualising and simulating alternative policy scenarios:  “I explore possible technology and policy futures, and highly alternative ones at that,” she says. “That’s where I depart from the mainstream.  Much modelling centres on a business as usual scenario, but that won’t work for climate change.  Climate stabilisation could occur through various policy and technology combinations – all radically different from an extension of business as usual.” 

The road towards effective climate policy has been bumpy, she says.  There was a push in Congress (2009-2010) for economy-wide domestic legislation, but it didn’t work out and there has since been a paradigm shift from a universally harmonised cap and trade framework [whereby a progressively tightening limit is set on emissions, and a market is created for carbon allowances] to more fragmented, structurally diverse and regionally specific actions. There is also a tendency to view climate change under the rubric of energy.

Yanna’s work spans international and national climate policy options – actual, proposed, and exploratory architectures – from cap and trade to clean energy or renewable portfolio standards, land use subsidy regimes and constraints on bioenergy. “It’s typical to run a large number of scenarios, assessing any given policy under a range of assumptions about the technology backdrop,” she says.   Through this approach, she can come up with a range of possible to likely outcomes.    

Currently, she is working on modelling that she hopes may facilitate progress, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, towards a legally binding global climate agreement by 2015.  “My ambition is to bring clarity of vision and lucidity of thought to the debate.  That is my professional and personal commitment,” she says.


Yanna’s work is informed by a lifelong commitment to the principle of service.  A Greek-American, born in Boston, she grew up in a foreign service family, attending school in the US, South Asia and Europe.  The longest she stayed in one place was around four years and she says her immersion in different cultures helped shape her as a global citizen and led her ultimately to Cambridge University and the community of Gates Cambridge Scholars. “You are always starting anew and have to reinvent yourself. It’s a challenge and an opportunity every time,” she says.

As a child, she was inspired and shaped by her mother’s work on human rights issues, such as trafficking in women and children, Holocaust education and minority rights.  At school, she was an all rounder, as interested in literature and science as in athletics, being a keen equestrian and runner.   

When it was time to think about university, she had a clear idea of where she wanted to go – to a top academic institution. She applied to Cambridge and MIT, with no back-up plan and had a dilemma when both accepted her.  “In the end, it was an impulsive choice. I had fallen in love with Cambridge, its magic and beauty,” she says. “I visited Cambridge for the first time in summer 1999, to tour Newnham College and meet the Admissions Tutor.  I was transported by Newnham Gardens, and felt I belonged there.  When I arrived to start a degree in Natural Sciences in 2000, the reality of Cambridge surpassed my imagination.”

Her idol at the time was Dorothy Hodgkin, a crystallographer, in turn inspired by Sir William Bragg, who said that X-ray diffraction gave scientists “new eyes”. “I was interested in seeing things in new ways and from new angles,” she says. “I realised the unseen was as important as what could be immediately seen.”

Specialisation in transmission electron microscopy followed naturally.  From the first term, she was placed with supervisors in the High Resolution Electron Microscopy Group of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. Her progress from undergraduate degree to PhD was thus fairly seamless. Her own research, in transmission electron microscopy, focused on developing mathematical algorithms to illuminate the undetected – mapping the magnetic fields of device materials. 

Yanna says her experience of being a Gates Cambridge Scholar changed her as a person. “It dawned on me at some point that I might do better to turn a rather narrow specialisation into a mechanism for more sweeping influence on a hot button issue. For me that was climate change,” she says. “Cambridge gave me vision, and the Gates Cambridge Trust expanded my field of view. Its mission statement about serving others spoke to me immediately and it continues to resonate ever more strongly.”

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