Abby Mastromonaco knew majoring in plastics engineering wasn’t an obvious choice for someone passionate about sustainability.

“I got a lot of pushback for choosing plastics engineering as my major because when people hear plastics, they think that’s terrible for the environment,” says the North Andover, Massachusetts, resident.

However, after visiting UMass Lowell’s campus, she realized it was the right fit for her.

“When I took my tour here, I learned about compostable plastics and how some plastics can be made out of corn oil, soybean oil and even pits from avocados,” she says. “I think that it’s really important that people study these materials so that we can improve them and make them more sustainable.”

Mastromonaco is working to get more compost bins on campus that accept compostable plastics and food waste. The honors student was recently awarded a $5,000 undergraduate fellowship from the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy (RISE) for her project.

“The RISE Fellowship Program is a great opportunity for me to bring my idea to life,” she says. “This will help me pay for the composting bins and also create educational posters so people know what they can compost.”

Mastromonaco, who is the vice president of the Student Society for Sustainability and a member of the Society of Women Engineers, says composting plastics is the way of the future.

She is also researching ways to improve plastics recycling in the lab of Plastics Engineering Prof. Margaret Sobkowicz-Kline. Mastromonaco became a research assistant during the summer before her sophomore year through the Immersive Scholars program, which awards first-year students $4,000 to work on research on campus or in the community.

In the lab, Mastromonaco is looking into how certain plastics, including those that make up water bottles, break down when introduced to an enzyme called cutinase.

“It’s a very valuable experience,” she says. “I’m applying what I’ve learned in the lab to my classes.”

Mastromonaco’s interest in sustainability began in kindergarten when she learned about the importance of taking care of the Earth, and it continues to grow at UMass Lowell.

“Ever since I was little, I was making ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ posters,” she says. “It just stuck with me as something that is really important. I want to take care of the planet.”