[As a note: I wrote this up last year when it was topical but never published it. Here it is now, ignore the fact it sounds like a graduate this year.]

I’m proud to announce I have graduated from Northeastern University with magna cum laude honors as a bachelor of chemical engineering and a minor in chemistry. I will remember these past five years fondly, for without them, I would not have continued my growth to become the person I am, nor be on the path for the person I strive to be. Thanks to the curriculum and the professors met, the co-op program, and the social experiences I had, I wouldn’t imagine my undergraduate experience anywhere else.

The academics

Running experiments to determine pump curves

It goes without saying that the school is great academically. Northeastern is highly ranked, the curriculum is rigorous, it has all of its accreditations, and it shows through the students. The professors have always been supportive and went out of their way to help you. Some that have been particularly important to me were Dr. Satvaat, through whom all thermo is learned; Dr. Landherr, whose passion for teaching is inspirational; and Dr. Kinney, who helped me pursue an interest in catalysis. It’s actually funny, thanks to Stumbleupon (when that was still a thing) I found Prof. Landherr’s webcomic Surviving the World and followed it for years in high school. Upon entering college, the identity of Dante Shepherd was becoming an open secret, but not until seeing him in the flesh did I put the two together. It was weird since I had a relationship to him that he obviously didn’t have with me. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy the Four Idiots as he lovingly called my three friends and I.

I am pleased with the education I received, but there are still certain areas that can be improved. First is the lack of a dedicated separations class. Several interviewers noted the lack of one during my co-op search. Northeastern claims that we learn separations piecemeal through classes such as heat/mass transport class, labs, and the economics/modeling/plant design class that is Capstone 1. And to be fair, we do learn the fundamentals of these processes bit by bit. However, we never learned when separations techniques are preferred over others, or how the system design influences the application, both of which are valuable for going out into industry. I understand the difficulty with this request, as Northeastern likes touts the chemical engineering program has a lot of leeway for taking electives other schools don’t allow, and a dedicated separations class would hamper that claim. Still, such a class would’ve helped in our interviews and it would streamline the Capstone 1 class with more focus.

I probably spent more time in Kariotis than in my dorm

The execution of the capstone project can also be improved. Like many schools, we have a final project to serve as the culmination of our education. I worked as computer support technician to the mechanical engineering department, where I would record the capstone presentations of the mechanical engineering students. There I saw the often-impressive projects the students worked on, from self-healing materials against micro-fractures to novel water dispersal tools for aerial firefighters. These students were teamed up with corporate sponsors and received ample resources to build their projects. With that in mind, I approached the ChemE capstone with a similar expectation.

The gripe is that, despite being pitched similarly to the above, there was an undisclosed formula of a good project: a plant modeled in Aspen Plus. Some students had creative ideas but were poorly received because those projects did not transfer well to a computer model. I understand in most cases it’s not feasible to make a real-world prototype, such as my project of plastic pyrolysis. No one would approve a pressure cooker that exceeds 450°C. I don’t blame them for that. Some people who had a project about material coatings, which could have been feasible to prototype, were steered towards doing a plant design for the concept.

Additionally, certain events in the project need refinement. For example, we had a poster session to display our projects and garner comments from others. Few students actually walked around leaving comments. Of the five comments my group did receive, three were regarding the poster design itself, one for more detail in the P&ID, and finally one suggesting we bring in props (like plastic trash from the recycling bin?). They were all valid criticisms, especially if we were to make another poster, but it was disheartening that for all eighty students present only five left comments. From what I understand, it was a similar issue for all the groups. Going forward, there should be a requirement for each student to review at least 5 projects and to leave a comment regarding poster design, project design, and a question about the project that was not answered. A guided response would be more helpful than a numbered system where everyone puts 5s regardless of category. With all that said, I do appreciate Prof. Pfluger’s attempts to make this a worthwhile project and improving the capstone class. A lot of these concerns are probably growing pains from revamping the project a few years back and the department is still getting into its stride.

