Catherine McGanity, ’10, created her own major in international development, a hybrid of political science and international studies that allowed her to put theory into practice. But it was her focus on energy infrastructure that sparked a personal journey into uncharted territory.

Through classes and research at the University of Richmond, McGanity learned how important context — especially the luck of geographic location — is to economic development. As she studied what countries were trying to accomplish through development, the issue evolved into a passion.

But McGanity still had unanswered questions, as many of the classroom concepts seemed “vague and obtuse” without a real-life understanding of their impact. Studying abroad in Africa proved to be a major awakening, showing McGanity how theory and reality don’t always match classroom expectations.

“Coming back, after living through many of the issues I had only barely recalled as I de-boarded the plane in Dakar, I had a completely different mindset,” she says. “I lived through a dictatorship under President Abdoulaye Wade, witnessed the power of micro-finance firsthand, and suffered through rolling black-outs in over 100-degree heat.”

McGanity’s experience with unreliable electricity production and blackouts drove her to look closer at energy flows and energy input markets in developing countries. Her senior thesis examined how many Eastern Asian countries are “perilously close to having major issues with sustaining their fast-paced economy.”

She submitted an abstract of her thesis to the Swanson School of Engineering's International Pittsburgh Coal Conference during spring break of 2010. She realized only after her thesis was accepted that the conference was not actually in Pittsburgh — she’d have to travel to Istanbul.

“Writing from mid-June to mid-August on an idea I’d been tinkering with for a number of years was no easy task,” McGanity says. “Describing it to people outside the field of energy also made me realize how difficult it can be to explain a flushed-out idea to someone who doesn’t know the jargon.

“As I later discovered, I was rather young for the conference scene. However, when the time came to get on the plane and head to Istanbul, I was ready.”

Among hundreds of professional researchers at the conference, McGanity took home an honorable mention in the technical paper category for her paper. She has since presented two more papers at another Pittsburgh Coal Conference — this time in Pittsburgh.

Despite the accolades, McGanity found herself in the same position as most of her senior classmates, wondering what she would do after graduation. Her professors encouraged her to not settle for a position that didn’t connect to what she wanted to pursue. Today, she works as an intern for Algae Systems, LLC, and will begin a master’s program in industrial ecology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology – Trondheim this fall.

“[My supervisors at Algae Systems] are just as excited about my opportunity to study in Norway as I am, and there is potential for me to collaborate with them next summer and for my master’s thesis,” McGanity says. “I am so grateful to have an active role in a field I love.”