In memory of Maria Cugnetto

Today I received some sad news that Maria Cugnetto, one of our PhD students here at RMIT had passed away. We are all diminished by her loss. I always enjoyed her company and wish I had time to get to know her better.

This obituary is written by Angela Di Pasquale, another RMIT PhD student, in memory and tribute to Maria and her work.

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“Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words.” George Eliot

If you knew Maria Cugnetto, this may well be how you feel about her. It is how her family and friends will always remember Maria. Maria passed away on Wednesday, 18th August, after a three year fight with cancer.

I met Maria by chance on June 2nd, 2010 at a workshop run by the School of Graduate Research at RMIT.  From over my shoulder I heard: “So, you are doing the Wittenoom project?” I turned around and there was this petite, dark haired woman, with smiling eyes, whose softly-spoken voice had uttered the question. Not my image of an engineer, but as we talked I found out that this was her field. I also got the sense that she kept abreast with university life.

Over the next two months as I got to know her, I came to see that her family was everything to her, but her work was also very much one of her passions (as well as chocolate). She had a gentle sense of humour which lit up her face, with her gorgeous smile. Her commitment to her family, her friends, her work, her colleagues – to whatever she was engaged in – were evident to me. Her strong desire and efforts to instill trust and confidence, in her personal and professional relationships, also shone through.

It was during our first conversation that day in June that she shared with me some of her story. You could not help but engage with her. This petite lady, from that first encounter, displayed the courage and strength she has had to call upon, at various times during her life. She shared with me that she had breast cancer, had had brain surgery, a consequence of her illness, and that she was continuing treatment.

Maria had started her PhD in 2007 but her illness had prevented her from continuing. She applied and was granted a year’s leave, only to find out later, that somehow she had lost her scholarship. The situation Maria found herself in highlighted unforeseen issues with the system of research funding. Although no one person ‘broke the rules’, it was clear to all that heard of Maria’s plight that an injustice had occurred, merely because a circumstance such has hers had not been imagined when the rules were written. It was clear that the system needed to be changed.

Now anyone who has worked with a government bureaucracy will know that for a single person with limited resources fighting ‘the system’ is hard – especially when you are pretty sure that there is a big chance you will fail.  Another person faced with this situation may well have decided it was not worth the effort, especially if they were sick and in pain.

But not Maria.

Like the meticulous engineer she was and with the skills of the PhD researcher, which RMIT lauds in their students, she set about to discover what had happened and why. Patiently, she found the evidence and then systematically and graciously presented her case to the relevant people in RMIT and outside of it. Her flawless case could not but return to her a scholarship. While it was not the one which was rightfully hers, nevertheless justice had prevailed, but the process was a long one. These were stresses which Maria did not need as she sought to turn her illness around, yet she continued to fight with dogged determination until all the matters were resolved.

Maria would be able to come back when she was ready to complete her postponed thesis, in the area of energy. I will not even attempt to explain it. Instead I have included below the first draft of the three minute thesis, which she sent to me in July. It is testament to Maria’s keen mind and intellect.  Even though she was still not officially enrolled, she was continuing to complete tasks, in preparation for her return.

She once told Inger that she found PhD scholarship a joy, a privilege and something worth fighting for; she explained how her illness made her acutely aware of these things, which might otherwise have been lost if she had been like most PhD students, who assume they will have time to finish what they started.

One time, Maria proudly showed me the file of documents she was adding to what she had previously accumulated to complete her thesis. She spoke enthusiastically of her plans. As she was dealing with her health challenges Maria was also preparing for an energy conference in October – a field dear to her heart and to which she has contributed significantly and on an international level for many years.

Those of you who have known her will understand what a source of inspiration she will always be in our lives. Despite her debilitating illness, Maria willingly shared her time and her keen mind with the people she met and touched, in so many different ways. If you have had the pleasure of meeting Maria, this news of her passing will shock and deeply sadden. For those of you who knew her not, her story is here to inspire you in your quest for rewarding scholarship and knowledge – two things Maria passionately extolled.

Till we meet again, Maria.

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Below is the first draft of Maria’s 3 minute thesis. Of course, the research is pertinent and the way Maria was approaching it was straight forward, so that a novice like me could understand. She would have won hearts, if she had presented:

So we want to reduce our carbon footprint because that is a good thing to do for the environment. That’s what we hear, what we read and what is associated with climate change. And yes, climate change is something on the national agenda for Australia and the rest of the world.

