USC Center for Sustainability Solutions Undergraduate Student Grand Challenge (USGC) Fellows, AY 22-23

The USC Center for Sustainability Solutions (CSS) is pleased to announce the Undergraduate Student Grand Challenge Fellows for 2022-2023. The Undergraduate Student Grand Challenge Fellowship (USGCF) supports, through a competitive process, multidisciplinary research projects focused on sustainability. Funded by the CSS, and open to undergraduate students in all USC majors, the USGCF contributes to extending to the larger USC community the values espoused by the Viterbi School of Engineering, the Price School of Public Policy, and the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program.

Matias Mansilla (Marshall School of Business) and Simon Callaghan (Marshall School of Business) – both are returning Fellows from AY 21-22

Project Title: Bottom Line: Utilizing the Carbon Savings of Regenerative Agriculture

Faculty Advisors: Nick Vyas (Marshall School of Business) and Antonio M. Bento (Price School of Public Policy)

Project Summary: Our research will focus on the central question: How can we promote regenerative agriculture through financial incentives? Our fellowship hopes to increase investments in regenerative agriculture, which has lagged behind other sectors in fundraising. The carbon offset market, a major source of investments for regenerative projects, is expected to grow by a factor of 15 or more by 2030 according to a McKinsey report. However, regenerative agriculture has been slow to capture this growth, as it accounts for just 1% of total carbon credits despite accounting for 24% of the world’s carbon footprint. Farmers have struggled to verify their carbon sequestration and claim credits, as complicated calculations and expensive tests cost farmers thousands. However, we have encountered cutting edge startups, like YardStick, whose research in handheld spectroscopy and satellite imagery has the potential to cut testing costs by over 90% for farmers. With these technologies making commercial debuts by Q4 of 2022, we hope to help farmers make the most of the data they may receive from carbon reports. For the scope of our project, we have focused on cattle ranchers, as beef is a notoriously carbon intensive segment of agriculture that could benefit from regenerative practices.

Our fellowship has three primary objectives:

  1. Quantify the carbon footprint of a sustainable local LA grocer’s beef to use as a marketing tool.
  2. Generate carbon credits for the source farm as a byproduct of carbon report.
  3. Verify the effectiveness of carbon ratings on food through the USC Cafeteria.

Ellie Mastrobattista (Viterbi School of Engineering) and Emy Li (Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences)

Project Title: Environmental and Economic Analysis of Two Flow Battery Chemistries for the Purpose of Grid-Scale Renewable Energy Storage

Faculty Advisors: Santina Contreras (Price School of Public Policy) and Sri Narayan (Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences)

Project Summary: The development of sustainable battery technologies can drive forward the future of electric mobility. With a range of battery technologies being researched, it is critical to examine the strengths and drawbacks of the varying kinds to maximize the efficacy of their deployment. In addition, with existing battery technologies relying on materials such as nickel that lead to questions surrounding ethical labor and general resource availability, the research and development of more innovative, sustainable, and ethically produced battery technologies is crucial in furthering the adoption of electric vehicles.

Considering a Life Cycle Assessment and cost-benefit analysis, we seek to examine the environmental and economic potential of flow batteries (all-iron and organic) relative to existing large-scale energy storage solutions. We also seek to provide an economic analysis of how all-iron and organic flow batteries fit into current and future markets. First, we seek to analyze the current market for the examined battery technologies, its growth outlook, and how demand might differ across different regions of the world. We also hope to examine the key players involved in bringing the technologies to market and will look at potential plans for governments or businesses to bring these technologies into public use to ensure social, economic, and sustainable benefit.

Chaeyeon Park (Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Roski School of Art and Design)

Project Title: Picture Books as Modes of Children’s Education to Combat Climate Change

Faculty Advisors: Thomas Mueller (Roski School of Art and Design) and Brighde Mullins (Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences)

Project Summary: This research will focus on helping young people understand where their things come from and be aware of their relevance and impact upon the earth, as well as to mobilize them towards sustainable changes toward how they think about and consume their materials. The objectives of this project are:  1) Write and illustrate a story book for children (ages 4-10) to inspire them to begin thinking about sustainability solutions and environmental issues, 2) Encourage the slowing down of consumption through an arts-based education in book making and alternative solutions to regular book publishing, 3) Introduce different methods of conceptualizing the book (aside from its paper form) through experimentation with appealing and viable solutions and capabilities an online format can provide, as well as other ways to disseminate information.

