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Formidable Fellows

Honors Program grant from UTC spurs student research
Written by: 
Kristen L. Walsh

When faculty, students and corporate partners come together, great things can happen on campus — and off. A case in point is a $250,000 grant to the Honors Program from United Technologies Corporation. Through a UTC-supported honors fellowship, research is underway to help local communities save the environment and developing countries create economic stability.

The funding takes Honors Program capstone projects to a new level, according to inaugural UTC Fellows Olivia Locke ’14 and Gerard Fischetti ’14 (above).

“A lot of students don’t see that their ideas could have larger implications, and they don’t have the financial support to carry it further,” says Fischetti, who is exploring reasons for disparity in the distribution of microfinance dollars among different countries.  “The fellowship is allowing me to do more than just research and discover a topic,” adds Locke. “It is giving me what I need to create something tangible.”

Price vs. Payoff

Locke is referring to designing and producing a sample compost bin that will support the case for bringing curbside composting to Belmont, Mass. She is working with the town’s recycling coordinator to develop and implement a pilot program at public schools. Initial steps involve determining the price tag and payoff for the Greater Boston town.

“The cost–benefit analysis incorporates the environmental and economic factors of implementing a town-wide composting system,” she explains. One example is evaluating the environmental benefit to determine the potential reduction in methane emissions that will result from composting food scraps. Economic aspects weigh costs associated with implementing and maintaining the system against cost savings such as landfill reduction and tax benefits.

Locke’s faculty adviser, David Szymanski, credits her work for blending natural and social sciences with the business aspects of implementing a program whose effects are often difficult to quantify. Bringing business and science together is natural for Locke, an Accountancy major whose interest in environmental issues was sparked by a composting initiative in her hometown of Portland, Maine.

No Easy Answer

Fischetti’s research examines reasons behind the uneven distribution of microfinance institutions across developing nations.

“The Philippines, for example, has more than 100 different banks or microfinance organizations lending money, whereas Sudan has only a handful,” he says. “These kinds of gaps made me want to understand why, when there’s clearly a need in all of those places.”

His research aims to change such scenarios. Data analysis of different indicators — such as democracy, trust and civil liberties — will help determine what kind of business environment needs to be in place for investors and banks to start microfinance funding programs. The project digs deeper than most published studies, which focus only on the outcomes of microfinance programs.

“Economists point to microfinance as the easy answer to issues of disparity and empowerment, but I’m not convinced we are there yet,” says the Managerial Economics major. “We need to study political, social and economic aspects that help make a country attractive to invest in, and develop a business model that will set the stage for more even distribution.”

Uncharted Territory

Fischetti’s adviser, Associate Professor of Economics Dhaval Dave, calls the project “an innovative and policy-relevant research question, and one that has been largely overlooked by prior studies. Gerard identified that gap in the literature and formulated the research question on his own.”

A rigorous research design, Dave adds, promises to produce a high-caliber, publishable research report. “He determined the key variables necessary to carry out this research and identified the multiple sources from which he would draw data.”

Indeed, the work is already getting noticed. Fischetti was tapped to present at the Northeast Regional Honors Council conference, held in April. This fall he enters the PhD program in economics at UNC Chapel Hill.  

Practical Value

Locke’s research showed its potential by capturing the interest of Belmont town administrators, says Szymanski, assistant professor of natural and applied sciences.

“The town recycling coordinator is not only willing to work with her, but sees the value in this practical research. The final analysis may even yield a research article on finding that sweet spot between economics and the environment at the local level.”  

Locke envisions the program as a much-needed model for U.S. cities and town. “Composting is in full swing in Europe, and we need explore this as an option to address overflowing landfills,” she says. “My ultimate goal is for Belmont to implement the program and be recognized as a pioneer in the industry.” 

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