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Making science greener requires a creative approach

 

Una FitzGerald couldn’t unsee wastefulness in the lab, but she is helping undo it.

 



Meet Una FitzGerald

Just a year before her lab became the first in Europe to gain Green Lab Certification, Dr. Una FitzGerald, the scientist who shepherded the effort, would not have claimed she was an environmentalist.

“Prior to 2018, if I were trying to hold a conversation with anyone about the climate, I wouldn't have gone further than saying, ‘Oh yeah, that's awful. We really need to do something about it.’ I couldn't have said anything intelligent about it at all,” she explains in a conversation with Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“Then this honestly random thing happened.”

It happened in a bookstore in Glasgow one summer afternoon. FitzGerald’s daughter picked up the book No. More. Plastic. by Martin Dorey, and said, “We should get this, Mom, and you should read it.”

A chef, surfer, and travel writer who has lived much of his life in a camper van, Dorey is best known for pioneering the “two-minute beach clean-up” movement, based on the idea that if everyone spent just two minutes a day removing litter from the beach, we'd have pristine beaches.

It’s not the kind of thing you would expect to radically change the life of a PhD scientist, but Dorey’s book applying that same simple two-minute philosophy to transforming plastic-using habits had a profound impact on FitzGerald; she considers it her “eco-epiphany.”

“I was horrified when I thought about the effect of plastic waste on our ecosystems. I immediately started noticing the packaging on everything. I switched to a reusable water bottle, changed the way I bought fruits and vegetables—the more I learned, the more I couldn’t unsee.”

Back at work in her lab at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway), the alarm bells really sounded.

She quickly realized the lab “was ten times worse than what's going on at home, in terms of plastic, especially.” She began to study the issue in journals like Nature, and now the statistics roll off her tongue: a bench scientist produces about 15 times as much plastic waste as the average person. In the US, the average plastic waste of a scientist is 100 kilograms per year. “If people know this, it’s very hard for them to ignore it. And in my case it got to the point where I said, ‘Well, I'm not going to work like this anymore. We're not going to have my team doing this.’ And I started to question all of our practices.”

Her team at NUI Galway focuses on the molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's disease. In addition to leading her research group, FitzGerald is the Director of the Galway Neuroscience Centre; represents MS Ireland on the MS International Federation’s International Medical and Scientific Board; is a member of the committee of the Dementia and Neurodegeneration Network Ireland; and is currently coordinating an international project aimed at creating new devices and treatments for MS. With experience in both neuroscience and engineering and a distinguished career working in multiple countries in both academia and industry, FitzGerald might seem like an ideal candidate to lead the way in elevating the environmental practices of science labs—but she is a somewhat reticent hero, and humble about her efforts.

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A chef, surfer, and travel writer who has lived much of his life in a camper van, Dorey is best known for pioneering the “two-minute beach clean-up” movement, based on the idea that if everyone spent just two minutes a day removing litter from the beach, we'd have pristine beaches.

It’s not the kind of thing you would expect to radically change the life of a PhD scientist, but Dorey’s book applying that same simple two-minute philosophy to transforming plastic-using habits had a profound impact on FitzGerald; she considers it her “eco-epiphany.”

“I was horrified when I thought about the effect of plastic waste on our ecosystems. I immediately started noticing the packaging on everything. I switched to a reusable water bottle, changed the way I bought fruits and vegetables—the more I learned, the more I couldn’t unsee.”

Back at work in her lab at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway), the alarm bells really sounded.

She quickly realized the lab “was ten times worse than what's going on at home, in terms of plastic, especially.” She began to study the issue in journals like Nature, and now the statistics roll off her tongue: a bench scientist produces about 15 times as much plastic waste as the average person. In the US, the average plastic waste of a scientist is 100 kilograms per year. “If people know this, it’s very hard for them to ignore it. And in my case it got to the point where I said, ‘Well, I'm not going to work like this anymore. We're not going to have my team doing this.’ And I started to question all of our practices.”

Her team at NUI Galway focuses on the molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's disease. In addition to leading her research group, FitzGerald is the Director of the Galway Neuroscience Centre; represents MS Ireland on the MS International Federation’s International Medical and Scientific Board; is a member of the committee of the Dementia and Neurodegeneration Network Ireland; and is currently coordinating an international project aimed at creating new devices and treatments for MS. With experience in both neuroscience and engineering and a distinguished career working in multiple countries in both academia and industry, FitzGerald might seem like an ideal candidate to lead the way in elevating the environmental practices of science labs—but she is a somewhat reticent hero, and humble about her efforts.

