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Young Scholar Program Comes Full Circle

August 18, 2016

CEE Assistant Professor Matthew Eckelman is now teaching two Young Scholars students after completing the program himself twenty-one years ago.


In the summer of 1995, when North­eastern assis­tant pro­fessor Matthew J. Eck­elman was a rising senior at Brain­tree High School, he felt the Earth move—or at least a small part of it.

Eck­elman was a par­tic­i­pant in Northeastern’s Young Scholars Pro­gram, a six-​​week paid research expe­ri­ence for Boston-​​area high school stu­dents led by Claire Duggan from the Center for STEM Edu­ca­tion. The pro­gram, now in its 19th year, rocked his world.

The bud­ding researcher was assigned to the lab of Mishac K. Yegian, now COE Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering. There, with a fellow scholar in the pro­gram, he con­ducted earth­quake sim­u­la­tion exper­i­ments to eval­uate the sta­bility of dif­ferent land­fill liner systems—the plastic mem­branes that pre­vent liq­uids from seeping through land­fills and con­t­a­m­i­nating the groundwater.

Our job was to set up big boxes of sand with dif­ferent liner sys­tems and sim­u­late an earth­quake on the lab’s shaker table,” Eck­elman says now, sit­ting in his office in the Snell Engi­neering Center. “It was very exciting. We’d press a button, there was a lot of action, and then we’d look at the sand dis­place­ment and for rips in the liners.”

Aug. 1, 2016 - BOSTON, MA. - Matthew Eckelman, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering hosts two Young Scholars, Louis Sokolow from Brookline and Mary Rockett from Needham. Eckelman was in Northeastern’s Young Scholars Program when he was in high school in Braintree. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Matthew J. Eck­elman, assis­tant pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

Today Eckelman—who credits the pro­gram with having intro­duced him to engi­neering practice—has come full circle. This summer he hosted two high school seniors in his North­eastern lab, guiding them, with the help of co-​​mentor and doc­toral stu­dent Abhi­jeet Par­vatker, in researching energy use and emis­sions from the pro­duc­tion of indus­trial chem­i­cals, which typ­i­cally have low effi­cien­cies. Their find­ings will help Eck­elman and his col­leagues build robust chem­ical life­cycle inven­to­ries to assess where in the process improve­ments for sus­tain­ability can be made.

These inven­to­ries get used by thou­sands of researchers all around the world,” says Eck­elman. “But the number of chem­i­cals cur­rently included from the phar­ma­ceu­tical sector is very low. The work of these young scholars will essen­tially mul­tiply times 10 the amount of avail­able infor­ma­tion on such compounds.”

Real-​​world contributions

That stu­dents can make such a con­tri­bu­tion while still in high school is unprece­dented, notes Duggan, director for pro­grams and oper­a­tions for Northeastern’s Center for STEM Edu­ca­tion. “Many alumni state YSP was a pow­erful expe­ri­ence that had a direct impact on their aca­d­emic and career pathway,” she says. “Other uni­ver­si­ties have summer research pro­grams but often don’t have the suc­cess that we’ve had, with data showing the high per­centage of par­tic­i­pants who go on to pursue STEM pathways.”

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Eck­elman as a young scholar Photo from his 1995 YSP Yearbook

The num­bers tell the story: According to annual sur­veys of the more than 400 YSP par­tic­i­pants through 2015, 91 per­cent reported that the pro­gram increased their aware­ness of STEM career path­ways and 89 per­cent believed they would choose a STEM major in college.

Hands-​​on research is the heart of the pro­gram: This year, 17 fac­ulty men­tors hosted 34 scholars—two in each lab—on projects ranging from nan­otech­nology for drug delivery to imaging tech­nology for airport-​​security applications.

That setup gives them the oppor­tu­nity to con­tribute to the big pic­ture, not just com­plete a task,” says Par­vatker, PhD’21, who con­ducted life­cycle assess­ments in industry before coming to Northeastern.

Eckelman’s two scholars have been thrilled at the real-​​world appli­ca­tions of their research.

Mary­Beth Rockett, a rising senior at Needham High School, used mod­eling soft­ware to con­vert patents and indus­trial chem­istry “recipes” for anes­thesia drugs into chem­ical reac­tion and process flow dia­grams showing every inter­me­diate chem­ical step required to pro­duce the final drug. “I never even knew that this whole career path existed,” she says. “This pro­gram opens your eyes past high school classes to the long-​​term goals down the road.”

Louis Sokolow, a rising senior from Brook­line High School, agrees. He used Aspen­Plus soft­ware to sim­u­late pro­duc­tion of chem­i­cals such as ethyl acetate, often used in industry as a sol­vent, to eval­uate trade-​​offs between energy use and reac­tion yields to learn the most energy-​​efficient ways of making the chem­i­cals. “I knew I was inter­ested in chem­istry, but that’s so broad,” he says. “The life­cycle assess­ment work gave me a con­crete example of chem­istry research. Now I’m thinking about studying green chem­istry, which is so impor­tant as we face cli­mate change.”

Out­side the lab

The pro­gram com­ple­ments the in-​​lab expe­ri­ence with out­side field trips, lec­tures, tuto­rials, and social events.

The Best: A summer at North­eastern with 25 of the greatest people I’ve ever met.
— Matthew Eck­elman, YSP Year­book 1995

For example, in daily home­room meet­ings YSP staff engage stu­dents in engi­neering and design chal­lenges and guide them through the devel­op­ment of their col­lege essays and LinkedIn pro­files. In addi­tion North­eastern admin­is­tra­tors pro­vide detailed infor­ma­tion regarding finan­cial aid, co-​​op oppor­tu­ni­ties, and the col­lege appli­ca­tion process. “I didn’t expect that,” says Rockett. “It was so generous.”

Weekly tours of cor­po­rate and gov­ern­ment research sites around the state open doors to agen­cies such as the Mass­a­chu­setts Clean Energy Center, in Boston, and com­mer­cial out­fits such as Akamai, a con­tent delivery net­work in Cam­bridge. Fac­ulty pre­sen­ta­tions intro­duce the scholars to research in areas from 3-​​D printing com­pos­ites to detec­tion strate­gies for per­son­al­ized med­i­cine and envi­ron­mental monitoring.

So it’s no sur­prise that both Rockett and Sokolow exclaim how the pro­gram exceeded their expec­ta­tions. “Everyone was so wel­coming,” says Rockett. “We had our strug­gles in the begin­ning with making the soft­ware work, but our men­tors were so won­derful in guiding us through.” Adds Sokolow: “I had no idea how much I would learn, not just from my lab, but from observing in other labs.”

Their com­ments echo Eckelman’s “final thoughts” in his own YSP Year­book from decades ago: “The Best: A summer at North­eastern with 25 of the greatest people I’ve ever met.”