What to expect when spearheading a sustainability initiative in a scientific institute
Written by Vera Minneker
You can endeavour to be the most environmentally conscious person in your private life, but, if you are a scientist working in a wet lab, you realize that your private life only makes up for a fraction of the resources you use and the waste you produce daily.
The naive awakening
This understanding hit me pretty hard in the first year of my PhD. I am, as some would say, one of those green, rather left-winged people who try to make the world they live in a better place for their own generation and generations to come. I am also a passionate molecular biologist in basic cancer research and I always tried to ignore the fact that pretty much every tool I use in my day-to-day work life is single-use and plastic-wrapped. Much like the popular mRNA-based COVID vaccine, many of our reagents and samples have to be stored at temperatures of -20, -80 or even -150°C. We have tons of electrical devices running in the lab non-stop - and every single one of them “wastes” much more energy than forgetting your lights on at home when you leave. The amount of plastic waste we produce in our personal life is nothing compared to the piles of plastic wrappings that are the result of a day of work in a molecular biology lab – not to mention the amounts of toxic or hazardous waste that go to a place none of us knows or dares to ask about. So, as a wet-lab scientist, my research uses a lot of energy and resources and produces huge amounts of (often hazardous) waste – everything that I try to avoid in my private life. I tried to justify this environmental damage which is a by-product of laboratory work as I truly believed that the outcome of the work I was doing would be worth it. I believed that there was no other way to gain this knowledge and further the advancement of science – or was there?
The start: Find like-minded people, but expect resistance at the stage of execution
As a PhD student representative of the International PhD Programme (IPP) in Mainz, I joined the N² network of networks and was invited to the Max-Planck-PhDNet’s yearly general assembly in November 2019. There, I was introduced to the Max-Planck-Society sustainability network. The gravity of the situation hit me hard again (this time in a good way). There are ways to address the sustainability lacking in lab work and there are people thinking about it and working on this issue. I immediately knew that I wanted to take this idea to my own institute. As a PhD representative, I had the opportunity to pitch this idea to our institute’s management.
A while after my pitch, they told me that my idea was well received and that I should try to set up a team of PhD students who would collect ideas and find solutions that would be evaluated on a scientific basis. Our administration and management made it very clear that they did not want us to simply say, “Let’s get rid of plastic in the lab” but to rather conduct research on these topics and find scientifically backed solutions. For example, many of the processes in a molecular biology lab require sterility of products and it is potentially more sustainable to use plastic and discard it after use than using glassware, sterilizing it, washing it and sterilizing it again before it can be used for experiments.
I sent an email to my PhD community to find like-minded people and we met and started collecting ideas on what to improve. In order to get our projects started, we approached responsible people in the administration, cleaning staff, house technicians etc. Everyone we talked to was enthusiastic and supported our ideas – until we wanted to actually change something. Suddenly, we encountered a lot of resistance. We soon realized that one of the reasons we struggled so much was that we were all “just” PhD students. Another reason was that nobody wanted to be left out of the decision-making process. Together with our management, we agreed that we should make this an institute-wide endeavor and include all groups of people that work at our institute. This way, we could discuss ideas with the people who would be involved in or be affected by the change we aim for, before we ask them to actually change something.
Growing: Hang in there and build a sturdy framework
Half a year after I initiated a sustainability group among PhD students, we had our first online meeting where we invited everyone from our institute. In these now -frequently occurring meetings, around 30-50 people joined us and our initiative evolved into a movement. We are now a group of six people who I consider “the core”, we collect ideas, develop projects from them and form small teams to work on specific projects. Our greatest accomplishment so far is the establishment of a seminar series on sustainable science. In our first seminar in November 2020, we circulated the announcement among all our personal and scientific networks and in the end, around 100 people joined us to learn more about sustainable solutions in a lab – more than half of the participants were from other institutes! We are now in the process of establishing a proper base for our initiative by giving it structure and formulating goals. This will hopefully help future members to understand why we founded this initiative, what we want to achieve, and how to make our sustainability initiative fruitful.
Lessons learned (so far)
My advice for everyone who wants to make his or her institute or lab a bit greener would be to find an ally in the management or administration because it makes it easier to push your endeavor. We are also in close contact with other sustainability groups and we learn from each other’s solutions and strategies. In the end, a larger group enables greater reach.
Something to consider is that if one person or party does not agree with your proposed changes because it makes their life much more difficult, you should re-evaluate if it is worth going through with that plan. In my opinion, sustainability also entails respecting the needs of everyone involved in this complex process and if they do not follow your lead, you should be ready to adapt and re-plan. Often people just want their opinion to be “picked up” and to be involved in the discussion.
Looking back at the last year and the effort and energy I put into this project, I am very happy to see that other people are joining me to drive this forward and I am proud of every little change we accomplished. Every time we are mentioned in an official institute-wide context, it helps us spread the word about an important issue and gather more supporters
Don’t give up and get started!
Check out IMB’s Facebook for updates on IMB Green seminars to find out how you can make your science a bit greener.
The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely and exclusively to the author, not to any institution or organization she may be associated with.
Written by Vera Minneker; Edited by Radhika Menon & Gabrielle Sant. Featured Image: NGC/Design.
Vera Minneker is a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Molecular Biology gGmbH Mainz. As elected doctoral researcher representative and board member of N² in 2019/2020, she became an advocate of power abuse prevention in academia and sustainable science. During her PhD, she studies the formation of oncogenic chromosome translocations using high-throughput imaging and automated image analysis.