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We are not alone.

When the Synthetic Molecular Chemistry (SMC) program at Uppsala started their lab sustainability efforts, it was easy to feel alone. At the beginning there were only two postdocs, and no one else seemed to care. It was easy to feel disheartened.

But other people did care.

Here’s the thing. Researchers – all the way from the university student fresh to the lab to the tenured professor – are very busy.

Tick tock…tick tock…@Islander61, CC BY-SA 4.0

The pressures can be immense to pass your classes, churn out papers, manage your research group, and apply for grants among a myriad of other responsibilities. Not to mention taking care of your personal life! (It is outside the scope of this blog post, but we at SMC have also made an attempt to more seriously acknowledge the mental health of our scientists. If you want to learn more – and see resources available to researchers at Uppsala University – see their webpage).

Then a funny, wonderful thing happened. The initially few postdocs (numbering then a small handful) gave a short presentation to the SMC group about how their labs could use less energy, water, and resources.

And the response was very positive! Again, all the way from the fresh student to the established professor! It was not that the group members did not care, it was that it was hard to put energy into it when it wasn’t obvious others also cared.

Now, it is important to stress something here. Yes, it was very important that other students and postdocs joined the effort. But it was crucial to gain the official support of the program professors. By lending their time, and eventually grant money, the faculty of SMC gave credibility to our efforts. More importantly, the SMC faculty also gave the message to the entire group that “yes, it is okay to spend time on this – lab work is not the only thing we value here.” Grassroots efforts are important, but it is also important to gain the legitimacy and power granted by the those higher up. There are lessons to be learned there in the broader context of the climate crises.

As a result of this meeting, the SMC sustainability group was born – and now, over a year later – the product of what became monthly check-in meetings has matured into the university-wide network it is today. As this is being written, over 20 30 people with no connection to SMC have already joined the network. It is our hope that each of those 30+ people will nucleate (sorry, chemistry joke) their own lab sustainability groups.

From here, who knows what may happen? After all, a beautiful ice-covered lake begins with only tiny, isolated ice crystals. If conditions are right, those initially lonely, tiny, seemingly insignificant ice crystals can find each other and grow together into something beautiful.

Lake Baikal in winter. © Sergey Pesterev / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

We are not alone.

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