Other specific aspects of this project include the creation of at least 10 copies of the manuscript by hand, from using recycled materials to make paper which I will then bind, illustrate, and print myself. This process will be documented on a self-hosted blog/website, and the prints will be showcased at the Roski Comic Book Fair in April 2023.

Rachel Bakke (Viterbi School of Engineering) and Lina Rehbein (Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism)

Project Title: USC Clothing Consumption Initiative

Faculty Advisors: Harly Ramsey (Viterbi School of Engineering), Robert Vos (Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences), and Francesca Ricciardelli (Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences)

Project Summary:  We aim to target clothing/textile waste within the USC community by first understanding the municipal solid waste (MSP) produced by our student body and then attempting to shape our community toward a circular economy in which clothing and other textiles are reused throughout the community, rarely being regarded as waste.

Our central goal is to build a trade app to be first experimented with the audience of the USC community. Rather than discard unused items when the year has finished, students will have the opportunity to continue the lifecycle of their items without the need of transporting them outside of the USC region. On this app, students will have the option to sell, rent, and trade their clothing items, thus decreasing the demand for new items. Unlike other trade apps on the market, this platform will be local to the USC community, creating a stronger, more personal network between students. Each sale and rental that is made using our app will be deducted a 10% commission, which will go into a fund that will be used to produce future fashion shows through our USC-based organization.

This app is a concept that can be scaled to larger goals of halting excessive material consumerism, now with clothing and later with furniture, technology, and academic materials, then beyond the college community. Students will have an opportunity to engage with one another, connect with peers through a fashion lens and begin a dialogue of material redistribution. To reflect progress made towards environmental goals, we will collect data to analyze the climate impact of our community. Giving students contribution reports can help foster community support by showing specific markers of change. Some of our data collection methods will include surveys, focus groups, and tracking of usage through technology. Using this information, we will be able to analyze the contribution of USC students to textile waste in comparison to the average American and pinpoint areas of improvement in this use case. We are hoping to see a decline in waste production and excessive purchases with the introduction of our initiative. We also believe that this platform can provide an economic opportunity for our students to engage with one another and receive income from their goods while helping our planet.

Josh Jacobs (Viterbi School of Engineering) and Thomas (TJ) Mercer (Viterbi School of Engineering) (TJ Is a returning Fellow from AY 21-22)

Project Title: Eat Dirty, Get Healthy: Nutritional Benefits in Regenerative Food Products

Faculty Advisors: Robert Vos (Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences) and Brad Cracchiola (Viterbi School of Engineering)

Project Summary: Regenerative agriculture practices have numerous benefits. They help restore soil health by increasing microbial life within the soil, and this leads to carbon being taken out of the atmosphere. Additionally, the food that is grown from that nutrient-rich soil tends to have a higher nutrient density, meaning the food is healthier than it otherwise would be. In trying to fund this necessary agricultural revolution, there has been a recent push to create carbon offset credits from the carbon sequestration that accompanies increased soil health that results from regenerative agriculture. In the last year, we have learned through our research that the protocols which define these carbon offset markets can be problematic due to the high cost of adequately rigorous sampling as well as the difficulty in ensuring soil carbon durability.

We would like to construct a logical framework towards building a nutrient-profiling credit market that can monetize the benefit that regenerative agriculture practices have on the health and nutrient density of the food they create. We will conduct extensive academic research to determine the best way to characterize the nutrient profile of a food. We will then conduct hands-on research, in which we test the nutrient profile of various regenerative and conventionally produced foods. We will then outline the rules and regulations of a credit program that can monetize the health benefits achieved through regenerative agriculture, allowing farms that carry out these practices to receive benefits for their contributions towards better food quality and public health. If we are going to build a beneficial and sustainable future, we are going to need more carbon being sequestered, better water cycling, more biodiversity, and healthier foods.

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