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Matthias Ruth sounds a wake-up call for cities

Matthias Ruth, professor of public policy and civil and environmental engineering

Ruth, a leader in the emerging field of ecological economics, has shown that adopting proactive “green” policies is the most cost-effective way to sustain coastal cities against the long-term impact of climate change.

In a seminal study, “Climate’s Long-term Impacts on Metro Boston,” Ruth and his team found that the current “Ride-It-Out” approach to the floods, storms, and rising temperatures caused by climate change will cost more over time than implementing measures to reduce greenhouse gases and protect coastal areas from flooding.

The finding runs counter to the popular belief that policies supportive of environmental goals are always more expensive—a notion that has added weight when it comes to protecting complex urban environments.

But according to Ruth, that very complexity is the reason why environmental inaction will be more costly. A city is a system—interconnected networks of people and infrastructure—which multiplies the disruption caused by climate change.

Ferdi Hellweger studies urban water safety

Ferdi Hellweger, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Hellweger is fascinated by the idea that city dwellers worldwide could someday swim in urban waterways like Boston’s Charles River, as they did decades ago.

Existing tests for water-borne pathogens are slow and imprecise, making it difficult to know at a given moment which sections of a river are safe. To fix that, Hellweger builds mathematical models to depict and analyze how plumes of bacteria move through creeks, lakes, rivers, and other water bodies located in cities. By tracking the path of E.coli and other microbes, Hellweger is discovering more about the conditions that sustain or derail such pathogens.

Hellweger’s models will help policymakers and city residents predict, in real time, the location and levels of bacteria and where it is safe to swim—bringing his vision of urban swimming holes one step closer to reality.

Phil Brown exposes what can make homes toxic

Phil Brown, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences

Brown is a renowned scholar whose work lies at the intersection of social science and environmental health. His studies on people’s exposure to indoor contaminants, such as the flame-retardant chemicals used in household furniture, electronics, and building materials, are a catalyst for environmental policy change—both locally and globally.

Always attuned to the world’s emerging environmental health issues, Brown has examined high-profile cases of contested illnesses, including one that resulted in numerous deaths from leukemia among children in Woburn, Mass.

His research group on environmental health science has been supported by numerous grants from federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

He is currently the director of the Social Science and Environmental Health Research Institute, an interdisciplinary center for research, teaching, community engagement, and policy work.

Mark Patterson advances undersea monitoring

Mark Patterson, Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Understanding, predicting, and ultimately mitigating the impact of climate change on our urban coastlines requires close, continuous monitoring of earth’s oceans, as well as its atmosphere.

But manned diving expeditions are expensive and limited in the amount of ocean area they can cover. To overcome those constraints, Patterson has developed a line of autonomous, underwater robots known as Fetches.

Equipped with GPS, cameras, and various types of sensors, Fetch bots can collect vast amounts of data over time about water movement and the ocean floor, marine life populations, the condition of coral reefs, and oxygen levels.

“The robot is thinking for itself, executing its mission, dealing with unforeseen circumstances, trying to preserve itself, and reacting to things it sees in the coastal zone,” says Patterson.

By deploying a small army of Fetch bots, scientists gain a more accurate picture of how and where the ocean is changing, and the impact of oceanic change on our climate and coastlines.

Jane Amidon designs living cities

Jane Amidon, professor of landscape architecture

Amidon is at the forefront of a growing movement of landscape designers creating more sustainable cities by harnessing nature’s own processes—an approach with very quantifiable benefits when it comes to offsetting urban pollution.

For example, an acre of wetland can store 1 to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater. And in one year an acre of mature trees can absorb the carbon dioxide produced by 26,000 miles of car travel.

Amidon also points to an example of what can happen when we don’t adapt a more environmentally sound approach to urban design: Tropical Storm Sandy, in 2012, during which the East River flooded parts of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, causing serious and widespread structural damage. If the urban coastline had been designed with river dynamics in mind, says Amidon, the city could have absorbed much of the water level rise and perhaps used that water to support oxygen-producing shoreline species.

“It’s about resilience,” says Amidon. “A city should ebb and flow like an ecological system.”

April Gu pioneers new water testing technology

April Gu, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering

April Gu is pioneering new technologies to quickly and effectively identify toxic substances in drinking water in both developed and developing nations. Scientists suspect there are hundreds or even thousands of chemicals in a single glass of water. But existing water-quality tests—even in first-world countries—are often time-consuming and imprecise, which means that most of the chemicals in our water remain a mystery. Gu wants to change that.

Gu and her team are creating devices such as a nanobiosensor that would detect in water trace amounts of increasingly common environmental pollutants, such as antibiotics and endocrine disrupting compounds. If consumed daily, such chemicals could lead to health issues later, including cancer and reproductive problems.

Gu’s test will arm policymakers with more precise data about our water—the first step toward developing better technologies and regulatory will to clean it.

