Burling seeks to make Chicago a model for transitioning to sustainable and renewable energy resources.
Headshot of Derek Burling
Derek Burling

“Since I was 18,” said Derek Burling, MPP Class of 2025, “I’ve been interested in the energy transition we’re embarking on as a society—away from fossil fuels and toward more sustainable, renewable energy sources.”

Burling explored his interest by earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical and power engineering from the University of Wisconsin. While an undergraduate, an internship piqued his interest in policy. “I had a policy research internship focused on energy security with ASTM International in Washington, DC. I spoke with people at the Department of Energy and the State Department, as well as Congresspeople. I eventually produced a policy report. The entire experience really shed light on the bigger picture of energy policy.”

That experience has stayed with Burling throughout his time as an electrical engineer at Burns & McDonnell, an engineering and construction firm with a presence in Chicago, where Burling works in the transmission and distribution sector. “My clients are typically electric power utilities. I address various issues regarding utility assets, which range from the power transmission system to customer distribution networks. These issues include technical engineering design work, engineering project management, and construction support. Since I work with the major utilities responsible for providing the infrastructure that powers the Chicago area, I’ve gained quite a bit of knowledge about the practical side of the electricity market.”

In addition to the technical skills, Burling said the job also offered a firsthand look into how public policy shapes market behavior. “Regulation plays a huge role in what these utilities do. Their incentive structures change based on what state they are in, and their customers may need or want different things. As a result, the regulations each utility needs to adhere to varies widely.”

Burling also saw policy in action when he co-founded Burns & McDonnell’s first LGBTQ+ employee resource group in 2020. “That whole process was very policy-centric, mainly in terms of being a leader in a space that didn’t yet exist and navigating company policies to better advocate for LGBTQ+ employees,” Burling said.

Starting the resource group, which has since grown to include 550 members, also instilled in Burling a desire to explore a local approach to realizing his career aspirations. “Creating the LGBTQ+ resource group made me appreciate a hyper-local, community-based approach,” Burling said. “In the energy transition, the implementation and application of new technologies in urban settings is where we can find the most innovation. I wonder how we could model the city of Chicago as an energy transition success story to other cities throughout the world.”

Burling said when he reflected on his fundamental interest in decarbonizing the energy sector, he realized getting into policy made the most sense for him—and that the Harris School of Public Policy Master of Public Policy (MPP) was the ideal springboard. “The University of Chicago has such a status and a brand, and the Harris School is well known, especially in energy policy, which differentiates Harris from other local policy programs.

“The city of Chicago is my home, and I am passionate about our community. Harris is the perfect runway for this next chapter of my career to create a meaningful impact. I am excited to join and learn alongside fellow students seeking to make a difference.”