Alumna Julia Sohnen’s Career Charges Forward with BMW

As an advanced technology engineer for the BMW Group Technology Office, Julia Sohnen, M.S., Transportation Technology and Policy (TTP), works to improve sustainable mobility and innovation with one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world — all within the heart of California’s Silicon Valley.

Sohnen conducts customer research for the BMW i ChargeForward program. This program partners with California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to study how electric vehicles can operate as a flexible load on the electricity grid through the forward-looking concept known as smart charging. The idea is to manage at-home electric vehicle charging to help the utility manage peak load, stabilize the grid, and provide cleaner source energy.

When PG&E is experiencing peak load conditions, participating BMW i3 electric vehicle owners who volunteered for the ChargeForward program may be asked to delay charging for up to an hour. Owners can choose to opt out of any single delayed charging request. All of this research is being conducted locally in the San Francisco Bay area.

“Now that the program has started, my responsibility is managing all the customer research and establishing research goals,” Sohnen said. “We want to explore how to better match charging of the electric vehicles to dynamic energy supply sources.” While Sohnen conducts fresh research in automotive innovation, she likes to stay connected to her Aggie network, tracing her beginnings with BMW back to ITS-Davis and its multidisciplinary TTP program.

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Sohnen, like many recent graduates, did some soul-searching before arriving at her position with BMW. With a background in mechanical and aerospace engineering, she started her career working for Boeing Satellite Systems in Los Angeles. Realizing that she wanted to shift her focus to sustainability, Sohnen left Boeing to return to school.

“I wanted to apply my control systems background to energy systems. A former professor at Cornell suggested ITS-Davis, specifically for the STEPS (Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways) program. The transportation-energy pathways and the infrastructure component really aligned well with where I wanted to go next. It was a perfect fit.”

At ITS-Davis, there is no average student, typical path, or standard curriculum. Students develop their own multidisciplinary program. The flexibility of the TTP program combined with Sohnen’s clear goals and aspirations led her to her current profession. It turns out Sohnen’s thesis on carbon emissions associated with charging electric vehicles is a timely topic related to her current work.

“Through that thesis and the connections I made in the STEPS program, I was able find this position,” Sohnen explained.

Sohnen took advantage of networking opportunities with BMW and other automobile companies, made available to her through the ITS-Davis STEPS program. She networked with several BMW engineers at the STEPS symposia and reached out to her connections when beginning her job hunt. She is now approaching her third year with BMW, working on second-life battery research and technology scouting, in addition to the BMW i ChargeForward program.

“Students should realize the advantage of the program and how Davis is a strong network for state agencies, other universities, and industries,” Sohnen reflected. “There are a lot of talented people that come out of ITS-Davis and stay in this electric vehicle space. These are the people you will be constantly running into for the rest of your career.”

The #AggiesAtWork series is done in partnership with the UC Davis Cal Aggie Alumni Association.

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