Richard Roberts oversees rare ocean genomics library

Richard Roberts, College of Science distinguished professor and board chairman of the Ocean Genome Legacy

The ocean is one of the earth’s most enigmatic places—a biologically rich environment about which much is still unknown. Roberts, a Nobel laureate and an expert in genomics and molecular biology, helps lead a first-of-its kind “library” that could unlock the secrets of the sea.

As board chairman of Northeastern’s Ocean Genome Legacy, Roberts oversees a research team that is gathering genetic information from more than 4,000 rare and endangered marine species. This resource is housed at Northeastern’s state-of-the-art Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. Scientists worldwide can access the genomes, or DNA blueprints, to study organisms that are rapidly disappearing from our oceans.

By learning more about the genetics of imperiled marine life, researchers can develop ways to protect the sea from threats like pollution and over-fishing. Scientists can explore this trove of DNA data for many other purposes, including creating new medicines, restoring vanishing ecosystems, and curbing climate change.

Randall Hughes shores up coastal wetlands

(Anne) Randall Hughes, assistant professor of marine ecology

Coastal wetlands are one of the most valuable natural ecosystems based on the benefits they provide to humans, yet they are also one of the most undervalued ecosystems, according to the global conservation group WWF.

In fact, a study of the role of coastal wetlands in reducing the severity of impact from hurricanes in the U.S. found that they provided storm protection services with an estimated value of more than $28 billion a year, according to a 2009 study published in Annual Reviews of Marine Science. The total dollar value of wetlands benefits—including nutrient removal, providing fish and shrimp nurseries, food production, recreation, and providing raw materials for fur trapping—was estimated to be $14.3 trillion.

Hughes’ team looks at why and how marsh plant diversification factors into conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands. Using data collected from a large-scale Marine Biological Laboratory TIDE study, she and her team are looking at how rising nutrient levels affect different marsh grass species, which form the foundation of coastal wetlands.

The body of evidence she and her team are compiling will help urban policymakers make smarter decisions when it comes to rebuilding and protecting wetlands—and help shore up cities against storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Len Albright tracks sustainable design

Len Albright, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Public Policy

Albright, a leading thinker on urban sustainability, says U.S. cities spent the last century hiding nature behind concrete and steel. Now many cities are embracing nature as a new generation of city dwellers craves green space amid skyscrapers.

Albright explores how communities react to climate change and create resilient spaces in which to live, work, and play. As a sociologist and author of the upcoming book The Urban Fish, Albright is especially intrigued by how cities across the U.S. are re-thinking their use of vital waterways. By unearthing buried sections of river, building creek-side trails, and supporting locally sourced fish—among other initiatives—cities are bringing nature back to the urban jungle. Restoring waterways to their natural form has added benefits, he says: improving residents’ wellbeing, spurring tourism and economic growth, and buffering the landscape against natural disasters.

By tracking patterns in sustainable design, Albright will help urban planners and policymakers imagine and build cities of the future.

Sanjeev Mukerjee

Sanjeev Mukerjee leads fuel-cell future

Sanjeev Mukerjee, professor of chemistry and chemical biology

Sanjeev Mukerjee, professor of chemical engineering

In the quest for a better alternative to the internal combustion engine engine, Mukerjee and his team are solving the primary stumbling block to a practical fuel-cell system that converts hydrogen to energy: cost. Because fuel cells use platinum as a catalyst, the technology would cost an unsustainable $5,000 per kilowatt.

The team is experimenting with materials like iron and cobalt polymer composites that would reduce the energy price tag a thousandfold.

But electric vehicles also need an energy-storage system—and Mukerjee’s team is working on a cheaper, more efficient substitute for lithium-ion batteries. Their patented lithium air battery uses oxygen in the air for its oxygen-reduction reaction. Lithium-ion batteries require a more expensive metal-oxide electrode and need more frequent recharging.

Coupled with inexpensive fuel cells, this novel super-battery technology would power a fully electric car capable of driving all the way from San Diego to San Francisco on a single charge.

Carolyn Lee-Parsons drives biodiesel production

Carolyn Lee-Parsons, associate professor of chemical engineering, chemistry, and chemical biology

Lee-Parsons learned a lot in her quest to increase production of pharmaceutical compounds in plant cells—knowledge she is now using to achieve a potential breakthrough in renewable energy production.

She is applying her arsenal of biochemical and genetic engineering tools to microalgae cells, which naturally produce a biodiesel precursor called triacylglycerol.

Microalgae cells use triacylglycerol molecules to store energy, but it takes several weeks to accumulate levels high enough for practical use.

If we can uncover the nuances of the machinery in microalgae cells, says Lee-Parsons, then we should be able to determine how to speed up triacylglycerol production and “milk” microalgae of triacylglycerol without destroying the cells.

And that would be significant, says Lee-Parsons. Because biodiesel can store more than 10 times the energy of its main competitor among plant-based energy sources, ethanol, her research could make biodiesel a vital source of alternative fuel.