Laboratories are one of the largest energy-consuming sectors in the country. Ultra-low temperature freezers can use as much energy as an average household every day. These are just some of the facts that Ph.D. student Ellen Garcia shared at the Sustainability and Green Labs seminar at the Fralin Life Science Institute in August.

Over the past three years, Garcia has been implementing green practices in labs at the Biocomplexity Institute, as well as spreading the message across campus. She has created a grassroots green lab effort at Virginia Tech and is working to build a Green Lab Program, which is supported by the Office of Sustainability and the Office of Energy Management.

“The green lab effort at Virginia Tech is starting to gain traction, but there is still so much that can be done. Many sustainable practices begin with awareness and simple changes in behavior,” said Garcia, a Ph.D. student in Daniela Cimini’s lab at the Biocomplexity Institute.

Cimini, a Biocomplexity Fellow, is also professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science. Garcia was instrumental in helping the Cimini lab become the first certified green lab at Virginia Tech, and it is now close to being a zero-waste lab (excluding hazardous waste).

This past summer, Garcia led a Sustainability and Green Labs seminar at the Fralin Life Science Institute that encouraged Fralin-affiliated graduate students, lab managers, and faculty to take an assessment from My Green Lab, a nonprofit organization based out of California. She reviewed strategies to make their labs more sustainable and how the certification process works.

These strategies include implementing recycling streams, always shutting the sash on fume hoods, regularly turning off lights, and increasing the temperatures on ultralow temperature freezers from -80 degree to -70 degrees.

In most cases, the actions are simple and people just need to be encouraged and reminded to do something until it becomes a new habit. Researchers can also order their supplies from companies with sustainable principles. Corning, for instance, recycles its packaging free of charge to the consumer. My Green Lab has also created a new eco-nutrition label for scientific products and equipment.

At least five Fralin-affiliated labs, including the Dean lab, Sobrado lab, Allen lab, Lahondère lab, and Auguste lab in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, have been inspired by Garcia’s message and have committed to making the practices in their lab more sustainable.

Hannah Valentino, a third-year Ph.D. student in Pablo Sobrado’s lab on the first floor of Fralin Hall, was influenced by Garcia’s seminar.

“I just hadn’t thought about the immense amount of energy that can be saved by unplugging equipment that is not in use or setting it on timers until I attended the seminar,” said Valentino. She comes from a pro-recycling family and has introduced recycling streams to the lab, been diligent about closing the fume hood, and encourages other lab members to turn off lights and equipment when not in use.

The Sobrado lab focuses on determining the chemical mechanism, 3D structure, and identification of inhibitors of enzymes important for pathogenesis in Aspergillus fumigatus, Trypanosoma cruzi, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which cause fungal infections, Chagas disease, and tuberculosis.

Researcher in a laboratory
Kylie Allen, an assistant professor of biochemistry, researches methane metabolism.

Kylie Allen, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry, has a lab on the second floor of Fralin Hall. She has had a career-long interest in sustainability and is dedicated to making the labs at Fralin more green.

“I found it helpful to hear from Ellen about the small changes I could make in my lab, like turning the -80 degree freezers up to -70 degrees. I appreciated that there was scientific research from the University of Colorado-Boulder that showed this would not affect the viability of my samples and reagents,” said Allen.

Allen is instilling a culture of sustainability within her lab and encourages her graduate and undergraduate students to turn the lights and general equipment off when not in use. Heat blocks and water baths are turned off when not in use over the weekend, and the Allen lab is also participating in the Fralin EPS (Styrofoam) recycling program.

The Allen lab researches methane, a potent greenhouse gas as well as a valuable energy source. Her lab focuses on understanding the production and consumption of methane in nature. “A more complete and deeper understanding of methane metabolism could allow for the development of alternative fuels and potential remedies for climate change,” Allen said.

Researchers in front of a fume hood.
Chloé Lahondère, a research assistant professor of biochemistry, and master’s student Forde Upshur make sure to always shut the sash on the fume hood when not in use.

Chloé Lahondère, research assistant professor of biochemistry and affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center, has been interested in sustainability since beginning her master’s degree. Now running her own lab, she is excited to incorporate green lab practices. She was also inspired by Garcia’s seminar to reduce waste and implement waste streams in her lab. Lahondère has implemented printed signs and stickers to remind her lab members to turn off lights and shut the sash on the fume hood. She has also chilled up her ultralow temperature freezer.

“Overall, I remind lab members to be careful with consumables and to limit waste. We’ve created a compost for paper towels and will continue to go through our green labs checklist and hopefully become a certified green lab,” Lahondère said.

