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Students Conduct Interdisciplinary Research About Sustainable Business Practices

by Vicki Mayk
Wilkes-Bare City skyline

It’s Monday and Ruth Hughes, associate dean and professor in the Sidhu School of Business and Leadership, and Marleen Troy, professor and chair of environmental engineering and earth sciences, are meeting with their student researchers Juliann Duignam and Dylan O’Connor. The students give updates about what they’ve accomplished. The professors set the week’s priorities for research about sustainable business districts. It’s a typical meeting for a summer research project at Wilkes University.

While Hughes and Troy’s research is an ongoing project, the way it is conducted has changed. With pandemic restrictions prohibiting face-to-face work in summer 2020, students are working with them in the virtual space. Weekly meetings are held on Zoom. The students do research independently on the internet and conduct interviews by phone or on Zoom. They collaborate with each other – virtually. Duignam, a supply chain management major, works at her home in Tatamy, Pa., and O’Connor, an environmental engineering major, works in his hometown of Somerset, N.J.

It’s the third year that Wilkes students are involved in assisting Hughes and Troy with their interdisciplinary research about sustainable business practices. In previous years, the professors and their students examined what influenced small businesses to adopt sustainable business practices, from recycling to energy use. This year, the focus is on identifying what defines a sustainable business district in a city. The faculty hope that the information can be used to create such a district in the city of Wilkes-Barre. 

Duignam and O’Connor began by conducting a literature review and learning about successful sustainable business districts around the United States. They chose areas similar in climate and size to Wilkes-Barre. Because there is no national standard defining what constitutes a sustainable business district, the students are gathering information about defining characteristics in various cities. The next step will be interviewing individuals from the locations they identify. Troy and Hughes plan to have the students work with them on a final report with the goal of sharing it with Larry Newman, executive director of Wilkes-Barre’s Diamond City Partnership and the Downtown Business Association. 

The opportunity to do research remotely has provided valuable experience and is giving the two students hands-on experience after the pandemic upended their summer internship plans. 

“My initial plan was to get a summer internship with a private company and with coronavirus, a lot of opportunities disappeared,” O’Connor says.

Duignam had planned to intern with the supply chain management team at Messer, an industrial gas company in New Jersey. Hughes and Troy, like a number of Wilkes faculty, wanted to provide an alternative for their students. It also has allowed the students to tap into one of the defining parts of a Wilkes education – the opportunity to collaborate with faculty on research. The two students are paid for their work through one of the University’s mentoring grants. 

“This research opportunity is a prime example of exactly why I chose Wilkes,” Duignam says.  “The close knit community allows you to do things that would be hard on bigger campuses. Working one-on-one with highly qualified (faculty) in their field is an experience that not many can say they were able to do.  I am very grateful to Dr. Hughes and Dr. Troy for the opportunity to do research with them and gain experience over the summer months even through times like these.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the research – approaching a problem from both business and environmental sustainability perspectives — is an added benefit. In the real world, students are likely to work on interdisciplinary teams.

“You can’t really look at things through one lens,” O’Connor states. “It’s important to see things from perspectives you might not have originally considered.”

Duignam agrees, saying, “Being interdisciplinary allows us to cover a multitude of bases and have differing perspectives while working towards a common goal.”

In another nod to the interdisciplinary nature of the project, the project team has been able to use the ArcGIS Business Analyst Web App facilitated by the GIS Center in the Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences Department to map demographic details about the cities they are researching.

Students working with the two professors on earlier phases of the research have been able to present their work at professional conferences. Hughes and Troy, noting that many such conferences are being held virtually, are hoping to provide Duignam and O’Connor with the same experience.

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