Abby McNulty wasn’t personally affected by the Columbia Gas pipeline explosions that rocked the Merrimack Valley and killed one person on Sept. 13, 2018, but the sophomore accounting major from West Bridgewater has friends who were.
So when McNulty scanned the list of research projects available through the Business and Entrepreneur Scholars in Training (BEST) program and found one focused on the disaster, she immediately applied.
“It’s something that I cared about, and I wanted to learn more about it,” says McNulty, who received a $1,200 BEST stipend this spring to work as a student research assistant for the Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.
McNulty’s task was to develop a case study analysis that examined the ethical decisions that were made by Columbia Gas before, during and after the explosions to understand how such an event can be prevented in the future. Donahue Center co-directors Elissa Magnant and Erica Steckler plan to incorporate the project findings into a case study for publication – and for use in business ethics courses taught in the Manning School of Business.
“My research skills were pretty good coming into the project, but I definitely learned a lot more about intensive research,” says McNulty, whose work included a comprehensive keyword search of more than 200 articles from local and national media, along with statements from Columbia Gas. She discovered that residents affected by the disaster were often receiving inconsistent information, such as who was to blame and when gas service would be restored.
“I learned how to triangulate different sources, using what the company puts out with what the media puts out to figure out what is true,” says McNulty, who was shocked that it took NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas, five days to claim responsibility for the disaster.
“They should have been doing that an hour after it happened, not almost a week later,” she says. “They were being very reactive instead of proactive. They didn’t have a plan for this kind of emergency.”
McNulty collaborated on the project with fellow Donahue Center student research assistant Meaghan O’Brien, a sophomore business major. They will continue through the summer to develop a timeline of critical events.
“There’s still a lot of stuff coming out in the news, so it’s kind of hard to stop and say, ‘This is where it ends,’” says McNulty, who presented her findings to date at the recent Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium at University Crossing.
“I’ve never done anything like this,” McNulty says. “It’s been great not just for my research skills, but also my public speaking and communication skills. It’s really valuable.”