When you’re asked to help tackle a formidable challenge – like, say, addressing climate change on a city-wide scale -- it helps to have a varied skills set and the vision to look beyond your academic discipline to find solutions.

Just ask Malcolm Shield, a mechanical engineer and PhD candidate at UBC who, in the summer of 2010, worked with the City of Vancouver as one of 10 Greenest City 2020 Scholars. Shield’s job was to conduct research to help the City meet its goal of eliminating Vancouver’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“My position was a little unique from the other students, since eliminating fossil fuels is an exceptionally wide ranging issue that covers many different areas; so the research project itself was a lot wider in scope than some of the other students’ projects,” Shield says.

This expansive reach enabled Shield to explore ideas outside his expertise and gain exposure to the City’s sustainability efforts at large. “I’m a mechanical engineer by training, and this work at the City didn’t necessarily draw on the skills I use in my work as a PhD student,” he says. “Because of this, I took a much more fluid approach to the work.”

Today’s engineers require the skills to not only conduct technical work, but also to manage projects and be effective communicators, Shield says. His skills set includes mechanical design, energy research, laser diagnostics techniques, teaching, statistical data treatment and image processing.

Shield won UBC’s Alternative Energy X Contest in 2009, which challenged the campus community to help identify the most appropriate technologies to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions and overall energy demand at UBC Vancouver. He says the contest helped him gain a new perspective on his academic thinking. “The competition made me realize that, yeah, we need to address the big questions.”

With a new vision and his many skills, Shield is in his element when he’s focused on the big picture. “What interests me is how we address the bigger questions of how society meets its energy needs,” he says.

This worldview made him the ideal student to help address the City of Vancouver’s fossil fuel issues, says Brian Beck, Project Manager of the Sustainability Group at the City and Shield’s supervisor on the Scholars project.

"It was pretty clear in the first 10 minutes that I met him that he had that interest, it didn’t matter what his background was,” says Beck.

Shield focused his fossil fuel reduction research for the City on electric vehicle infrastructure, the City’s operations and its carbon accounting (calculating the City’s carbon emissions) and reduction pathways.

Beck says having the ability to think about climate change impacts on a large and varied scale is one of the keys to finding sustainability solutions. “We need individuals who want to go beyond their research expertise to think about how communities are developing,” he says. “If they have a willingness and interest to support the development of communities and not just pursue the technologies or the research around specific solutions, that broader thinking is a good fit for us because they are coming from the right space.”

After his experience at the City, Shield is convinced that encouraging students to develop a knowledge base that incorporates many areas, as well as their specialty, is what’s needed to solve a broad challenge like climate change, a challenge that clearly requires approaches from various disciplines.

“Students are not necessarily being hired just for expertise,” he says. “We’re also being hired for critical thinking, the way we see the problem at large, our ability to address and problem solve, whether within our field of expertise or not.”

Beyond preparing students for the workforce, Shield says academic institutions like UBC, in conjunction with municipal governments, have a critical role to play in finding sustainability solutions at a local level.

“The universities within a city’s boundaries are there to do the thinking, they can fill that gap in between,” he says. “It’s one thing to manage your city and make sure things happen, but what is governing your overall direction? You need time to be able to think about the larger picture. That’s what universities do, they are fonts of knowledge, they develop thinking.”

Shield expands further to explain that the role played by universities is not limited to ‘thinking’, but that they can also provide a ripe test environment for many different and competing ideas.

“UBC is a complete community in every sense of the word, and forms a perfectly contained platform on which homegrown ideas and thoughts can be implemented before spreading to the wider community. UBC is itself a ‘living laboratory’ ”.