Just two weeks after arriving at UMass Lowell, Greg Reimonn took up a challenge from his First Year Seminar in Honors (FYSH) professor: Earn extra credit by designing a research project and writing an application for a $1,200 Honors College student fellowship.
Reimonn dove in. He had chosen to study plastics engineering because he wanted to find solutions to one of the world’s thorniest environmental challenges: throwaway plastics.
“I’ve been really bothered by a lot of recent environmental news,” he says. “There are a lot of benefits to plastics, but they also do a lot of environmental damage, and this is an opportunity to do something about that.”
While looking for ideas, he read a study by Danish researchers on microplastic particles in the world’s oceans, caused by the breakdown of consumer plastics into tiny pieces. He read more about their effects on marine life and how they end up in the human food chain.
He also realized that microplastics had been well-studied in oceans. But plastics originate on land, so Reimonn figured he would test river water for microplastics from common sources, like single-use water bottles, to learn more about where and how they start to break down.
“The research is moving inland, because you can’t filter the whole ocean for plastic – and we want to know where it comes from,” he says. “The closer to the ocean the plastic is, the more expensive it is to get it out of the ecosystem.”
He wrote up a proposal and found an advisor: Asst. Prof. of Plastics Engineering Wan-Ting Chen, a new faculty member. Then he applied for, and was awarded, a $1,200 honors fellowship.
Now Reimonn is reading all the available research on microplastic pollution in water and learning how to analyze plastics samples. He and Chen will also start collecting and analyzing water samples along the Parker River in Newburyport as it transitions from freshwater to a coastal estuary – piggybacking on mercury pollution research being carried out by Prof. Daniel Obrist, chairman of the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and a graduate student.
“It’s rare for a freshman like myself to get an opportunity like this,” says Reimonn, who will continue the research over the summer under the Immersive Scholar program. “The faculty here are very open to working with undergraduates.”
Reimonn came to UMass Lowell in the footsteps of his two older brothers: Thomas ’15, who majored in chemical engineering, and Patrick ’18, a math major in the Air Force ROTC program.
“A UMass Lowell education is tough to beat, even by schools that charge double,” Reimonn says. “Why would I go anywhere else?”