WPI Wins $3 Million Award to Launch Graduate Program Preparing Data-Driven Leaders To Build a More Sustainable and Just Future

Funded by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the program will draw on the chemical and data sciences to help graduates advance circular economies that maximize the use of recyclable materials, improve manufacturing efficiency, and reduce harmful waste that disproportionately impacts more vulnerable communities.PHOTO: CEDAR Faculty Include (L-R) Laureen Elgert, Joseph Sarkis, Lyubov Titova, Yanhua Li, Anita Mattson, Elke Rundensteiner, Aaron Deskins, Randy Paffenroth
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December 14, 2020

Seeking to move beyond current economic models that emphasize the use of nonrenewable materials and the generation of waste streams that disproportionately affect more vulnerable communities, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is launching a pioneering graduate program that brings together data sciences, chemical sciences (chemistry, biology, physics), and engineering to prepare leaders who can build and sustain circular economies that maximize the use of renewable materials, increase the efficiency of manufacturing, turn waste into new products, and minimize irreducible waste streams.


With a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), WPI will establish a unique graduate curriculum to train the next generation of scientists who can apply chemical sciences along with data analytics, mathematics, and computing power to aggressively reduce energy usage, waste, and pollution while also strategically reusing products and materials. The funding is part of the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program designed to encourage the development and implementation of bold and potentially transformative models for training scientists and engineers.

WPI’s new five-year NRT program is aptly named CEDAR (Circular Economy and Data Analytics Engineering Research for Sustainability). Its interdisciplinary approach brings together a community of WPI researchers from data sciences (computing, business analytics, statistics, mathematics), chemical sciences (chemistry, biology, physics, engineering) and social sciences with a focus on the advancement of the circular economy.


Elke Rundensteiner, professor of computer science, founding director of the Data Science program at WPI, and principal investigator on the grant, is collaborating with Michael Timko and Aaron Deskins, associate professors of chemical engineering, and Randy Paffenroth, associate professor of mathematical and data sciences, among others. The group is identifying ways for modern data-supported techniques to help solve critical clean energy challenges related to chemical processes through research while establishing an ambitious traineeship project around this theme.

“Traditionally, researchers are trained to narrowly focus on their own specific field, yet the success of the circular economy hinges on effective collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries,” said Rundensteiner. “WPI is perfectly positioned to launch a program like this, because our curriculum already requires students to work in interdisciplinary teams and, more and more, our research culture fosters collaboration across fields. If we equip our students with the data-driven skills to be able to analyze and demonstrate the environmental and economic impact of different stages of production and effectively communicate these implications to diverse stakeholders, they will have the know-how to serve as agents of change.”

Timko explains the importance of integrating data and physical sciences. “In principle," he said, "the basic physics and chemistry underlying the behavior of different chemicals is known, but applying these principles to new chemicals, mixtures of chemicals, or chemicals in unusual environments can be very difficult. Data science gives us a tool to understand these complex behaviors and interactions in ways that help us make decisions about how to handle different chemicals and chemical mixtures."

In the CEDAR program, students will examine problems in three critical areas: harmful byproducts from linear production, the benefits of upcycling, and energy-efficient processing. In developing solutions to these global issues, students will study large datasets including chemical reaction rates, the level of heat release, or dangerous amounts of chemical spill, and will analyze long-term impacts of innovations, and shape outcomes that will minimize health and environmental hazards while creating sustainable economic development.

"For instance, a chemical engineer may be evaluating different fuels to decide which fuel may burn cleaner than current fossil fuels. Rather than evaluating every possible fuel, machine learning techniques may help predict which chemicals have promise,” said Deskins. “This enables the engineer to run fewer experiments only on select promising fuels, which saves time and money."

In addition to coursework, CEDAR will also provide internships and other career development opportunities to help students gain a better understanding of the problems facing various stakeholders; see the implications of their research from scientific, social justice, economic and environmental perspectives; and learn how to advocate for the importance of their work. Faculty members assisting with internships and career development include Laureen Elgert, associate professor of social science and policy studies, and Joseph Sarkis, professor in WPI's Foisie Business School, who is an expert in sustainable management and the circular economy.

WPI faculty in the CEDAR team also include Lyubov Titova, associate professor of physics, Yanhua Li, associate professor of computer science and data science, and Anita Mattson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Other professors from the participating disciplines across campus will be involved as research mentors and instructors of CEDAR courses and boot camps.

Recruiting for CEDAR is currently underway. Once fully established, Rundensteiner says that CEDAR will train a total of 90 master's and 30 PhD students, and will support 30 NRT-funded PhD-level trainees.

How the Program Works

WPI graduate students will take a variety of courses that hone data science and science and engineering skills, and will participate in other activities including internships, and professional development.

Example program: Cross-Disciplinary Scholarship and Training in Convergent Fields focuses on data-driven innovations and insights into chemical processes.

Activities: Students will participate in multidisciplinary research projects that incorporate data science, science or engineering disciplinary knowledge, an appreciation of sustainable development, social justice, economy, and communication.

Opportunities: Students will be able to compete for internal CEDAR funding to develop and lead their own micro-projects. There will be opportunities for empowering students to run events from speaker series to symposia to hone their leadership and communication skills.

Output: Students will complete a project focused on a particular aspect of data-driven sciences or engineering designed to reach sustainability objectives. Projects will examine technical, social, and organizational aspects of their innovations.

Anticipated Outcome: Students will be holistically prepared to become purpose-driven leaders in their professional careers.