My group’s project was the chemical pyrolysis of plastics, specifically polycarbonate. Through pyrolysis, monomers can be generated and reused to create recycled virgin plastic, inspired by the C&EN article “Should plastics be a source of energy?” We had a great time going through the design process. I’ll talk about it more in a dedicated post, but it was fun. Our mentor, a rubber scientist at Cabot Corp, was a phenomenal resource. He never told us what to do, but would use leading questions to have us realize where we need to go next. Sometimes when we were stuck, he would suggest possible avenues to pursue. I always looked forward to our meetings with him. We also visited the E.L. Harvey and Sons recycling plant to see how materials are processed and sold. It’s eye-opening to see just how much effort is put into recycling what we can, and the challenges they face. Apparently people think soiled diapers are recyclable and will toss them in the bin? I learned the American recycling system as a whole is lacking, but not for lack of trying. Our single stream paradigm, our crippling reliance on foreign countries taking in everything, and the lack of public education on the matter who keep throwing things in thinking “well this should be recyclable,” holds us back. It’s nice to see so much work in biodegradable and plant sourced plastics, but that’s solving the problem of the future. Today, the world is being choked with plastics, and these new plastics do not eliminate what is already out there. Non-recyclable plastics are also not going away. For example, wind turbines rely on carbon-fiber reinforced thermoset plastics with (currently) no recycling potential and more are being produced every day. Pyrolysis has a lot of potential not only remove plastic from the waste stream, decrease the need for fresh petroleum-based feedstock, but yield material that doesn’t suffer from being “downcycled” into inferior products. With the right processes, it could be possible to completely eliminate the concept of a non-recyclable plastic.

The co-ops

The co-op program is nothing short of phenomenal. Every student looking into college needs to consider what real-world experiences are supported. Co-ops? Internships? Do you have to take classes while on co-op? What research opportunities are available? When I was looking at job postings, a lot of companies are expecting work experience upon graduation, so a program without work experience makes you less competitive. There are also many lessons that you can’t necessarily learn in school.

A perfect example is presenting. I’ve had a tough time with presenting. Like most of us, I was uncomfortable standing in front of a room. But over time, you figure out a formula for school presentations and you deal with them. That formula does not work in a professional setting. There’s no rubric for giving a presentation to your boss, or to a team, or even an entire department. It’s vital to consider who they are, why they are there, and what they expect so they don’t feel like you wasted their time. Presenting is a skill, and without practice you’ll never be good at it, but the shift in priorities makes you relearn it. Thanks to ample presentation experience in my co-ops, taking a presenting class, and running events as NUTRS president, I’ve become better. I don’t get as nervous because I know my presentations are better oriented to the expectations, but as always can be improved.

Co-ops have also shaped my future career path. The plan was always to graduate and enter the workforce. However, I noticed the people in the roles I where I saw myself were the ones with PhDs. Through co-ops, I confirmed R&D is the role I want and higher education is needed for the careers I’m interested in. Lessons such as these elevate the value of co-ops beyond work experience into a critical component of an education. It irked me when parents would dismiss the co-op program until learning it was paid.

The club

Finally, the community I joined and nurtured has been a bedrock of my Northeastern experience. My foray into tabletop roleplaying games started in freshman year of college, but back home. Essentially, I got the books for Dungeons and Dragons, read about halfway through each and told my friends we will play. Some of my favorite D&D stories still come from that first campaign where we knew nothing and just played to have fun. I learned of Northeastern Tabletop Roleplaying Society (NUTRS) at school and started going to their meetings. Through them, I found players for a new campaign who became good friends for the rest of my college experience.

