I received Natural Science research funding the past two summers. Both summers, my research has been overseen by Professor Carr Everbach, the Chair of the Engineering Department. This past summer, I worked for both the Swarthmore College Engineering Department and The Stone House Group, an energy consultant group based in Bethlehem, PA. My task was to research the feasibility for Swarthmore to switch from burning natural gas to burning biofuels in its central heat plant as a way of reducing emissions from heating.
Research stipends are typically only awarded for ten full weeks of research, which posed a problem since my study abroad program didn’t end until the end of June. However, I was lucky that Carr was willing to be flexible with how I accomplished the ten weeks of research. I began background research while still studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa and had frequent Skype calls with The Stone House Group.
When I got back to the U.S., I spent a few weeks visiting the The Stone House Group office more regularly. I found comfort in many of the other young employees coming from similar liberal arts backgrounds, and felt welcomed into their efforts to improve Swarthmore’s energy strategy (this biofuel project was just a part of The Stone House Group’s work with Swarthmore). The office itself was in a converted warehouse building in downtown Bethlehem and proved to be a very neat place to work. However, as more of my research become independent, I started spending more time working from home or from Swarthmore (an hour commute to Bethlehem everyday proved to be more difficult than I anticipated).
I really enjoyed having the freedom to work wherever I wanted, and spent as much time as I could outside, at either the back patio of my house or the back patio of the Science Center, only retreating inside in the event of rain or when I would start to feel the sweat dripping in the midday heat.
I talked to dozens of different people throughout the summer, through email, phone calls, and in person. My information-seeking conversations were with a range of people, including sales representatives from biofuel providers, energy directors at other peer institutions, and professors and staff at Swarthmore with any type of relevant background.
In particular, my work featured nearly daily email correspondence with Ralph Thayer, the Director of Maintenance. Ralph was integral in developing an understanding of how heating at Swarthmore worked, and his daily questions and concerns about biofuels fueled my research.
By the end of the summer, I had gotten a much better understanding of biofuels and had developed my own recommendations for what would be most feasible and sustainable for the college. I enjoyed getting to work on something behind-the-scenes, yet so integral, in the everyday student experience, and enjoyed the variety of different people I contacted for the work. I also enjoyed the sense that the research I was doing was going to be used by the college to determine the best route to carbon neutrality.
I have been able to continue my summer research through the yearlong Presidential Sustainability Research Fellowship, and look forward to sharing my findings from what will then encompass eleven months of research in a feasibility report presented in May 2018.