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Outside the Lab Training and education, Profession

Meet the Scientists Who Care

We often feel powerless. Politics, climate change, personal strife – perhaps a mixture of all three can keep us deflated. We live in an age where we are acutely aware of the powers above us and the things we cannot directly control. We can easily find out how bad things are – with almost infinite information readily available in our pockets. In this regard, knowledge can be a hindrance to one’s health. It’s not uncommon for caring, principled individuals to lose hope. When the world is on fire, the caring quickly become crestfallen.

In short, pessimism is abundant. But what’s less so is action. It’s in this void where Nikoline Borgermann and Adriana Wolf Perez forged The Caring Scientist: Mission Sustainable – a podcast that tackles the unavoidable unsustainability tied into laboratory work. Currently 17 episodes strong, the series has explored the experience of laboratory professionals who are all-too-aware of the impact that their work has on the planet. We sat down with the two founders – and the newest member of the team – learn more about their thoughts on sustainability.

Meet the Team

Nikoline Borgermann

My background is in biochemistry and I have a PhD in genomic (in)stability from the University of Copenhagen. Despite enjoying the lab work, I never came to terms with the climate impact of science, so after a short postdoctoral, I began working as an independent, value-driven, green lab advisor. I now work two days a week at the University of Copenhagen as a sustainable labs advisor, and am active with the climate activist group Scientist Rebellion.

Adriana Wolf Perez

I am a biochemist by training, and hold a PhD in Nanoscience from Aarhus University, University of Cambridge, and Novo Nordisk. I have completed research on neuroscience and immunology and have a strong interest in research areas such as biodiversity, climate change, and the circular economy. I now work as a Program Manager and Course Coordinator at the University of Cambridge.

What inspired you to start The Caring Scientist podcast?

Adriana: Nikoline was invited as a guest speaker on another podcast and really enjoyed it. Shortly after, the two of us met for the first time (on Zoom), and we clicked immediately through our shared passion for green labs. We wanted to do something together to raise awareness about sustainability in science, and we figured that a podcast might be a good way to do that! 

Why should lab professionals care about sustainability?

Nikoline: Firstly, we’re in a climate emergency. All sectors and areas of business must do what they can to reduce the climate impact of their activities. And that goes for labs as well. Secondly, labs leave behind a considerable climate footprint. It really isn’t peanuts! We’re consuming heaps of energy and water, and we are producing a great deal of waste. Most importantly, we are also consuming a wide range of reagents, chemicals, and equipment – and these things have a massive climate impact. We can’t just lean back and point fingers at other industries – labs are part of the problem.

The sustainability focus seems to have somewhat shifted away from the actions of individuals and onto corporations… What are your thoughts?

Nikoline: This is a tricky one! We think it’s great if people take individual actions, but, at the same time, it’s important that we don’t focus exclusively on “the small stuff.” For example, when it comes to recycling, we can sort our waste perfectly but that does not mean that it will actually be recycled. This depends on the market, the plastic manufacturers, and the waste haulers’ agreements. We need the corporations to reduce their use of plastic as much as possible, and we need them to take responsibility for the plastic they create. It should not be the responsibility of individuals, municipalities, and taxpayers alone to deal with the plastic waste problem. The same goes for other topics – corporations must do their part. The climate and ecological crises call for systemic change and collective action.

I was surprised to hear in one of your episodes that labs produce nearly two percent of the world’s plastic – is that really true?

Nikoline: Well, no one has measured all the plastic waste coming out of labs! But, according to estimations based on numbers from The University of Exeter, labs did produce around two percent of the world’s plastic waste in 2014 (1).

How much of the plastic use in labs is avoidable?

Adriana: It’s important to note that labs are extremely diverse – both in terms of the research carried out and in terms of financial resources. In some labs, there’s massive potential to reduce the use of single use plastics. Labs that are financially stable use more single-use plastics than needed. Some simple steps to sustainability include using the smallest possible plastic item that fulfills your needs, downscaling whenever possible, reusing single-use plastics (for example, non-sterile purposes), and using glass or multi use-plastics instead of single-use plastics. In our experience, labs that struggle with finances are generally very aware of these tactics and their resource use in general.

How important are skills like community-building, leadership, and communication in the sustainability journey?

Nikoline:Extremely important! Individual actions won’t do the job – we need to act collectively. Also, we can learn so much from each other – in a green lab context and beyond – so it’s important that we build networks and that we communicate. Leadership is also crucial. We must take bold and progressive decisions and set ambitious targets – despite not knowing exactly how to get to the end point of our sustainability journey. We simply don’t have the time to map these things out before starting. The climate crisis is already here, and we must prevent “really bad” getting “a lot worse.”

Is “slow science” an important part of making the lab sustainable?

Nikoline: Yes! Slow science would – in our opinion – solve many of academia’s problems. Fast science is what we have now – where we value the number of publications and citations above all else. Currently, the quality of the research, teaching, outreach activities, and the leadership skills are (in the majority of cases) not taken into account when funding or tenure positions are given. Because of fast science, we’re seeing serious mental issues in academia and a lot of salami science. Scientists are cutting corners to compete in a fast science world. Irreproducible science is an incredible waste of planetary resources.

What pitfalls should people be aware of when thinking about sustainability. Should we be teaching labs about greenwashing?

Nikoline: Two classical pitfalls are that waste sorting will increase sustainability efforts in the lab and that individual actions will fix the problems. It’s great if you sort your waste but please don’t stop there. We must reduce the amount of waste (not just sort it), and we must change how and what we consume. At the same time, we must engage with (and put pressure on) manufacturers to reduce the carbon impact of their products. The largest part of a lab’s carbon footprint comes from the products that we buy – so clearly, waste sorting isn’t changing much. Also, a third pitfall is to believe the manufacturers and vendors when they claim that their products are green. Very often, they have made only minor changes to the products or the packaging which doesn’t drastically change the carbon footprint of the product. So yes, it would be great to teach labs about greenwashing. And green lab practices in general, of course.

I love the tips you share at the end of each episode. What are your all-time favorites?

Nikoline: That’s a difficult one. We think it’s important to combine tips for individual actions and tips that point to more systemic or collective changes. The latter are the most impactful ones, but it can be quite difficult and take a long time to see results – so it’s important to combine these with individual actions that are doable and show results right away.

Adriana: One potential favorite is to start a local green group at an institute or center level. It's a really good way to find like-minded spirits with whom you can share ideas and frustrations. And it’s easier to push for changes at the institute level, if you are a group.

If you only had someone’s ear for 30 seconds, what would you say to encourage labs to start thinking about sustainability?

Adriana: It really isn’t rocket science to take green lab actions – and there are many additional benefits! Among others, you can improve your health and safety, while saving time and money. Moreover, we are convinced that – with time – it will be difficult to attract students and staff – or receive funding, if you are not taking green actions in the lab.

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  1. MA Urbina., Nature, 528 (2015).
About the Author
George Francis Lee

Deputy Editor, The Pathologist

Interested in how disease interacts with our world. Writing stories covering subjects like politics, society, and climate change.

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