Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy Awards Fellowships to Faculty, Students

Rist fellow Caralyn Conrad Image by Brooke Coupal
Mechanical engineering major Caralyn Conrad holds a potted plant with a sustainable alternative to plastic mulch film over its soil.

By Brooke Coupal

Caralyn Conrad often visits UMass Lowell’s greenhouse on East Campus.

The mechanical engineering junior from Ipswich, Massachusetts, is using the space to explore a sustainable alternative to plastic mulch film, which is laid out in gardens to hold in the soil’s moisture and limit weed growth.

Conrad’s work recently received $5,000 in funding from the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy’s Fellowship Program, which supports faculty and students interested in pursuing sustainability-related research, education or engagement projects.

“I was thrilled to be awarded this fellowship,” says Conrad, the undergraduate Rist Institute fellow. 

Working with Plastics Engineering Asst. Prof. Wan-Ting (Grace) Chen, Conrad is studying how mulch film made of soy and biodegradable plastic breaks down over time. In potted plants located by the greenhouse, she placed the soy and biodegradable plastic-mixed mulch film in some pots and only biodegradable plastic mulch film in others. She also has some pots with just soil to see if the mulch films degrade slower without a plant. 

At the end of the growing season, Conrad will analyze the remaining film and the plant tissue to see if it absorbed any plastic, which could be harmful to the plant.

“Biodegradable films are a lot more environmentally friendly, but we also want to make sure that the plants aren’t taking up plastic particles,” she says. “We’re looking to see the differences between the two different kinds of film.”

Rist fellow Kirsten Swenson Image by Ingrid Shapinsky
Art and Design Assoc. Prof. Kirsten Swenson received the Rist Institute faculty fellowship.

Art and Design Assoc. Prof. Kirsten Swenson was awarded a $15,000 faculty fellowship from the Rist Institute to help increase environmental sustainability programming within the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

“Climate change is something that we need to address, regardless of whether we’re studying graphic design or biology,” she says. “The humanities and arts need to be part of the conversation.”

Swenson, a Climate Change Initiative steering committee member, is using part of her fellowship funding to create a faculty symposium that highlights existing sustainability research and teaching approaches within the arts and humanities. 

She is also putting together a speaker series of experts to educate students and faculty across all disciplines on how they can work together on sustainability.

“Art and Design students are worried about climate change, and they have a lot to contribute in terms of data visualization and communication skills,” Swenson says. “The symposium and speaker series will allow them to see where they fit into the sustainability conversation.”

Mahsa Ghandi, a Ph.D. student in industrial engineering from Iran, received a $12,000 graduate fellowship to research the environmental impacts and benefits of a geothermal pilot project on South Campus.

Rist fellow Mahsa Ghandi 2 Image by Brooke Coupal
Ph.D. student Mahsa Ghandi is using her fellowship to research the environmental benefits of a geothermal pilot project on South Campus.
Earlier this year, UMass Lowell partnered with the city of Lowell and National Grid to evaluate the potential use of geothermal energy to heat and cool nearby residential and commercial buildings, including the Rist Institute building on Broadway Street. The university was the first site selected for the utilities company’s five-year geothermal pilot project.

“My aim is to show how the geothermal system can contribute to decarbonization,” Ghandi says.

With guidance from her Ph.D. advisor Jasmina Burek, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, Ghandi will analyze the geothermal system using a life-cycle assessment, which allows her to see the environmental impacts at each stage, from production to disposal. 

“Our life-cycle assessment will provide a clear blueprint on the environmental benefits of the geothermal energy system,” she says. “It can guide the design of future geothermal projects.”

Rist Institute Executive Director Ruairi O’Mahony is looking forward to working with each of the fellows on their projects.

“The fellowship program continues to foster creative ideas among students and faculty,” he says. “Each year, these projects elevate the work of the Rist Institute and further contribute to UMass Lowell’s climate, energy and sustainability goals.”