Alix Weisman

Research Assistant, Hunter Lab
Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)

The Hunter Lab, run by Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Craig Hunter, is located in Harvard’s Biolabs building and supports 7 full-time researchers and 2 undergraduates. Research assistant, Alix Weisman, helps run daily operations within the lab and drives the promotion of green and sustainable initiatives.

1. What type of research does your lab group conduct?

The Hunter group studies the mechanisms of intercellular RNA transport that support systemic RNA interference (RNAi) in C. elegans. The lab also investigates developmental and signaling defects that occur in worms and mice that have mutations in these RNA transport proteins. Our research methods encompass a wide variety of experimental approaches in mice, nematodes, and cell culture models.

2. What are some ways you're working to integrate sustainable practices in the lab?

We make sure that our fume hood sashes are closed when not in use, and try to use our biosafety cabinets thoughtfully and efficiently. Our incubators have to be on constantly, as temperature affects the development time of C. elegans, but we do share an environmental room with another group. We have sign-up sheets for our PCR machines and if no one is signed up to use it they are shut-off.

Our group has a good practice of communicating verbally or via text to figure out if a piece of energy intensive equipment can be turned off without affecting someone else’s experiment. Everyone, including Craig, participates in a group clean up once or twice a year, including a coordinated lab swap where researchers can exchange solutions or reagents they no longer need with other group members in group that may be able to utilize them.

Our group has a good practice of communicating verbally or via text to figure out if a piece of energy intensive equipment can be turned off without affecting someone else’s experiment.

Organization of samples, storing them efficiently, and monitoring the ULT -80 freezers has been a priority. One of the grad students (Olga!) and I maintain a virtual map of our -80Cs, updated on paper as changes occur and updated electronically every 1-2 months. We try to keep our freezers packed well and running efficiently by storing gel packs or ice bricks in sample boxes that fit in our racks and by removing ice buildup.

The Hunter Lab participated in an energy study of our freezers a few years back and had a low kwh/day compared to others. We defrost our –20C freezers regularly and discourage the use of non-standard boxes in our freezers as they use space inefficiently.

Some of our most valuable lab–made reagents are catalogued electronically down to the position in the box (-80 Upright, Rack 2E, Lab Glycerol Stocks #9, position A:1). This level of record keeping is not necessary for lab members’ boxes that are often in flux, but our maxim for those boxes is: Anyone knows all the critical information about every box in a rack just from reading the visible side of the lid. That includes who “owns” it (Alix’s Box #5), what is generally inside of it (plasmids for Drosophila expression), and when the contents are from (2013). 

The aim of this practice is that when people can find what they need quickly, the doors are open for less time, so freezer contents stay colder which is better for the reagents and our energy footprint. When freezers fail it is a race to find temporary storage for your reagents at the correct temperature, and that is not a time when you want to wonder what is in a given box (especially if emergency space is limited and you can’t save everything).

Empty pipette tip boxes are recycled or saved and reused for future experiments.Empty pipette tip boxes are recycled or saved and reused for future experiments.The group is about to try out new pipette tip cartridges that “drop in” and refill existing pipette tip boxes while still keeping filter tips RNase- and DNase-free. We currently save old pipette tip boxes and either reuse them to store worm matings and experiments in the incubators, or we recycle them.

Lab members often cruise by the reuse room on the first floor, and we have found a number of useful items (additional bunser burners, glassware, boxes for running PAGE gels). In the past two years we have also donated three pieces of lab equipment: a microscope and incubator that went to other labs who saw our listings on the Reuse site, and a tube-rack vortexer which went to a shared space for multiple groups to utilize. 

Lab members often cruise by the reuse room on the first floor, and we have found a number of useful items (additional bunser burners, glassware, boxes for running PAGE gels).

3. What drives the group to be sustainable and consider green options when conducting research i.e. climate change?

I think most members of our group see themselves as global citizens, and since we know and understand how our individual actions inside and outside the lab are contributing to the problems our planet faces, we feel an obligation to not make problems worse (at least, not without good cause). Many of the behavioral shifts are the same inside and outside of lab so once you get in the habit of the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) in one part of your life it is naturally to include them in the other.

I think most members of our group see themselves as global citizens, and since we know and understand how our individual actions inside and outside the lab are contributing to the problems our planet faces, we feel an obligation to not make problems worse (at least, not without good cause).

4. What advice would you offer to other groups who want to take more initiative?

It can be a challenging balance between scientists’ time, money, and our planetary resources. Start with the easy stuff where your group is open to changing behavior. The areas where we have the easiest time “being green” tend to overlap with statements like “is best for the reagents/equipment” and “efficient use of lab members’ time”.

Maintaining accurate and thorough records of the reagents and resources you already have saves time, energy and money. Stay aware of what the Office for Sustainability and the Green Labs Program are up to, and benefit from it: They replaced two old under-bench fridges that were not only energy inefficient, but frequently in need of defrosting by lab members. Compare notes with your neighbors to share good ideas and brainstorm new solutions.

The areas where we have the easiest time “being green” tend to overlap with statements like “is best for the reagents/equipment” and “efficient use of lab members’ time”.