Women in Tech Series: From astrophysics to engineering.

UNDP People for 2030
4 min readJun 13, 2023

The Women in Tech series puts the spotlight on women who are championing the advancement of transformative technology and digital innovations across UNDP. By sharing these inspiring individual stories, we hope to encourage others to choose this path and spur gender equality in the digital sector.

Marcela Trevino may not be your conventional engineer. As part of UNDP’s Green Energy team, a unit working to develop solar power projects for UN agencies and partners globally, she entered the field from an interesting angle.

Having a great fascination with the physical processes of the universe, Marcela started her education as a student of astrophysics. As an undergraduate, exploring plasma instabilities, radiation and the materiality of the sun, she had a revelation:

“I was curious about the great possibilities of the energy that the sun is showering the Earth with every day. Just think of the amount of free energy that is!”

Staying within the realm of physics, this interest saw her shift her focus to material science, taking on a job where she explored how built materials can take advantage of solar energy. Realizing she was lacking the technical knowledge to understand how things were integrated, she went back to school to study engineering.

During a study project in Kenya, where she explored using solar energy to produce clean water, something clicked: “I realized how technology can be used for development. We can survive without electricity, without technology even, but we cannot live without water. So, looking at these solar power-driven water pumps, I saw that technology was giving us life.”

In 2017, shortly after finishing the project, Marcela got an opportunity to join the newly started Green Energy Team at UNDP in Copenhagen.

Since joining the team, the unit has grown from three interns and a lead, to 18 colleagues globally working to support UNDP, UN sister agencies, NGOs and government institutions with the implementation and development of solar energy projects. Marcela oversees the team’s global portfolio of project, which includes 74 completed projects since 2016 and over 200 projects in the pipeline.

Marcela during a UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan, 2022

“Many people ask me what the relation is between IT and green energy. To create resilient communities, we need IT infrastructure that can prepare us for the future, and for that we will always need power. Power that is affordable, clean, reliable, and this is where me and the ITM team come in.”

She often notices that others are surprised to see her in such a technical role.

“Not many people expect a woman to be in a remote location troubleshooting a solar system.”

For her, it is important to show people that working in a largely male-dominated field is an opportunity within reach for everyone.

“You don’t need to be Michelle Obama or Angela Merkel to be a role model. Just being where you are in your career, whether as a student or in the middle of your engineering career, there is always a young girl looking at you, getting inspired by what you do.”

Technology for development
Born and raised in Mexico, the UN was always a prominent presence in her country. However, Marcela never thought of working there, in her mind, the work of UN concerned policies, governance, or humanitarian aid.

“I didn’t think the UN would have technical positions. I saw technology and development as two separate things. It wasn’t until later that I understood how one can enable the other.”

Carrying out a solar assessment of health facilities with ICT Specialist Jackton Muga in South Sudan, 2022

A female-majority team

Without a conscious decision to hire mainly women, Marcela explains that the Green Energy Team has now has a majority of female colleagues. She is passionate about supporting her team in any capacity.

“I have experienced that women in engineering are motivated, but sometimes we lack the confidence to speak up. There are times you are given a seat on the table, and sometimes you have to speak up and take the seat yourself.”

After six years, Marcela is now seeing her female colleagues giving the same motivation and advice to new interns or consultants starting on the team.

“For me it has been very fulfilling to empower the women of the team to take charge, grow and realize they can do more.”

As the team’s portfolio is steadily growing and requests are coming in from offices and partners globally, Marcela is looking forward to the team continuing to develop, improve their skillsets and deliver better. Enabling her to support her colleagues through this journey, Marcela has recently started a PhD in Project Management studies.

“Having a big portfolio and dealing with a growing team is what inspired me to begin the PhD and getting equipped to drive large projects”.