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Brittany Foley just finished pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. Starting her career as a Northeastern student as a Neuroscience major, Brittany ultimately decided to switch to ChemE during her sophomore year after her work with the Gordon CenSSIS and ALERT labs. During her time here, Brittany took advantage of the co-op program and different work and research opportunities at Northeastern to equip herself with a varied skillset. These experiences include shadowing a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the NSF-funded (REU) program at Northeastern’s ALERT lab, a co-op at Morpho Detection, gaining valuable leadership skills as a resident assistant, and extending co-op work at Ra Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge to build a background in organic chemistry. In between many semesters, Brittany took her love for history and photography overseas, where she explored the beautiful countries of Europe at length and often visited many of her classmates on their dialogues and co-ops abroad. Most recently, she and three of her very good friends completed their Capstone project: Carbon dioxide recapture utilizing an integrated vertical aquaponics system.
It was June and I was twenty minutes from Stonehenge, chasing a sheep when I received a Facebook message from Andrew Horowitz. The message asked two things: first, if I would be okay with us forming a Capstone group with two students I had never met, and second, if I would be willing to try something in the realm of sustainability instead of anything related to tissue engineering, drug delivery, or pharmaceuticals.
I said no.
Andrew and I had taken virtually every class we enrolled in since freshman year together. Really, as a ChemE, you only need to make it through Transport II Lab or Thermo with someone to feel like family. That said, it was pretty easy for him to figure out how to convince me to hop on board and within a few days it was done. Brittany Foley, Andrew Horowitz, Joe Laviano, and Katy Wardzala had colluded to form the team that we would eventually call GroUp.
Starting off, we were at a bit of a loss. Neither Joe nor I were even in the country throughout August, let alone in the state. We started slow and with little idea of what we actually wanted to pursue. Somewhat hilariously, the first day of class was held on a day that class wasn’t actually scheduled. The change was noted in an e-mail that half of us did not see, so even once we were all back on campus, we still had yet to meet each other. Eventually, though, we conquered our awful luck and the result was somewhat extraordinary.
I won’t say we became friends instantly; it took about two hours in Snell Library before we decided that naming our group was our number one priority. Giving up on the 50+ pages of patents we had been leafing through, we all turned to the whiteboard in favor of the comic relief promised by puns and witty acronyms. A family was born: GroUp.
Our greatest challenge as a group was, without a doubt, that initial task of finding novelty. How was whatever-we-were-going-to-design different from everything else described by the broad, all-encompassing parlance of Google Patent Search? That Capstone class presentation on patent filing had ignited something of a fire in us. We sought creativity. We wanted an idea to call our own. And maybe, someday, it would even have its own special number.
Somewhere in a few weeks’ worth of conversation discussing the different hydroponics and aquaponics companies Andrew and Katy had (for lack of a better term) stalked and even a few entirely new project ideas, we had our epiphany. It was less of an ah-ha moment and more of a three-hour conversation about whether or not it was even feasible, but after much googling and a few days of phoning local breweries, we were golden. We had a Capstone project: consuming the CO2 from fermentation processes at breweries via growth beds in a vertical aquaponics system. The design not only eliminates a portion of or all CO2 emissions for the brewer, but provides the customer, who already has food vending relationships in place, an annual profit from the crops and fish cultivated onsite.
Our team was wonderful in that we were all able to offer something different. Joe’s co-op experiences made him comparable to an engineer with a good few years of experience in the field. He also has a pretty weird obsession with all things CAD. Katy was our programmer and quickly became our controls expert (this is funny because she was the only member of the group who had yet to take process control). Andrew liked to be involved, in every sense of the word, so he was our people person and, most importantly of all, our prototype host. We constructed our entire system prototype in his bedroom: fish, high-powered LEDs, plants, and all. The process was long, sometimes quite difficult, occasionally dangerous (we might have spilled a half gallon or two of waste-saturated fish tank water on a power strip), and always comical.
Fortunately, our faith in our own efforts increased exponentially throughout the semester. We had the idea of using the heat thrown by LEDs to warm the aquaculture tanks, making our system that much more sustainable. We found tax breaks and credits, making it more affordable to our hypothetical customers. We managed to fit our model scale system in 1,000 square feet, making the installation feasible and minimally invasive.
As we phoned breweries seeking brewing conditions and annual production rates, we received positive feedback; these companies thought our product was appealing, valuable. Our professors were enthused, our classmates were intrigued, and eventually, another Capstone group even used the installation of our system in their design plan and economic analysis! What had started as somewhat of a mess had metamorphosed into promising innovation.
With confidence restored, we pushed not only forwards, but reached outwards. We looked into the process of filing for a provisional patent. An e-mail to our class detailed the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE) Best Senior Design Competition. Winners received the chance to present their designs at the organization’s national spring conference in San Antonio, Texas. We had one day to submit an abstract; we cancelled our plans, ordered a pizza, and did.
The Cycle Is Complete
The work increased in difficulty as the semester went on, so is the beast that is Capstone. Building the prototype was fun, drafting the P&IDs was not—well, actually, Joe probably had a blast. As if one economic analysis was not enough, our Capstone required two. We buckled down in the Capstone lab for days. I remember it well: we needed pictures, a video of our prototype, snacks, D-size prints, our entire paper, snacks, material balances, snacks, a beautiful presentation, snacks, coffee (except for Joe, Joe is a superhuman engineer and does not need coffee). At one point in our exhaustion, we realized the video of our prototype said the line “The Cycle Is Complete” over and over again and we had failed to notice. It became our mantra. Back to editing. More writing, more formatting, more snacks. Then came the most important part of all: the presentation.
We were, in my opinion and hopefully in my group’s, the perfect Capstone team. We balanced each other wonderfully. Everyone had different skills and interests and experiences to contribute. We all liked a good laugh, we all liked to eat, we all loved our Capstone professor, we all loved our Capstone project. We did not dread our presentations, and up until now, had barely any need to practice them. We had become best friends, could nearly read each other’s minds. If someone forgot to say something, another caught on immediately and chimed in.
You can imagine our surprise when we did our first run-through of our final presentation and Andrew couldn’t finish his introduction, Katy burst into laughter, I stuttered before finishing my first sentence, and Joe literally fell to the ground in a defeated heap atop a stack of D-size P&IDs. For the first time, we were nervous.
What we had planned to be an hour or two of rehearsal turned into an almost four or five hour ordeal (truthfully, I can’t remember, but it was long), but we got it eventually and, once more, GroUp’s confidence was restored. We filed into the Capstone lab the following morning with trays from our prototype, glossy PFDs, and even coordinated outfits. We presented our work with enthusiasm and received enthusiasm in return. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful effort.
Today, we remain great friends. While we are no longer meeting every single moment of every single day, our Slack chat is as alive as ever. Andrew has begun work as a controls engineer at the Barry-Wehmiller Design Group, the workplace of our wonderful Capstone mentor, Devin Hersey, and Katy will actually be joining them there at the end of her studies this spring! Joe returned to his work at HH Technology Corp, and after working in chemistry at the amazing Ra Pharma on and off for the past two years, I took time off after graduation to sneak a bit more traveling in and to apply for jobs as a chemical engineer.
Oh, and we all leave for San Antonio on March 23rd! Happy innovating, Huskies (: