Tammy Kelleher
Since joining UCI five years ago, Tammy Kelleher has helped bring the campus's energy-saving cogeneration plant online. Here, she checks out the plant's cooling tower, which drops water through the air to lower its temperature. The water then cools campus buildings. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Inside the office of Tammy Kelleher, senior superintendent of UC Irvine’s Central Plant, an entire wall is covered in clipboards. It’s her unique filing system. Each holds paperwork for one of the systems she juggles: air compressors, generators, boilers, pumps — anything that helps power the sprawling campus.

“People laugh at my wall, but every day I glance at the clipboards and can tell right away if something needs my attention,” Kelleher says. “If I just file the paperwork, I’ll forget about it.”

Kelleher has her own way of doing things, and not just when it comes to wall art. She’s in a position few women hold, overseeing a power plant and 24 engineers. And Kelleher has won the admiration of her mostly male colleagues. In 2006, she received the UCI Staff Assembly Excellence in Leadership Award.

“Tammy has earned the respect of all the plant operators, mechanics and everyone else she’s come in contact with because of her expertise and ability to get along with people,” says Paul Howland, executive director of maintenance and operations. “She worked her way up from a groundskeeper, and she’s had to overcome a few obstacles. Because of that, she has empathy for others who are trying to learn and advance. She’s a great mentor.”

“When I went to school, girls didn’t do this kind of stuff,” Kelleher says. “I took an aptitude test in sixth grade; when they told me I’d grow up to be an engineer, I laughed. Today I think, ‘Wow, they were right.'”

She considered a more traditional career and took typing and shorthand classes in high school to prepare for a job as a legal secretary.

“I found out I couldn’t sit still very long,” she says. “Now I can’t type.”

In 1987, Kelleher stumbled on a job that attracted few women: pest control technician at a correctional institute. She worked at a now-closed youth facility in Whittier (“It had a roach problem”) and rose steadily up the ladder to lead groundskeeper, engineering apprentice (receiving her certification at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in 1997), chief engineer and chief of plant operations. She also helped teach the teenage residents a trade so they could find jobs after their release.

“I worked with wards who had committed grand theft, sex offenders, gangbangers and murderers,” Kelleher says matter-of-factly. “I knew the dangers. I was always on my guard.”

Since joining UCI five years ago, she has helped bring the campus’s energy-saving cogeneration plant online. “We make 19 megawatts of power, enough to heat the campus buildings in winter and cool them in summer,” Kelleher says.

The two-story plant looks like a giant game of Mousetrap, a maze of interconnecting generators, tanks and turbines. The combustion turbine produces 13.5 megawatts of electricity from natural gas at any given time. (One megawatt equals 1 million watts; large buildings typically consume several megawatts.) A heat recovery system captures the exhaust and converts it to steam that raises the temperature of water for heating buildings. The system also runs a steam turbine that generates another 5.5 megawatts of electricity for the campus and powers the chillers for cold water.

Kelleher understands the importance of ensuring continuous power to the campus, which requires diligent oversight of all plant operations as well as the generators and other machinery in UCI buildings — and staying on top of those clipboards.

“If a pump goes down, it could destroy important research or equipment that’s worth millions,” she says. “We have to keep up with everything.”