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Slimy bacteria and plastic pollution compete for awards at this year’s research expo

This year’s virtual Research, Innovation, Scholarship, and Entrepreneurship Expo on Thursday, April 14 features more than 460 undergraduate, graduate and faculty research projects that tackle global challenges and offer unique, interdisciplinary solutions. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

You’ve heard of recycling plastic materials to make new plastic products. You’ve heard of reusing plastic items. Now, you have an opportunity to learn about a process that can turn plastic waste into fuel. 

A team of Northeastern students will present their work to develop a device that uses solar power to transform waste plastics into usable fuel at the university’s annual Research, Innovation, Scholarship, and Entrepreneurship (RISE) Expo on Thursday, April 14. The virtual expo will feature a broad variety of undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research and creative projects from across the Northeastern University Global Campus Network. More than 460 researchers will share endeavors that range from developing a laser to be used as a cancer intervention to genetically engineering slime-producing anaerobic bacteria that feed on greenhouse gasses.

“RISE is a place where you can see the fruits of Northeastern’s pretty daring experiential learning model where students can learn without nets. And that allows them to be people who are producing new knowledge, creative practice systems, organizations, businesses—really wide ranging across the disciplines,” says Jonna Iacono, director of Northeastern’s Scholars Program and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and one of the organizers of the event. 

Presenting researchers are eligible for several awards based on the significance of their work, the innovation and uniqueness of their projects, and their overall presentation. Attendees can also vote for their favorite projects throughout the day to receive a “People’s Choice” award.

Students on the solar pyrolysis of waste plastics capstone team test the device on the top of Columbus garage. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

For the researchers, RISE is more than just a chance to gain recognition for their work. 

“One of the things we hope to do with RISE is get people’s thoughts on this project and build interest and get feedback,” says Richard Liebert, a mechanical engineering student and member of the team developing a prototype device to convert plastic waste into fuel using only solar power. 

“It’s really cool to be able to share it with not just people within our discipline, mechanical engineering, but to share our work to a broader audience for the first time and get thoughts from tons of different disciplines, get viewpoints from people who might have ideas we wouldn’t think of,” he says.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The RISE Virtual Expo will feature two live discussion rounds in which presenters will be available to dialogue with event attendees via live video chat about their projects at predetermined times. Round I will run from 10 a.m. to 12 noon Eastern Time and Round II will run from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Attendees can register for the event online at any time. The schedule of the event can be found under the “Live Sessions” tab on the RISE website.

Before joining those conversations, attendees can view short prerecorded video introductions to the highlighted projects, which will be available in the days leading up to April 14 and during the event itself. Those introductions can be viewed under the “Presentations” tab of the RISE website after registering online.

The RISE Expo has been Northeastern’s premier event for students and faculty to showcase their research for more than a decade. 

Participating in the event is an honor, says Eric Kim, a computer science and design student who is part of a team studying associations between music and color. The team built a website, called Tuun, on which users take a calibration quiz to determine how they associate color and the mood of music. In addition to gathering data for the research team, the results give users a personalized approach to building new playlists for themselves.

“It’s definitely very overwhelming. RISE is a very prestigious event and it’s amazing to see what everyone at Northeastern is working on,” Kim says. “The spectrum is so wide, but the depth is so deep. It is a really cool thing to be put into perspective with these amazing projects.”

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