The following year I wanted to give back to the club. Not only did I find new friends, it improved me socially as I kept meeting new people. The previous e-board were all graduating and the future of the club was uncertain, so I ran for vice president. That year started off great! Radical changes were put into place to increase member involvement. First, meetings were increased to a weekly basis. As a result, more events were planned that weren’t talks or lectures, but chances to play games with others and actually meet them. A committee was formed to crowdsource event ideas. Big extravaganza events were planned, such as mystery LARPs where players would go from room to room solving puzzles. The fall semester was a flurry of activity and changes but that came crashing down in the spring. The president went MIA and the other e-board members were becoming unresponsive as more difficult classes were coming in. With no one else to turn to, I started to plan and prepare these events by myself. Each event was led by me, and I became accustomed to being in front of others and presenting to them. It was difficult, but I improvised and adapted to meet my new responsibilities.

Our table during an outreach event.

Seeing I was capable of the role, I ran for president the next two years. I kept the way the club was run, because the weekly meeting schedule worked well for planning. My main project was to increase member retention. For some background, tabletop roleplaying games work where one person conjures up a world and runs the game – the game master or GM. In this world other people play as characters, roleplaying their actions as they respond to problems. These games are generally sequential and run once a week for a few hours. In previous years, the second meeting NUTRS had was for game pitches. Students that want to run a game would pitch to the club: the concept, when they’ll be meeting, and how many people they are looking for. On these nights, many people would show up, 50+ easily, to join a game. Once in a game, they never show up again because they got what they wanted out of the club. Those that left without a game, as there were always more potential players than available spaces, thought the club failed them and also didn’t want to return.

This is a unique problem where the club is facilitating its own obsoletion. I identified the issue as people did not know what NUTRS had to offer. My solution was to push back game pitches. The first month became dedicated to showing the variety of events we offered. First, Dungeons and Dragons 101 introduced people to TRPGs and got them playing that day. Another event to show members ample opportunity for playing tabletop games at club meetings. Finally, minifig painting night showed members we will help them with supplies for their games. Only then did we run game pitches. It’s not the best solution yet, seeing I only had two trials for experimenting, but it did bring results. Membership drop-off was less drastic than previous years and we had more people to partake in our activities. Numbers isn’t everything obviously, but ten people showing up instead of six leads to more fun.

NUTRS helped me become a better person and I will always be grateful for the lessons and memories learned along the way. I wish only the best for the next e-board as they continue the club.

The City

Growing up in NYC, cities to me were massive, dirty, and stifling. The perception stayed with me during the college search, as I sought colleges that were rural or separate from cities. My college visits showed Boston was different. It was cleaner, more open, and seemed to be more approachable. I’m very fortunate I decided to go to Northeastern anyways, as Boston itself helped me grow as a person.

Unlike NYC in my youth, Boston was full of opportunity for exploration. I remember joining friends and walking everywhere, from the Commons to Cambridge to Allston. The MBTA was convenient enough, but nothing beat walking across the city on a warm autumn day. Everything was within walking distance if you had the time. It seemed like there was a new event every weekend at the Commons, and you rarely felt out of place as there were so many other students in the city. The Museum of Fine Arts would have a new exhibit every couple of months and movies on the museum lawn. You can hear the crowds singing “Sweet Caroline” every night at Fenway (especially loudly when you have an exam the next day). Of course there are the historic features as well, both on the Freedom Trail and sprinkled throughout the city. The independence of deciding where to go and when was an important step in growth for myself and many of those I’ve met.

The city also had everything you would want, too. Compleat Strategist (while it lasted) and Pandemonium were mainstays for anything tabletop. Every type of cuisine could be found in the city’s restaurants. Yume Wo Katare was a particular favorite, but Pho and I was a Northeastern mainstay. The Prudential Center was great for window shopping all of the brands you couldn’t afford.

Boston is a great city to be a student in.

Going forwards

With all said, I am happy with my time at Northeastern. The academics and professors kept me engaged. The co-ops lead me to evaluate my long-term goals. The social opportunities helped me grow as a person. With that, I am proud to announce my next step, as I look forward to graduate school at Rutgers University. There I will be pursuing a PhD in the Chemical and Biological Engineering department.