Lahondère researches the effects of temperature, and by extension climate change, on the physiology and behavior of disease vector insects, the vector-host-pathogen interactions, and the disease vector insects’ ability to invade new areas.

After the initial Sustainability and Green Labs seminar, Garcia then joined the biochemistry journal club this past fall to review green lab practices and ways students can integrate sustainability into their research.

In October, the Fralin Life Science Institute sponsored Garcia’s trip to the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories conference  in Raleigh, North Carolina. There were 500 people in attendance from universities across the country including University of Colorado - Boulder, UC Santa Barbara, Harvard, MIT, Yale, University of Virginia, and University of Alabama-Birmingham.  

"We were very pleased to have Ellen participate in this conference. I think she has taken on an important task by informing our research community about various ways that we can reduce our energy footprint, sometimes with very little effort by individual investigators. As Ellen points out, small measures can make a big difference, and her efforts certainly are making a big difference," said Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Science Institute.

The meeting is the leading international conference focused on strategies to meet the challenges of energy efficiency and environmental sustainability in laboratories and related facilities. The conference is a technical forum where information covering the life cycle of the laboratory, from design to use, is exchanged.

This past year, the conference had a heavy engineering focus; talks were given by engineers about designing green labs and collecting data for large-scale changes. These were balanced by talks about user-based engagement and sustainable behavior changes for individuals. Garcia gave a talk about the progress she has made with implementing a Green Lab Program at Virginia Tech.

“I feel like I came back from the conference with an action plan. It helped me make connections and created a network with other researchers passionate about green lab and sustainability efforts. I was able to gather more data from the conference to help me make the case that a Green Lab Program is something we should be investing in for labs across the university at Virginia Tech,” said Garcia. 

Inspired by the conference, Garcia is now formalizing a Green Lab Program at Virginia Tech with the Office of Sustainability, the Office of Energy Management, The Energy and Sustainability Committee, Lab Connect, and the Green Engineering Program.

“Ellen Garcia is the one who brought these nationwide green lab efforts to the attention of our office. She has opened our eyes to what other colleges and universities are doing and what resources are available. We are excited to formalize a Green Lab Program here at Virginia Tech with her help,” said Karlee Siepierski, manager of the Office of Sustainability at Virginia Tech.

Garcia and Siepierski have implemented an EPS (Styrofoam) recycling pilot program led by a large team of student interns as part of their recycling program at Virginia Tech, and Fralin Hall is one of the test buildings in their pilot program. Test buildings have designated spots for EPS recycling, and interns from the Office of Sustainability pick up the EPS monthly and deliver it to RADVA Corp. in Radford, Virginia, which recycles the EPS into new packaging.  

If the pilot program is successful, Siepierski hopes to implement it in all buildings on campus.  

Another person on campus helping Ellen Garcia lead the green charge is Kerry Gendreau, the Sustainability Officer and a Fellow with the Interfaces of Global Change IGEP in the Global Change Center, an arm of the Fralin Life Science Institute.

“Ellen Garcia was my inspiration in pursuing the green lab cause and sustainability practices on campus,” said Gendreau. She met Garcia while she was a lab technician at the Biocomplexity Institite. Gendreau is now a second-year Ph.D. student in Joel McGlothlin’s lab in the Department of Biological Sciences, and she is currently studying the evolutionary arms race between toxin-harboring newts and their predators.

With the Interfaces of Global Change program, she hopes to connect and collaborate with environmental researchers and experts and become actively involved in the protection and conservation of biodiversity.

As the Sustainability Officer for the Interfaces of Global Change program, Gendreau collaborates with groups on campus, as well as the Town of Blacksburg, to implement sustainability practices and raise awareness. Gendreau and Garcia were involved in the Sustainability Week this past September, which is a week-long series of events and a long-running collaboration between Sustainable Blacksburg, the Town of Blacksburg, and Virginia Tech’s Office of Sustainability and Office of Energy Management that embodies its tagline, “Celebrate. Educate. Motivate.”

Gendreau is hoping to introduce green lab and field practices to the graduate students who are part of the Interfaces of Global Change program with the help of Garcia; they hope these graduate students will incorporate sustainable practices into the labs they are currently a part of as well as when they start their own labs.

The Fralin Life Science Institute will continue to make sustainable changes to its buildings and support the Green Lab Program. All lights throughout Fralin Hall have been retro-fitted to LED bulbs which increases efficiency, saves electricity, and is projected to reduce energy costs by $76,000 annually. Occupancy sensors were installed in all labs, fume hoods, and the conference room.

If you are interested in learning more about the Green Lab Program at Virginia Tech, contact Ellen Garcia,

Related article:

Leading the green charge: Ph.D. student Ellen Garcia introduces lab sustainability program to campus

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