By Ed Brennen
There were the tangible takeaways, like pollinator seed packets, jars of locally produced honey and freshly planted centerpieces on the Coburn Hall ballroom tables.
But attendees agreed that the most important thing they took away from the recent Student Sustainability Leaders Symposium, an annual half-day conference hosted for the first time by UMass Lowell, was a heightened appreciation for collaboration and partnerships.
“In the sustainability sphere, especially in higher education, we confine ourselves to our own campuses,” said George Anderson, a senior environmental science major and sustainability intern at the University of New Hampshire. “This is a great chance to find that overlap between different campuses and seek out those collaboration opportunities that are so necessary to sustainability work. I can’t wait to bring back what I learned to UNH.”
That was a common refrain among the 85 students who attended the symposium in person (there were also 30 remote registrants), representing 18 colleges and universities across the Northeast.
“I’ve learned a lot of things that I’m excited to bring back to Harvard,” said sophomore environmental engineering major Maya Peña-Lobel. As one of three representatives from the Ivy League school, she was particularly interested to learn how sustainability programs are woven into all aspects of campus life at other institutions since “a lot of the roadblocks we face at Harvard come from decentralized offices.”
Quinn Brophy, a freshman integrated studio arts major (and sustainability minor) at UMass Dartmouth, was fascinated to learn about programs at other schools, such as residence hall clothing swaps at Boston University and the reuse of laboratory plastics at Simmons University.
“It’s great to bring it back home to UMass Dartmouth and contribute to this change that we’re trying to make across the UMass system,” Brophy said.
Seven student groups — including three from UML — gave presentations showcasing their sustainability-related research and campus projects.
UML energy engineering Ph.D. students Visal Veng, Samuel Alpert and Benard Tabu shared their “Green Fertilizer” project, which uses solar energy, water, air and plasma to produce nitrate-rich fertilizer that is better for the environment than fertilizers currently on the market.
Senior mechanical engineering majors Alana Smith and Yicheng Zhang and Ph.D. student Oliver Martinic discussed their collaborative sustainability research with the Building Resilience through Knowledge (BUREK) Lab at UML, which is led by Mechanical Engineering Asst. Prof. Jasmina Burek.
And a trio of seniors — Sophia Governo (business), Sabrina Lehman (biology) and Madison Sachs (environmental science) — presented their green roof proposal, which was recently recognized at the Rist Institute for Sustainability & Energy Climate Mitigation Challenge (RISE).
The symposium also featured a panel discussion on student government’s role in sustainability, moderated by senior public health major Valeria Saldana, campus life and environment chair for UML’s Student Government Association (SGA). She was joined by a trio of alumni who held the same position as students: Cody Case ’16, staff director for state Rep. Ken Gordon; Stephani Carnazzo ’19, residence life director at Endicott College; and Adam Dunbar ’11, senior associate director for Student Affairs.
Dunbar, who introduced the idea of bringing hydration stations to campus while with SGA, reminded students that “you may never see the result of the work that you’re doing, but you’re laying the groundwork for the next generation of students that follow you.”
Case advised students to pick projects that they really care about — and then learn them inside and out.
“Be able to answer every question that might come to you, because they will come,” he said. “In public policy, there’s limited time and resources. An easy way to hold something up is to say, ‘I don’t have enough information about this.’ So answer those questions before you get them.’”
Mechanical Engineering Assoc. Prof. Chris Hansen also discussed UML’s new Sustainable Water Innovations in Materials – Mentoring, Education and Research (SWIMMER) program. The National Science Foundation-funded initiative will train graduate students from an array of fields to develop sustainable materials and chemicals that won’t harm water resources.
While the symposium is student-run, it has been guided since 2014 by a board of curators made up of sustainability staff from around a dozen colleges and universities across the Northeast.
Board Chair Lisa Tornatore, director of sustainability at Boston University, said she was “thrilled” for UML students to gain event-planning experience while showcasing their school’s sustainability efforts, which remain tops in the commonwealth, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
“I’ve been very impressed with UMass Lowell and all the sustainability work that’s going on,” said Gabe DiAntonio, a first-year economics and computer science double-major at Harvard. “I’m impressed with how long-lasting the sustainability program has been.”
A team of student Eco Reps from the Office of Sustainability — led by junior meteorology major Victoria Wisniewski, senior public health major Martha Hernandez and mechanical engineering graduate student Charlie Connolly ’21 — helped run the event.
In her closing remarks, senior business major Maddy Roop, president of the Student Society for Sustainability, encouraged attendees to stay connected through the symposium’s Slack community.
“Climate change isn’t a problem that can only be solved by scientists. We need business majors and politicians and leaders,” she said. “You each have a piece that’s really important to solving this problem.”