Indra Haraksingh

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

The future of the world’s energy supply is one of the most pressing challenges confronting mankind. While there is on-going debate and controversy around what the best sources of this supply can or should be, one thing is undisputed: the demand for energy will increase significantly in the coming years, threatening to outstrip supply. This increase is currently projected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) to be 56 per cent by 2040, not just as world population grows but as world prosperity and consumption do, particularly in emerging economies.

In addition to the urgency to increase supply, the current and potential impact of climate change is generating more pressure and consensus in all countries to move away from fossil fuels and ensure that  more of the supply is green, i.e. low carbon and renewable.

While current global usage of renewables is only approximately 10 per cent, the growth rate in particular countries is fast, in some cases at double and triple digit increases percentage-wise in key renewable technologies like wind and solar. However, to match current and projected demand, many hurdles still need to be overcome to make renewables more efficient, robust and cheap to compete with fossil fuels. This requires both greater commitment at the policy level and more innovation with the existing technologies to drive costs down. Otherwise, according to the EIA, fossil fuels, especially tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane, will continue to supply almost 80 per cent of world energy use through 2040.

One local scientist who has been advocating for increased investment in renewable energy throughout the Caribbean for almost 30 years is Dr. Indra Haraksingh. Haraksingh, a lecturer in the Department of Physics at the St. Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI), has made a name for herself internationally through her advocacy and research into solar and other renewable energy sources. She is today a leading regional expert and activist in the field.

Like all proponents of renewables, Haraksingh believes that any debate on energy sources must consider the socio-economic impact of energy generation on climate and the environment. In that context, the benefits of renewables are undeniable. While renewable energy has high initial costs, it is worth investing in over fossil fuels because of long-term impact on the environment and climate. Caribbean countries can find alternative solutions through wind, solar, geothermal and biogas. At the Forty-First Special Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) on Energy held in Trinidad in March 2013, a regional approach to renewable energy targets was proposed. Most countries pledged to increase their national renewable energy share to meet the regional target of 48 per cent by 2027. Most Caribbean countries have high electricity rates, making renewable energy a highly attractive option. Haraksingh also stresses that all countries should strive to improve energy efficiency and conservation measures to reduce overall energy demand and further decrease costs.

Dr. Haraksingh is active in the widespread promotion of the use of renewables. She works to raise awareness, promote dialogue and influence policy regionally through her appointment to some of the most important agencies and bodies dedicated to renewable energy. She has been recognised for her contribution to training and capacity building throughout the Caribbean and has worked with many agencies, ministries and international organisations to help develop the use of renewable energy. In addition to her membership in the International Solar Energy Society and the World Renewable Energy Network, she is a committee member of CARICOM’s Caribbean Renewable Energy Development Program (CREDP) and President of the Caribbean Solar Energy Society. This has enabled her to facilitate open discussion about the future of energy in the Caribbean by bringing together the critical stakeholders. Locally, Haraksingh serves as President of the Trinidad and Tobago Solar Energy Society and is a Cabinet-appointed member of the Renewable Energy Committee of Trinidad and Tobago through which she played an integral role in the drafting of the renewable energy policy of Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. She also serves as a member of the Renewable Energy Committee of The University of the West Indies, promoting research and development at the highest academic levels. She is involved in collaborations with numerous international universities and organisations.

In 2008, Haraksingh was awarded the International Pioneer Award for Solar Energy by the World Renewable Energy Congress in the United Kingdom for her pioneering work in the promotion of renewable energy throughout the Caribbean. In 2002, her publication, Thermal Performance of a Solar Cooker powered by a Natural Convection Flat-Plate Collector, earned her the Outstanding Scientist Award from the World Renewable Energy Congress in Cologne, Germany. Beyond her own research, Haraksingh is helping to steer the future research coming out of the Caribbean through her design of the curriculum for her brain-child, the Master of Science in Renewable Energy Technology programme at UWI, St. Augustine, which came on stream in September 2013. This programme is a first for the region and is also the first Master in Science programme in the physics department at UWI St. Augustine. Haraksingh is also the primary supervisor to nine M. Phil. students in the department.

But her work in physics and renewable energy is only one half of the equation of Haraksingh’s career as a researcher and educator. She is just as passionate about mathematics. A former secondary school mathematics teacher, Haraksingh has remained very engaged in math education at the secondary level, through the Trinidad and Tobago Mathematics Olympiad. She has been involved with the Olympiad for more than two decades, serving as Chair for almost 20 years and as Country Team Leader for the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) on many occasions. As Leader, she has witnessed team members bring home one silver and five bronze medals – a great achievement for one of the smallest countries participating in the IMO. One of these members was her own daughter, Rajini, who to date remains the only female IMO medallist in the country.