She describes herself in the days after the eco-epiphany as walking around CÚRAM—NUI Galway’s large, five-winged, dedicated biomedical sciences research building where her group works—thinking to herself, “How do I start this? How do I bring this up? It's not my role. I'm a lecturer and haven't been given a role on sustainability.” She was also worried about how her colleagues might react.

“Why would you bother these important researchers with this stuff? I expected them to say things like, ‘I'm curing cancer, leave me alone. I'm working on heart disease, or Alzheimer's. I don't have time for this.’"

Then one day CÚRAM’s building director sent around an email suggesting they adjust the freezers to be more energy efficient—not necessarily as a step toward saving the planet.

"But that was a way in for me,” she explains. “I said, ‘I'm so glad you're bringing up green practices. Here's a ton of papers about plastic and greenhouse gases and travel. Why don't we discuss this at our next four meetings?’”

To inform those discussions, FitzGerald had started researching organizations focused on the environmental impact of science—but there were surprisingly few, and none in Ireland. There was LEAF (Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework) in the UK, and the International Institute of Sustainable Laboratories in the US. While FitzGerald saw the value in joining these organizations, it was her discovery of the nonprofit My Green Lab that really changed the course of her life.

My Green Lab aims to influence people who work in and support science to improve their own well-being while minimizing the impact of science on the environment. FitzGerald liked that the organization was a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and she was inspired by the passion and practicality of its former CEO Allison Paradise, a fellow neuroscientist, who founded My Green Lab in 2013.

“I think Allison has done a beautiful job of saying, ‘You need to question what you’re doing.’” FitzGerald says. “That's why she left the lab. She's a scientist herself. She’s very well positioned to have an opinion on this.” FitzGerald was impressed not only with My Green Lab’s philosophy connecting personal safety to environmental awareness but also with the organization’s responsiveness as she investigated how her lab could receive official My Green Lab certification, which is considered the global standard for laboratory sustainability best practices.

She explains how the relationship deepened: “I kept asking questions and kept getting help. And it emerged that our lab in Galway was going to be the first, not only in Ireland but in Europe, to get the certification.”

When CÚRAM earned the certification in 2019, it was enabled by FitzGerald’s spearheading of the Galway Green Labs initiative, in which a “green team” of researchers and staff sought ways to transform practices across their campus on plastic waste, energy reduction, recycling, and water usage. They also launched The time to green our labs is now, a video documentary about their efforts.

FitzGerald likes to refer to her ever-expanding role in making science greener as a “ripple effect” where the more she is known for it, the more she finds herself taking on new projects. Since the certification, she has chaired a national public-sector working group on sustainability, spoken at the My Green Lab summit in the US and in other international forums, and developed a green lab principles and practices module for PhD and master’s degree students at her university.

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In our Meet the Innovators series, we’ve focused a lot on the quality of resolve, the tenacity required to keep going in the face of failure or adversity, a characteristic of so many of the scientists we’ve spoken with. And FitzGerald certainly has no lack of resolve, but to change the entrenched practices of scientists also requires creativity, and that’s where she shines—in the ability to imagine and generate new possibilities or approaches to solving problems or better communicating with others.

Whether it is leveraging a lab’s efforts to save energy as a way to open dialogue on the many benefits of less wasteful practices, or finding ways to speak to anyone about the need to consider our impact on the environment, FitzGerald is constantly finding creative solutions to help address our world’s greatest challenge. She attributes this creative approach to problem-solving in part to her background in engineering, and in part to her voracious appetite for learning from others. Nearly every point she makes she attributes to thinkers who have influenced her—from Martin Dorey, who triggered her eco-epiphany, to Allison Paradise, who helped shape her vision of more sustainable science, to thinkers like Robert Gifford and George Marshall, who have written on the psychological and communicative challenges of engaging people on environmental issues. FitzGerald traces her creative spirit to her kindred spirits.

Thermo Fisher Scientific takes inspiration from Dr. Una FitzGerald. This includes the adoption of My Green Lab’s ACT green labeling for many of our more sustainable products, as well as our constantly seeking ways to reduce our environmental footprint, from our introduction of unique no-foam shipping coolers and Gibco bench-stable media to the complete energy transformation of our site in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, which now uses all renewable energy sources, including solar, biomass, and wind energy for electricity. As 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of World Earth Day, we also released Life in the Lab's "The Green Issue", a compendium of news and stories dedicated to our shared pursuit of sustainable science.

But our company and each of us as individuals have more work to do to protect our one and only world—and more to learn from committed scientists like Dr. FitzGerald.

“In the end,” she says, “everyone has to be brought on board, no matter what they’re doing. We need people to understand the biodiversity on their own doorstep.”

But, we asked her, will it work? Can science change?

Without hesitation, she insists, “Oh, it has to.”

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