Fifteen UVA research labs welcomed spring by servicing and organizing their freezers to compete in the North American Laboratory Freezer Challenge. Used for the preservation of sensitive samples and reagents, freezers are a common find in laboratories but are extremely energy-intensive. In fact, a single Ultra Low Temp (ULT) freezer set at -80℃ consumes as much energy as an average American home1 . UVA is committed to reducing our emissions to 25% below 2009 levels by 20252 and as part of the University’s Greenhouse Gas Action Plan, optimizing cold storage provides labs with a unique opportunity to help achieve this goal. Competitors were rewarded for taking action to reduce freezer energy demands by discarding outdated samples, performing preventative maintenance, warming temperature set-points, and replacing inefficient models with energy- and space-saving units.

Two nonprofit organizations, My Green Lab and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL), hosted the competition and acknowledged UVA’s outstanding efforts, stating:

“[The University of Virginia] had great participation, saved nearly 40,000 kWh/year, and had one the highest points/freezer scores in the competition. The latter metric is the number of points people scored per cold storage unit in their lab - basically it's a measure of how many different actions people took. There were so many labs in the competition that focused on accumulating points through discarding samples, but labs at the University of Virginia scored points through a variety of actions. This really exemplified the spirit of the Freezer Challenge.”
Allison Paradise, My Green Lab

My Green Lab and I2SL will present top prizes to challenge winners this October at the annual I2SL conference in Boston, MA. Winners include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, University of California San Diego, Harvard University and others.

In the meantime, UVA’s Office for Sustainability and Green Labs Program rewarded Freezer Challenge winners among our campus competitors. Together, UVA participants discarded almost nine thousand samples and the College of Arts and Sciences decommissioned eight ULT units, replacing them with new efficient models. These eight units alone will save approximately 40,000 kWh per year. To put that into context, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that an average American home consumes 11,000 kWh a year3, so this action alone has effectively removed more than three households from our carbon footprint!

First place in the UVA competition was awarded to Dr. Laura Galloway’s lab in the Biology Department. Their evolution and ecology lab utilizes various Campanula plant species as model organisms to explore plant mating systems, polyploidy, and speciation. Cold storage allows them to maintain DNA, plant leaf tissue samples, reagents, and PCR products. When asked about their experience taking part in the competition, they shared the positive outcome of optimizing their cold storage protocols.

“[The] freezer challenge helped us get rid of old reagents and redundant samples, as well as samples from previous grad students' projects. Optimizing our sample storage was helpful since we have several people in lab working on very different projects out of the same freezer, but using the same reagents.”
Catherine Debban, Galloway Lab PhD Candidate

During their cleanout, the Galloway lab also unearthed and discarded reagents from 1998, winning a UVA Honorable Mention award for the oldest item discarded in the Green Labs photo competition. The Biology Department’s Genomics Core and its Research Specialist, AnhThu Nguyen (MS), also performed well, placing second overall and winning a UVA Honorable Mention award for best “before and after” freezer transformation photo.

The Galloway Lab, first place winners of the 2017 UVA Freezer Challenge
The Galloway Lab, first place winners of the 2017 UVA Freezer Challenge



Research Specialist AnhThu Nguyen preparing to defrost her -20℃ freezer
Research Specialist AnhThu Nguyen preparing to defrost her -20℃ freezer

Research Specialist AnhThu Nguyen preparing to defrost her -20℃ freezer


Labs in the School of Medicine’s Biomedical Engineering (BME) Department were awarded third place overall in the UVA competition (Dr. Jeff Saucerman) and the final Honorable Mention Award for the “most valuable item rediscovered” (Dr. Jason Papin). Members of the BME Department have been long-time advocates of sustainable research practices on UVA’s campus, participating in a variety of Green Labs initiatives such as the Green Labs Working Group and the Green Labs Resource Fair. Other participants included labs from the Psychology, Environmental Science, and the Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics Departments.


In the end, all fifteen competing labs were awarded a free pair of thermal gloves and a box of cupcakes from Sweethaus Bakery to fuel their hard work. Honorable Mention awardees were presented with newly minted UVA Green Labs beaker mugs while official winners received a variety of sustainable science products and gift vouchers from Fisher Scientific for $250 (first place), $100 (second place), and $50 (third place). Official winners were selected based on the number of points earned by completing actions on the Freezer Challenge score sheet combined with the number of kilowatt hours saved as a result of their efforts.


UVA’s Office for Sustainability and Green Labs Program look forward to supporting another Freezer Challenge competition in the spring of 2018. In the meantime, UVA Green Labs is preparing for our first “Shut the Sash” competition set to run this coming fall semester (2017). “Shut the Sash” promotes safe and sustainable use of laboratory fume hoods. Check the Green Labs website or email to learn more about sustainability in UVA labs or to participate in ongoing efforts or upcoming competitions.


1 University of Colorado, freezer energy usage comparison
2 UVA Greenhouse Gas Action Plan
3 EIA – How much electricity does an American home use?