Haraksingh is a strong believer in nurturing gifted and high achieving students. Students participating in the Olympiad have the opportunity to compete all around the world and, more importantly, to develop a sense of confidence in their own academic abilities. As she puts it, “There is often a lot of focus on the general body of students or on low achievers, but it is very important to pay special attention to high achievers as well. They need to be challenged in order to achieve their full potential. This is particularly important as these students may one day have the capacity to solve some of the most pressing problems facing the world.”

Indra Haraksingh was raised in Orange Valley, Couva, Trinidad, a place she describes as “a small fishing village close to the sea.” The tenth of 12 children, she had close bonds with her six sisters and five brothers. Her parents, and the kind of family life they fostered, had a strong and positive influence on her life and her own values. Her father, Harrichand and mother, Basdai, owned a shop in the village, in which the children had to help out. But they also emphasized the importance of education to their children and invested most of the family’s limited finances towards ensuring that young Indra and her siblings had everything they needed to attend and excel at school. They set high standards and ambitions for their children and were strict in how they brought them up, but also gave them the freedom to select their particular careers. One of Indra’s older sisters was the first person in their village to attend university, and Indra would eventually follow in her footsteps.

Her academic journey began at the Waterloo Hindu School where she obtained her primary education. Like most girls from her area, she selected a school near to home as her first choice in the Common Entrance exam and, after placing in the top 100 in the country, she was accepted into Holy Faith Convent, Couva.

Her choice to specialise in the sciences was not because she was better at those subjects. She excelled in many subjects and greatly enjoyed the arts and foreign languages. She was also multi-talented and enjoyed a rich extra curricula life. She was a member of both the drama club and the choir, and played tennis for her school. She also wanted to study ballet and music but her parents could not afford that luxury. Her first form mistress and mathematics teacher, Maria Moy, was a great inspiration, stoking her interest in math and, in turn, her fascination with science. She recalls doing math past papers in her free time for fun because she enjoyed the challenge. She went on to do mathematics, physics and chemistry at A-Level, and after passing her exams, she taught for a brief time at St. Joseph’s Covent, San Fernando.

Even though she enjoyed teaching there immensely, she left when she received a government scholarship to study natural sciences at UWI, majoring in physics and mathematics.  Following this, she began teaching these subjects at Chaguanas Senior Comprehensive School, and continued there for almost 20 years. She graduated from UWI in 1978 and, in 1990, went on to obtain her Diploma in Education, focussing on the Teaching of Mathematics.

In 1991, Haraksingh was badly injured in a car accident, which drastically altered the course of her career. She left teaching to fully recuperate and, when she emerged again, she decided to focus on the development of solar energy technologies. She had already been engaged in the field when she had joined the newly formed Trinidad and Tobago Solar Energy Society in 1985, and was appointed the first Secretary/Treasurer, and later President.

During her recovery period, she went back to UWI to do her M.Phil. and later upgraded to a Ph.D. in physics with a focus on solar energy. She credits her supervisor Prof. Oliver Headley as being a greatly encouraging mentor to her during this time. She completed her Ph.D. thesis on the design and testing of a Natural Convection Flat-plate Collector Solar Cooker using coconut oil as the heat transfer fluid and heat storage medium. She graduated in 2002 and, shortly afterwards, joined the university as a full-time lecturer, becoming one of only two women in the department of physics.

Harakingh’s work commitments and involvement in renewable energy and the Mathematics Olympiad do not leave her with a lot of free time. But she does manage to carve out some space for herself to unwind, exercise and doing some cooking. Family continues to be very important to her. She is a devoted mother to Rajini, herself an outstanding young human genetics scientist, whom she half-jokingly says is her ‘greatest achievement’. She is equally devoted to her husband, Kusha, who has been a source of inspiration and strength to her. She also remains close to her siblings and enjoys the regular gatherings of the not-so-large-again clan. Most of all, she loves spending quality time and going on holiday with her family, traveling to what she refers to as “exotic countries” to learn about and explore their varied cultures.

Haraksingh’s vision for the future is “to see a green Caribbean, utilising its renewable natural resources to the maximum and to the benefit of our fragile island states.” She is optimistic that, with the right support and guidance, the next generation will take up the many challenges ahead to address key global issues. She is a committed and nurturing teacher and a role model to thousands of students. She encourages young people to apply their education and training “to some of the problems in everyday life and come up with innovative ways of solving them.” They would certainly be following the road she herself took when she set out to make a contribution to the one of the biggest of these problems and to do her part to help build a cleaner, more sustainable world.