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(September 2010) —This summer more than 42 students worked alongside Olin faculty members on a wide variety of research projects. These projects explored many different topics: the environment, the psychology of personalities, NASA-inspired solar communication, energy harvesting, diversity within the microbe world, autonomous robots and T cell apoptosis. A few projects are highlighted below:
Phil Dirkse ‘11 kept his research close to home, focusing on reducing energy consumption on Olin's campus. He worked closely with Olin's Energy manager, Steve Durfee, to research projects that have been implemented at other schools and to explore the feasibility of utilizing leading-edge renewable technologies at Olin. While the Facilities Department has done an incredible job of lowering energy usage on campus, Dirkse wanted to better quantify the impacts that these changes have made to the bottom line. Working with local utility companies to fill in holes in the usage data, Dirkse was able to quantified Olin's overall consumption reduction against the baseline year (2006). What he uncovered was remarkable: a 45% reduction in electricity, natural gas, and water usage has saved the college over $2.4 million.
Dirkse also worked to implement several new projects aimed at further reducing costs and consumption. One such solution is a real-time Energy Dashboard System that displays, trends and records Olin's energy needs on an individual building level, every second. The system uses network-enabled "smart" meters to collect and report electric usage. This time-of-use data allows Olin to better understand its energy needs and is essential for taking further steps to improve energy efficiency. Additionally, the Dashboard (expected to be up and running by the end of the Fall 2010 semester) will allow students and staff to analyze and compare the performance and operation of the central plant's key components (chillers, compressors, air handling units, etc.).
Other projects that Dirkse explored included a Water Conservation Program which would add more low-flow devices around campus and eliminate fresh water usage for irrigation, an Outdoor Lighting Retrofit to replace the existing fixtures with 50 watt LED models, a Renewable Technologies Study and continuation of a student project to investigate LEED certification of an Olin building under the new LEED rating system. Not all of these studies were found to be worthwhile at Olin given the limited human and capital resources available for energy measures; however, having this information on possible conservation measures allows Olin to pick and choose the most effective projects as funding allows. Dirkse's research was funded by Aramark as the pilot year of the Olin Sustainability Fellowship. In future years the goal is to have a small team of students who can work on similar innovative projects that continue to lower energy and water consumption on campus.
Allison Cote ‘12 and Roland Liu ‘12 looked at the diversity in the microbial world; specifically they explored environmental bacteria that are good producers of hydrogen, and which use the sun as a main source of energy. The students' main goal for the summer was to find out whether this type of bacteria can adapt to salt water conditions. Salt water takes up 97% of the water on the earth, and so it would be beneficial to grow the bacteria in saltwater, since desalination is very energy intensive and expensive.
While the students are working with these bacteria, they are able to witness the bacteria produce great amounts of hydrogen gas, which can then be used for hydrogen fuel to generate voltage. "I like that part because to me, it feels like it has the most relevance to the outside world, which I personally feel much of scientific research lacks," Liu said.
Cote is focusing on genome research within the microbial field. She is working on developing a wet lab to aid in genome annotation for a bacteria called Pedobacter heparinus. This summer she is trying to find a way to transfer genetic material into the bacteria in order to make a variety of mutants. Cote has become very confident while learning this process. She says that her "favorite part of researching was being successful in developing a technique that can be used by students to learn about functional genomics, and understanding the technique well enough that I could teach it to others." This skill is especially beneficial for giving presentations on their experiments.
Shannon Taylor '11 spent her summer working on a project concerning the nest cell lining in a specific species of bee. Her project is titled "Characterizing the Nest Cell Lining of Colletes Inaequalis." Her summer research combines biology and environmental studies.
This bee is a species of solitary bee, meaning it does not live in hives. The female bee builds nests in the ground. Shannon is studying the lining of the nest because of its intriguing material; it is bioderived, but not biodegradable.
Taylor found out that the female bee secretes a substance by licking the dirt walls of the nest. The nest is a composite material, part polyester, part unknown. For the future, Shannon wants to prove that the fibers are protein as well as identify the bacterial strains.
The possible uses of this substance include non-biodegradable plastics; it can be used as a new bio-material.