UConn Health’s Student-Driven Sustainability Efforts

It’s been a busy year between Earth Days for UConn medical and dental students

three women picking up trash

UConn medical students Audrey Dellert, Mary Yanaros, and Katherine Phillips take part in a beach cleanup in Norwalk September 2022. (Photo provided by Mary Yanaros)

Some ambitious medical and dental students are finding the time to make sustainability a greater priority at UConn Health.

Since Earth Day 2022, they’ve been busy organizing and executing plans to that not only are earth-friendly, but in many cases promote health and well-being.

For example, for Earth Day 2023, they’re holding a clothing swap in the student lounge, where students can exchange clothing as a way to reduce waste, saving resources rather than purchasing new, while diversifying their wardrobe.

“We put out a couple of bins near the academic entrance,” says third-year medical student Ned Wilson, a co-president of the student sustainability group at UConn Health. “We got clothing donations from people who, instead of just throwing them away, may be just trying to refine their wardrobe or are getting rid of some clothes and don’t know what to do with them. It’s an opportunity to exchange clothing or just pick up new pieces of clothing if you need them.”

group portrait at Connecticut Convention Center
Dr. Kirsten Ek, the UConn School of Medicine’s course director (center), brought student activists to the Connecticut Convention Center Oct. 21, 2022, to join her in presenting a continuing medical education talk about climate and health at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians Connecticut chapter. Pictured with her, from left, are Maggie Boudreau, Sulaikha Buuh, Khaoula Ben Haj Frej, Max Braun, Alexandria Gonzalez, Kiran Singh-Smith, and Ned Wilson. Many of these students also helped develop and present a climate and health curriculum session to more than 160 first-year medical and dental students in March 2023. (Photo provided by Kirsten Ek)

That’s taking place Saturday, April 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

A less obvious effort to create change comes by way of adding sustainability awareness to the curriculum. Students have worked with Dr. Thomas Manger, assistant dean of preclerkship medical education, and other faculty to introduce more environmental-based application exercises to promote a broader view of climate change on health care. One of the goals is to push medical and dental students to think about the impacts of fossil fuels on their future work, as well as how people are affected by the changing world.

“One thing we recently did is raise awareness of the fact that the more greenhouse gases we create by burning fossil fuels, the more likely you’re going to have skin cancer, because the ozone starts to be depleted,” Wilson says.

Another example is research showing that longer summer seasons can allow for a wider window of time for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Members of the UConn chapter of the American Student Dental Association have formed an ASDA sustainability committee.

“We are inspired to reduce waste in our clinics and promote sustainable practices to protect the health of our patients and planet,” says second-year student Michael Truhlar.

Among their objectives is to develop and present sustainability material to second-year students during their official clinic orientation.

“When second-year students first transition into the clinics it can be intimidating, and in their eagerness to be prepared for any situation they frequently grab more supplies than necessary,” says classmate Julia Clapis. “We are trying to teach good habits of early preparation so the students know exactly what the patient’s needs will be and only grab what is necessary.”

Other efforts have included:

  • Working to develop additional sustainability material for other clinic orientations (resident, faculty).
  • Working to update cassettes in the clinic with the goal of reducing repeat sterilization.
  • Working to review existing paper forms in the clinics to determine necessity and digitize when possible.

In January, they arranged a lunch-and-learn with a Boston-area dentist, who presented on private practice sustainability.

“Sometimes it can be hard to imagine the ways a dental practice can be more sustainable while still complying with infection control standards,” Truhlar says. “Guest speakers like this can help provide ideas to our classmates before they go out into the world of private practice themselves.”

poster soliciting participation in student sustainability group
A poster makes the case to students to prioritize sustainability at UConn Health. (Photo by Kiran Singh-Smith)

Second-year medical students Maggie Boudreau and Max Braun, and pre-medical student Stefan Marczuk, along with Dr. Kirsten Ek, the medical school’s course director, were part of a statewide effort to launch Connecticut Health Professionals for Climate Action, the state chapter of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. Braun is vice chair, Boudreau is treasurer, and Marczuk is a legislative liaison.

UConn Health participates in the Planetary Health Report Card, a project involving more than 80 health professions schools.

“It takes into account things like food prep, how we use our energy, the sustainability of our research, do we talk about sustainability in our curriculum, and we get a grade at the end of that report,” Wilson says.

UConn Health’s grade is a C-plus, up from C-minus the previous year.

A student-led initiative is Cans for Kits, which helps both the environment and the less fortunate using redemptions of cans and bottles collected in a bin in a high-traffic area by the academic rotunda.

“We take the deposits and make kits, bags that include toothbrushes, toothpaste, toiletries, a little bit of food, and some resources for people experiencing homelessness,” says Wilson, who estimates raising nearly $150 over the last year. “It’s a little process, it’s not like we’re making thousands of dollars, but just doing a little part to try to help.”

Students also have organized volunteering events through partner organizations such as the Ocean Recovery Community Alliance, assembling groups for cleanups at beaches, parks, and trails.

Explaining his passion for sustainability, Wilson says, “I don’t want to see the world become a place that’s too challenging to live. The world is beautiful and I’m trying to preserve that as much as I can. I’m also trying to follow my passion in medicine, and they’re not mutually exclusive. There are small things that can be done in medicine to make a big difference.”

To learn more or to get involved with UConn Health student sustainability efforts, email Wilson at edwilson@uchc.edu or Truhlar at truhlar@uchc.edu.