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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.

Urban Landscape 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.

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.

This article originally appeared in news@Northeastern.