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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.

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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 Rutha 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.