Olivia Regehr has been an intern with UVA’s Green Labs program since August 2021. She is an Environmental Thought and Practice major with Global Sustainability and Bioethics minors. She is passionate about climate change adaptation, mitigation and geoengineering strategies, global and corporate sustainability, and advocating for environmental justice. Her main projects with the Green Labs program include promoting the Shut the Sash Challenge, the International Freezer Challenge and Green Lab Certification for research labs.


How did you get involved with UVA Green Labs?

Coming to UVA, I knew I wanted to get involved with sustainability initiatives in some capacity, but I didn't know exactly what it would be. I knew I wanted to find a group that involved teamwork and the implementation of sustainable practices at the University level. I happened to find the Sustainable Student Employee for Green Labs job offering and decided to apply. I didn't fully know what the job entailed considering I had little experience in the lab setting, but I gave it a try anyway… and I am so incredibly grateful that I did! I am now the Sustainability Student Employee for Green Labs and the Co-Chair of the Green Labs Working Group here at UVA.


How has your experience with Green Labs affected your student experience?

I originally envisioned my participation with sustainability at the University involving student engagement activities such as gardening, recycling and composting. Joining the Green Labs team, I quickly realized that the position was more about combining outreach and engagement in the community with promoting lab safety and efficiency. This experience with Green Labs has provided me with the opportunity to meet some incredible people who do such crucial work around Grounds. Prior to this experience, I never really thought much about all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making the University run as smoothly and seamlessly as it does. This experience with Green Labs has helped me to visualize and better understand the amount of work that goes into making the student experience here so wonderful. I am so appreciative of all of the Environmental Health & Safety members, Facilities Management staff, and lab researchers who work so hard to keep us all healthy and safe.


What’s the wildest thing you’ve found yourself doing as a Green Labs intern?

As a Green Labs intern hopping from one lab to another, I have found myself witnessing and doing some pretty wild things. I never imagined myself becoming somewhat of a cold storage management expert in my college years, but I am now able to locate a unit's condenser coils and address its stress levels based on temperature and sound cues, and I can assess the efficiency of a cold storage unit by simply looking at it. This has proved to be a useful and transferable skill as I have now assessed the efficiency of my refrigerator and freezer at home as well as those of my friends.


In terms of interesting things I have witnessed in the lab setting, I have visited chemistry labs where they have quite intensive research going on. Other than high school chemistry, my exposure to chemical research labs was very limited, so seeing these labs in action while checking fume hood sash position sensors was incredibly entertaining. Now shifting to working on freezers, I have seen signs for very interesting research projects involving pregnant mice, fruit flies on drugs and more.


I always tell people that this is the best position to have on Grounds, next to research. I knew coming to UVA that I wanted to be involved in research in some way or another, but my indecision prevented me from narrowing down areas of study/research to focus on. As the Green Labs intern, I have been able to catch a glimpse of so many fascinating research efforts around Grounds, from the Chemistry Building to the Physical Life Sciences Building, and Medical Research Buildings 4, 5, and 6. Though I am not participating in this research firsthand, I have been fortunate enough to learn so much about the research that goes on on Grounds that I otherwise would never have been able to see like this.


How has your thinking about sustainability evolved in your time at UVA?

I have gone back and forth about prioritizing individual versus systemic changes when it comes to promoting sustainability. I generally recycle, turn electricity sources off when not in use and am conscious of my water usage. These individual actions, though small in the grand scheme of things, can help especially if others catch onto these behaviors. Prior to coming to UVA, I think my understanding of sustainability focused a lot on these shifts in behavior that individuals could make.


In my time at UVA, however, I became frustrated by some of these opportunities for individual action because I was restricted by on-Grounds housing life. I didn't have the opportunity to turn off all of the lights in my dorm building or ensure that everyone was recycling their plastic materials. I felt like a lot of these actions were out of my control, and even if I was doing them, was anyone else?


Luckily, Green Labs helped me to re-frame the importance of individual action in terms of the bigger picture -- the University level and beyond. In the fall during our annual Shut the Sash Challenge, I went from lab to lab, checking the sash position sensors on each fume hood to ensure they were working properly. By checking these sensors and promoting the shutting of sashes, we were able to save the University over $34,000 in just one month! This was such a breakthrough for me to see that individual action with the help of the community can truly make such a big difference.


My thinking about sustainability has evolved in my time at UVA through a particular emphasis on the need for systemic change. By releasing our annual reports with goals for the next few decades, UVA is committing to changing the culture of sustainability. More than anything, I have seen the need for a restructured culture of lab sustainability. Even though labs have been running in set ways for some time, it is never too late to stop, strategize, and rethink the way they are run.


I think the Green Labs program is so important because it is the perfect intersection between the outreach and engagement efforts with the UVA community and the safety and efficiency strategies in labs.


What’s a new sustainability-related interest you’ve cultivated during all this learning?

A new sustainability-related interest I have cultivated during this learning is definitely refrigerants and cold storage management strategies. Refrigerants, though rarely talked about in the context of climate change solutions, is one of the major areas for improvement listed by Project Drawdown. After promoting the International Freezer Challenge and assisting with the de-icing and defrosting of these units, I have developed a personal interest in how refrigerants impact various communities differently. I am currently developing a research paper on the relationship between refrigerants and environmental justice. Refrigerants significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions which disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities. Sustainable refrigeration and air-conditioning at the community level, however, could greatly reduce this impact. Programs such as Green Labs are crucial in connecting the science (finding sustainable solutions) with the people (engaging with the community)


How can we root for you? What’s your call to action for us?

There are a few easy steps you can take at the individual level to help shift our community’s culture to one of efficiency and sustainability:

  • Stop and reflect on your energy use and daily behaviors.
  • Are there easy changes you can make, like taking shorter showers, using reusable containers or minimizing at-home waste? 
  • Take a look at your refrigerators, freezers and electrical setup at home and think about ways to be more efficient.
  • Engage in these individual behavioral shifts and spread the word to others.
  • Learn more about candidates for public office who advocate for systemic climate change solutions.


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