Teamwork Promotes Going Green in Research Labs

Graduate student Michael Saad and the Green Team he co-chairs are reducing waste, boosting recycling, and saving energy at Tufts’ SciTech building

Michael Saad, EG25, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Engineering, is making Tufts lab research more eco-friendly as co-chair of the Green Team in the Science and Technology (SciTech) building on the Medford/Somerville campus. Among 10 active Green Teams across the university, the SciTech group is the first and only one solely focused on reducing the carbon footprint of labs.  

Laboratories are resource-intensive spaces, so adopting sustainable practices, including comprehensive recycling and energy-saving measures, makes a significant difference in their impact on the environment, Saad said. He’s a proponent of the international organization My Green Lab , which aims to create a “culture of sustainability” in labs developing medical and technical innovations around the globe.

“There are labs everywhere—from Europe to Asia to the Middle East—now focused on bringing sustainability into how they work,” said Saad, a 2016 graduate of Rice University. “It’s inspiring to be part of a larger effort focused on making this transition to green labs.”

That effort aligns with his graduate work on sustainable approaches to seafood under the direction of David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. A renowned researcher in cellular agriculture, Kaplan is pushing the boundaries of tissue engineering into areas that include lab-grown meat, or cellular agriculture. It’s pathbreaking research that could reduce climate change by radically decreasing the amount of carbon associated with traditional livestock farms.

“One of the tenets of cellular agriculture is that it’s going to be environmentally friendly, yet our lab work in itself is not environmentally friendly” because of the waste it generates, said Saad. “I wanted to look at how I could make those two aspects of what I think are important—the science and sustainability practices—match.”

Translating a Green Ethos 

Saad’s first job, a stint in tech consulting, got him thinking about a more personally rewarding career path–one that would likely involve food. “I grew up in a Lebanese household where food is super prominent, and I cooked a lot,” he said. “So I was interested in applying my bioengineering degree to food research.”

He found the right fit at Perfect Day Foods in California, a company cofounded by Ryan Pandya, E13, that uses microflora to produce animal-free dairy products. At Perfect Day, many employees biked to work. “Sustainability was always at the forefront” of the staff’s thinking, Saad said. “The ethos was there.”

When Saad arrived at Tufts, seeds of that ethos had already been planted within the SciTech community, a research base for some 130 students, faculty, and staff. But research laboratories have a significant environmental impact. Demands for water and electricity are high and scientists often rely on sterile, single-use plastics to protect their work from contamination.

More than a decade ago, Emily Edwards, laboratory coordinator for the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, launched a recycling program for Styrofoam coolers, used in shipping and packaging to prevent breakage and keep some chemicals cold. That program continues to be “quite impressive,” said Saad. He also credits Bre Duffy, EG21, with important momentum; she secured SciTech’s first Green Fund award for a pilot program focused on recycling disposable nitrile gloves. 

When Saad arrived, he saw room for expanding sustainable practices, so he put together a seven-member Tufts Green Team, a structure promoted by the Office of Sustainability for fostering collaboration and generating new ideas. Edwards, as co-chair, brought her knowledge of SciTech and her own dedication as a Tufts Eco-Ambassador. Joining them on the Green Team were graduate students Sara Rudolph, Sunny (Sawnaz) Shaidani, Olivia Foster, Sophie Letcher, Andrew Stout, John Yuen Jr., and Gwen Buchanan.

The SciTech Green Team’s first initiative was installing bins in lab spaces to collect plastic film. A second major step forward came in September 2021. The Office of Sustainability’s Green Labs initiative, launched in 2017 to encourage eco-friendly lab practices, expanded to include a partnership with GreenLabs Recycling, serving research facilities throughout Greater Boston.

On the Medford/Somerville campus, two main lab buildings—SciTech and the Science and Engineering Center (SEC)—signed on to recycle their lab plastics. At first, Saad personally trekked bags of recyclables from SciTech to the single collection bin at SEC. This past September, SciTech researchers welcomed their own collection bin for empty pipette tip boxes and other plastic items. “The SciTech community as a whole is now much more effective and efficient at plastic recycling,” Saad said.

Other programs the team launched include an effort, led by Yuen, to replace plastic filter bottles with glass bottles that can be cleaned and re-used inhouse. “John’s idea to order glass bottles that could be re-used after autoclave sterilization has really complemented our other recycling projects,” Saad said.

Onward with Energy Saving

The Green Team made its biggest single stride toward sustainability when it won a Green Fund award of $6,330 during the 2021-22 funding cycle, with a matching commitment from the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical and Biological Engineering. The award supported the purchase of a smaller alternative to a large-capacity autoclave, a standard lab workhorse that uses steam to sterilize equipment.

The large autoclave is an “energy hog,” Saad said, using 10 gallons of water and 8 Kilowatt hours during a routine 30-minute cycle and another 2 gallons of water and 3 Kilowatt hours for every idle hour. Comparatively, the smaller autoclave uses only 1.72 gallons through multiples cycles and about 1.15 Kilowatt hours during a 30-minute cycle. It does not use any additional water when not in use. 

The compact new autoclave, ideal for small jobs, checks all the sustainability boxes, Saad said. It is more efficient, a sound investment with long-term benefits—it is projected to save about $3,200 annually in electricity and water costs—and, perhaps most importantly, “we hope that our two-autoclave model—one large, one small—will motivate other Tufts-affiliated labs to consider it as well,” he said.

A Team Effort

Shortly after Saad came to Tufts, he used the Somerville Facebook group called Everything is Free to secure enough cutlery to furnish the SciTeh kitchen for free. It is now set up with non-plastic utensils, including bowls and cutlery.

But he credits the Green Team for accomplishing broader initiatives. “I wrote and submitted the Green Fund proposal, but five of us were involved in the process,” he said. “That’s probably the one thing that I'm most proud of here, because it was a group effort.”

He said his top tip for making a difference in the workplace is to start by finding others who are also passionate about sustainability and green practices. Then, he added, provide avenues for people to be more sustainable. “Recycling programs…go a long way in helping people follow through on their desire to be more sustainable.”


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