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May 14, 2012 — Student encourages more eco-friendly behaviour in campus labs

by Sean Bettam — Monday, May 14, 2012

By Sean Bettam

Annette Gagliano
As one of the first beneficiaries of the Undergraduate Research Fund, St. Michael's College student Annette Gagliano investigated sustainability practices in U of T's teaching laboratories. (Photo: Diana Tyszko)

Weaning U of T students, faculty and staff off plastic water bottles and encouraging them to print documents on both sides of a piece of paper are terrific steps toward promoting environmental sustainability on campus. But fourth-year St. Michael's College student Annette Gagliano thinks universities could do more to encourage sustainable behaviour, including within teaching and research laboratories.

To test the idea, Gagliano, who is studying human biology, French and environment, worked with the guidance of Sustainability Office director Beth Savan and project coordinator Tyler Hunt to investigate existing practices in an undergraduate chemistry laboratory. She found that while students were concerned about sustainability, they were unaware of ways they could conserve resources and energy in the lab.

“The most carbon and energy intensive buildings on campus are scientific research facilities,” she said. “The advancement of sustainability in laboratories is fundamental.”

So Gagliano launched a pilot project to promote conservation using behavioral strategies. One group of students signed a safety and sustainability pledge, and received instruction on environmentally efficient practices. She also posted signs encouraging water and paper towel conservation as well as proper use of fume hoods, added an insert to lab manuals, and showed students a PowerPoint presentation further defining conservation practices.

When compared with other students using the same lab, Gagliano found the students in the pilot group used fewer papers towels and kept fume hood sashes lower, which meant that ventilation systems didn’t have to work as hard to prevent users from inhaling toxic fumes. She said in order to implant social norms that strengthen the validity of environmental instructions and messaging, standardized training in laboratory procedures and active engagement of teaching assistants and laboratory coordinators is necessary.

Gagliano hopes her research, which she presented at the annual Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium Conference at Syracuse University in April, will be just the beginning for sustainable labs at U of T.

“The university has already initiated a Green Course certification program and is in the final stages of developing a Green Offices certification program,” she said. “My research is the starting point for launching a certification system for green labs, too.”

Gagliano said the whole exercise, which was supported by the Undergraduate Research Fund – a joint initiative of the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Arts & Science Students’ Union – has been an intriguing learning experience.

“A researcher is like a detective. By identifying a problem, asking questions and then looking at the greater picture, that takes us one step closer to finding a solution. In terms of sustainability, there are endless directions to take for greening the campus.”