So what do we do? Do we do it individually or as a community? These are the questions that require detail and direction. In our modern world, our lifestyles have changed to be more complex than in years gone by. Today we use more energy than ever before and this increases year-by-year. It is a digital world and we need energy to power our everyday tasks and activities. We use energy to power computers, 3D TVs, mobile phones, rechargeable batteries, electronic games, electronic organizers, electrical appliances, refrigerated air-conditioning, central heating, microwaves, 6-burner cook ranges, automatic defrosting refrigerators, dryers, washing machines and dishwashers.

An optimist would say “We can’t decrease our energy needs because of our current lifestyles. So what we need is renewable energy (so that we can use as much energy as we need, without guilt or responsibility of generating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions).” That must be the solution. However, in the electrical world, having 100% renewable energy is not possible as renewable energy is intermittent. The wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. This means there is no guarantee on the reliability of electricity supply, the quality of electricity supply and the continuity of electricity supply. It also means that the source of electricity generation used today, i.e. coal-fired power stations in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria,  must continue, and therefore continue to emit GHG and carbon emissions. This needs to continue until coal-fired generation is transitioned to gas-fired generation and renewables are integrated into the electricity grid and supporting infrastructure developed. Capital investment and time is required for this to occur. That still leaves us with GHG emissions and climate change comes back into the picture as a problem and a challenge.

So, where do we go and what is to be done? A pessimist would say, “We need to use less energy and decrease our GHG emissions, because our source for power generation still includes coal.” Coal is the backbone of the Latrobe Valley in Victoria and that means livelihoods for communities and families. This is economics, technology and people at play. There is an integration that must be devised to meet the challenge and to deliver results.

My research is about looking at the technical aspects of power supply infrastructure, smart technological devices to measure and monitor power usage. My research is also about the people and how people use electrical power, what people think of power and energy, can people use less energy? Is energy different to reduce by individuals compared with water? People have responded to the water campaigns. Will people respond to energy and electrical power campaigns? Re energy usage, what are people’s moral position on energy, attitudes on energy and sustainability? Will people use less energy if the price of electricity increases dramatically? Is energy viewed by people as water is viewed? Water is life threatening and must be saved for survival on this planet. Is energy viewed by people as having to be saved in order to be able to live on this planet? Is society accepting of energy reduction or energy conservation? Do we need a crisis for people to take notice of energy usage and then the lowering of energy usage? Will people adapt to using less energy? The whole area of consumer behaviour with respect to energy usage comes into place.

The solution seems to be made up of all three, i.e. technology, economics and social science (people). It seems an integrated approach is inevitable because if any one of the three, on its own, was the solution, then we would already have the solution. The fact is technology solutions, since the 1970s, have not worked on their own.

People, on their own, have not solved the energy challenge and this is evident in the annual increases in GHG emissions. Economics, by itself, has not been the solution. People still pay electricity bills every three months without blinking an eyelid about the usage during that period. The electricity usage challenge is not on people’s radar and they have not been educated or given an opportunity to assist in the solution.

In my research, I will explain what has worked to date, what may work. I will review the reforms to date, policies in place, results from trials and analyse trial results to determine differences and similarities in order to understand what can be recommended for the current challenges we face with energy usage.

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4 thoughts on “In memory of Maria Cugnetto

  1. I don’t know Maria Cugnetto or of her, until today when I read her obituary. What an inspiration! As a PhD student (also starting my PhD in 2007 with QUT, part-time), I don’t think I have even come close to what Maria has experienced and I admire her courage. There were times, research students like us, feel like throwing in the towel – I know I did few times because of the frustration with the ‘system’ or bureaucracy. Reading what Maria has achieved or tried to achieve has given me a new perspective on my own PhD journey. Thank you Maria – rest in peace – till we meet again.

    p/s Maybe RMIT University should set up a scholarship under Maria’s name, to continue what she has done and her aim in her reseearch topic?

    • Rohana, I could think of no better way to acknowledge Maria’s contribution to our university life and making it more straight forward for future students, who encounter the sorts of health issues she did. Thank you for suggesting it.

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