On Sustainability Research, and Doing Research Sustainably

A MITASC story contributed by Jenna Melanson

My name is Jenna Melanson—I am a rising senior studying course 20 (biological engineering), and this summer I am researching algal biofuels at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO. My interest in sustainability started when I was very young as a result of two parents who worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Although conservation has always been on my mind, it wasn’t until my sophomore year at MIT that I decided I really wanted to be a part of global sustainability efforts. After a UROP that didn’t quite live up to expectations, and an academic year that left me feeling burnt out, I began to question whether medical research—a common path for course 20’s—was really right for me. When I listened to the news, the stories that frightened or excited me most weren’t those about new drugs or the end to cancer, they were the ones about sky-rocketing global temperatures, rampant extinction/deforestation, and other symptoms of our ever-expanding population’s carbon-footprint.

Eventually I decided that my instincts were right. Pursuing a career—even an important one like medicine—that didn’t excite me was a terrible idea. So I started searching and realized that there were plenty of other options available for biological engineers like myself. That was when I stumbled across the Posewitz Lab at the Colorado School of Mines. Without going into great detail, the Posewitz Lab has a goal of increasing the efficiency of algal biofuels so that they are commercially competitive with traditional fossil fuels. Because algal biofuels can be grown in saltwater—an abundant resource on our ocean-covered planet—and are essentially carbon neutral, transitioning to their use would be a great step towards reducing carbon emissions.

My current job in the lab involves development of mutant strains of algae that will, theoretically, grow faster and produce more lipids (which are important for synthesizing biofuels). A typical day is filled with a lot of molecular biology work—transformations, DNA extraction, and running gels—as well as algae culturing—which is actually quite fun because algae is a lot prettier than most of the colorless liquids you work with in a molecular biology lab.

Perhaps the biggest irony that I’ve run into in this line of work is the fact that scientific research itself has a huge carbon footprint. The amount of single-use plastic that you’ll find in a bio lab is huge. It’s unfortunate, but also necessary, because avoiding contamination between samples can be tricky, and I guess no one wants to spend their days autoclaving reusable pipette tips or microcentrifuge tubes.

On the bright side, the Colorado School of Mines itself is very dedicated to sustainability. The hallways are filled with posters reminding you to be sustainable, and special bins are provided in every lab to recycle nitrile gloves (rather than tossing them in the garbage as most labs at MIT do). In the Posewitz Lab, if something can be reused or recycled, it always is. I feel that our carbon-footprint is much smaller than that of labs at MIT—probably because CSM has made such an effort to keep in mind their goal of sustainability in all aspects of life. After all, would it make sense to pursue a carbon-neutral fuel source if you were filling the landfills and oceans with plastic in the process? As I move through the summer and learn more from my incredible mentors here in the Posewitz Lab, I hope to pick up more methods in which I can make my research—and life—more sustainable.


This public reflection was produced as part of the work of the MIT Action Sustainability Corps. Learn more about MITASC here.