A sustainable breeding ground for collaboration

A com­plex struc­ture the size of a shoebox perched on a table’s edge in Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room on Monday evening. The 3-​​D printed con­struc­tion resem­bled a series of tiny, haunt­ingly bare trees with inim­ical spikes for branches.

Archi­tec­ture pro­fessor Jane Amidon explained that stu­dents in the Design for Sus­tain­able Urban Envi­ron­ments pro­gram cre­ated the model and others like it as scale-​​neutral pro­to­types for use in resilient urban plan­ning. The approach aims to explore ‘ecosystem sur­faces’ that could, on a small scale, wel­come oyster growth in the inter­tidal zone or, on a much larger scale, pro­tect coastal cities from mas­sively destruc­tive storm surges while simul­ta­ne­ously serving as avian bio-​​habitats, said Amidon.

The thorny struc­ture was one of more than a dozen research projects on dis­play at the fifth semi-​​annual Open Lab Expe­ri­ence and Recep­tion, hosted by the Office of the Provost.

The event high­lighted the range of the university’s inno­v­a­tive, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research focused on sus­tain­ability. Drawing fac­ulty researchers across many dis­ci­plines, the inter­ac­tive expo dually served as a breeding ground for new oppor­tu­ni­ties to col­lab­o­rate, some of which might go untapped without the open forum for such dis­cus­sions. “What I saw there was exciting,” said Jerry Hajjar, pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering. “I really liked seeing what my col­leagues are doing and I know it was only the tip of the iceberg.” He noted that the show­case demon­strated many poten­tial oppor­tu­ni­ties to forge col­lab­o­ra­tions across dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries with researchers such as Amidon.

Hajjar’s research, on dis­play a few tables down, focuses on sus­tain­able con­struc­tion prac­tices, including decon­struc­tion, in which building mate­rials can be easily repur­posed and saved from landfills.

  • At right, students Edwin Lo and Michelle Lau listened as Eli Abidor, a third-year engineering major, described components of the solar-powered boat Northeastern students have raced in Solar Splash, an annual intercollegiate competition.


  • Stephen Director, left, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, listened as Ron Whitfield, executive professor in the D'Amore-McKim School of Business, discussed the myriad applications of chlorine in everyday products and processes.


  • First-year students Liz Olson, right, and Elvira Stridsberg, center, listened as Marisa Bellantuono, left, a fifth-year student, discussed her sociology class research on the many products that use materials from pigs.


For her part, Amidon, who is the director of the School of Architecture’s Urban Land­scape Pro­gram, said that once her team’s pro­to­type struc­tures were ready for com­mer­cial prime time, they hoped to tap into the exper­tise of col­leagues in other col­leges to iden­tify not only the most envi­ron­men­tally sound building mate­rials with which to con­struct the design but also the poten­tial eco­nomic ben­e­fits of the research.

One of those col­leagues is assis­tant pro­fessor Matthew Eck­elman, who, along with his grad­uate stu­dents, pre­sented sev­eral projects for which they had assessed the true “green­ness” of var­ious prod­ucts over their lifecycle—from the pro­duc­tion line to the waste stream of objects ranging from a con­crete block to an elec­tric vehicle.

Another is Matthias Ruth, a pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering whose team’s work to use com­pu­ta­tional mod­eling to help policy makers deter­mine the most robust solu­tions for com­plex envi­ron­mental scenarios.

For example, Ruth said, “Many regions around the world are trying to figure out how to tran­si­tion from their cur­rent power gen­er­a­tion to some­thing dif­ferent.” But, for every region attempting to do so, there are dozens of vari­ables com­pli­cating the problem. “So how do you tran­si­tion given all these uncer­tain­ties?” Ruth asked. His com­puter sim­u­la­tion tools account for these vari­ables and iden­tify approaches that stand up in many dif­ferent future cli­mate and eco­nomic scenarios.

Tools like Ruth’s rely on cli­mate mod­eling out­puts from researchers such as Auroop Gan­guly, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering who uses physics and raw data to pre­dict cli­mate change.

Evan Korda, one of Ganguly’s grad­uate stu­dents, noted that their research sug­gests increased tem­per­a­ture maxima in the future, but that those spikes will still be accom­pa­nied by pro­longed cold spells like those we cur­rently expe­ri­ence. Such find­ings, Gan­guly said, are crit­ical for making informed envi­ron­mental policy decisions.

The impres­sive fac­ulty research on dis­play also included Brian Helmuth’s work show­cased through inter­ac­tive, 3-​​D gigapan tours of coastal ecosys­tems being rav­aged by global cli­mate change and law pro­fessor Lee Breckenridge’s work high­lighting inno­va­tions in legal sys­tems for coor­di­nating human water uses and instream flow needs in aquatic habi­tats. Ron Whit­field, exec­u­tive pro­fessor of finance and insur­ance in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness, dis­cussed his work that takes a com­pre­hen­sive look at the eco­nomic impor­tance of chlorine-​​based prod­ucts per­va­sive throughout society.

The North­eastern Social Sci­ence Envi­ron­mental Health Research Insti­tute is also devel­oping new ways for people to pro­duce more sus­tain­able large scale indus­trial sys­tems by changing how we think about and study con­sumer indus­trial economies. These projects include making children’s toys that teach about indus­trial supply chains and devel­oping low-​​cost, com­mu­nity based approaches to envi­ron­mental health research that empower com­mu­ni­ties to study indus­tries that sur­round them.


Related Faculty: Jerome F. Hajjar, Auroop R. Ganguly, Matthew J. Eckelman

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering