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Students Engage in Multidisciplinary Research to Protect the Environment & Improve Quality of Life

February 28, 2017

When Amy Mueller joined Northeastern University as an Assistant Professor in the departments of Civil & Envi­ronmental Engineering and Marine & Environmental Sciences in September of 2016, she brought with her years of research experience from both MIT’s Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and Engineering and the University of Washington’s Department of Oceanography.

Dr. Mueller’s approach to tackling environmental problems is a multidisciplinary one, combining basic sciences and electrical engineering to create innovative technologies aimed at tackling some of the world’s most important environmental questions. It is this approach to research that creates an opportunity for Northeastern students seeking knowledge and experience beyond the classroom – and beyond Northeastern’s leading experiential learning model.

Mueller’s research “takes advantage of interdisciplinary viewpoints and expertise from both science and engineering to tackle important challenges across sectors, [science, remedia­tion, energy, and manufacturing]”, said Northeastern Chemistry undergrad Anna Cullen, a current member of Dr. Mueller’s research group.

Under Dr. Mueller’s guidance, Cullen studies issues related to farming productivity in developing countries. Together, they are working on fast, cheap, point-of-sale testing for fertilizer quality to protect career farmers in East Africa from the economically-devastating consequences of purchasing low-quality fertilizers.

Cullen wanted to do research related to environmental science because she’s passionate about the environment. So, when she reached out to Dr. Mueller to enquire about her research, Cullen was excited to hear about this opportunity. According to her, using Chemistry from the classroom and applying it in a way that helps other people is “meaningful and rewarding”.

Undergraduate student, Fizzah Shaikh
working to protect our oceans.

Although Dr. Mueller just recently joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, her lab and research group are rapidly growing, something that presents a great opportunity for students across the university. Cullen is not the only Northeastern student working as part of Dr. Mueller’s student-centric research group. There are several others, including electrical engineering undergrad, Fizzah Shaikh.

Shaikh recently joined Dr. Mueller’s research group, and along with Mueller, is developing a trace-metal clean sampler (initially for measurement of iron in near-coastal zones) capable of daily water sample collection over deployment periods of months. Such technology is critical in understanding trace nutrient supplies that support ocean ecosystems in areas where nutrients are scarce. Initial field deployments of the sampler (called the ISSS in-situ syringe sampler) are taking place in Puget Sound, Washington in cooperation with the ORCA Buoy network. This research builds upon a two-year collaboration between Mueller, the University of Washington’s Department of Oceanography, and the US Geological Survey.

The ISSS project looks to provide a low cost device to sample trace metals in marine environments, particularly iron, at much higher spatial and temporal frequency than is possible with current technology. According to Shaikh “It’s really awesome because you learn so much, but in a natural setting, so it really sticks with you more than learning things off of lecture slides.” “It’s really amazing to just get to experience things like working with arduino and print circuit boards, and getting to see that technology applied to the real world….the environmental field.”

Dr. Muller sums up both the nature of her research and the students involved in it this way: “Many (if not all) of the interesting questions and challenges facing society today require the expertise from multiple disciplines to be combined to come up with sustainable solutions.  The interdisciplinary and problem solving oriented atmosphere at Northeastern is the perfect place to do this work, where students come together from across departments and even schools within the university to tackle meaningful research.”