Environmental Engineering Major Wants to Ensure Food Security for Everyone, Everywhere
By Edwin L. Aguirre
Ariel Shramko ’24 is aiming for the stars.
The junior environmental engineering major from Attleboro, Massachusetts, is the CEO of the Auto Terra Project, a startup company that aims to use innovative products to ensure food security on Earth and beyond—perhaps even on Mars.
Shramko and her team, which includes mechanical engineering graduate Eliot Pirone ’22, electrical engineering and physics double major Michelle Connolly ’23 and computer engineering graduate student Gitesh Shewatker ’23, are currently working in conjunction with the UML branch of Engineers for a Sustainable World to compete in Phase 2 of the Deep Space Food Challenge.
The goal of the international competition, which is administered in the U.S. for NASA by the biomedical nonprofit Methuselah Foundation, is to develop new technologies for producing nutritious, maintenance-free, zero-waste food for astronauts during long-duration space missions. U.S. winners can receive up to $150,000 in prize money and be eligible to compete in Phase 3.
“We are currently improving the design of our prototype terrarium for possible use as a food production system for a Mars habitat. It is intended to feed up to four astronauts for three years as they travel to Mars and back,” she says.
According to Shramko, Auto Terra’s self-contained, self-regulating terrariums are compact and portable, and they allow the user to grow fresh, organic produce such as tomatoes, celery, spinach, green beans, mushrooms and potatoes with zero maintenance required.
“No watering or turning the lights on and off is needed,” she explains. “The only effort required from the user is the initial setup, the planting and harvesting and, of course, the cooking. Our terrariums also do not require connecting to the power grid, access to running water or even light. This allows them to be used just about anywhere.”
Prior to competing in the Deep Space Food Challenge, the team also entered the project in the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge, UMass Lowell’s annual student entrepreneurship competition. Pitched under the name “Terrarium for Mars,” the project won the contest’s $500 People’s Choice Award in the fall of 2020, as well as the $2,000 Honorable Mention and the Foley and Lardner Prize, worth $5,000 in legal service, in the spring of 2021.
Creating a Grow-It-Anywhere Food Farm
Shramko and her team, however, were not content with simply helping future Martian explorers.
She notes that worldwide, 1.9 billion people suffer from moderate to severe food insecurity. Even in the U.S., there are 38.3 million people who are food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Food insecurity is more than just feeling hungry; it can have lifelong effects, especially in kids, who can suffer from lower IQ scores and chronic physical symptoms,” she says. “These effects can contribute to the already prevalent inequality in the world.”
Starting this summer, Auto Terra is partnering with local communities and food pantries to provide its products to families who need them most.
“We firmly believe that everyone deserves access to food, regardless of socioeconomic status, unstable supply chains, geopolitical turmoil and even the effects of climate change,” says Shramko.
A Lifelong Dream Come True
Shramko became fascinated with ecosystems at a very young age.
“I remember being 5 years old and dreaming of someday creating an ecosystem that would allow people to go to very harsh environments and open up new frontiers,” she says. “My entire life, I’ve always been intrigued by the complicated connections between all the different aspects of an ecosystem, and I studied them as best I could.”
When she was 14, she learned about environmental engineering and immediately fell in love with the remediation and restoration of ecosystems.
“After enrolling at UMass Lowell, I knew I wanted to participate in DifferenceMaker with my idea to create a closed ecosystem. And so I did. I never thought that I would be able to get this far this soon, but I now truly believe that dreams can come true.” -Ariel Shramko ’24“I knew then that this was my calling,” says Shramko. “After enrolling at UMass Lowell, I knew I wanted to participate in DifferenceMaker with my idea to create a closed ecosystem. And so I did. I never thought that I would be able to get this far this soon, but I now truly believe that dreams can come true.”
In 2021, she worked as an undergraduate research assistant with Distinguished University Prof. Pradeep Kurup of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to test drinking water for lead and other heavy metals, as well as PFAS and other contaminants. She also attended National Science Foundation conferences and gave presentations to local high schools.
“The faculty at UML have been incredibly supportive and have helped me to get work experience and mentorship,” says Shramko. “In addition, my research training with Prof. Kurup has given me real, marketable skills for the workforce. And my DifferenceMaker experiences have also been a very nice addition to my résumé and a great discussion piece for interviews.”