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Med Students Making Moves in Sustainability

Medical students Caellagh Catley and Sarah Fracasso-Francis.

One of the key phrases that continuously circles through the Office of Sustainability is waste reduction. Students across WashU’s campuses are advocating for the university community to reduce waste wherever possible. The WashU School of Medicine’s (WUSM) Sustainability Group is especially concerned about waste reduction, considering their chosen field is notoriously one of the more wasteful industries in the nation.  

The WUSM Sustainability Group has been working hard to ensure sustainability and waste awareness are an integral part of the WUSM experience. As first-year medical students were welcomed to campus this fall, the Sustainability Group provided each incoming student with a reusable utensil set in an effort to cut down on student-related dining waste. In addition to providing reusable cutlery to incoming students, the WUSM Sustainability Group also distributes reusable anatomy gloves to first- and second-year anatomy students, promotes an ecochallenge in the spring for Earth Month, hosts sustainability talks on a variety of subjects, and is in the process of launching an ongoing volunteer trail maintenance program with Great Rivers Greenway.  

The group has also created an educational video on how to be less wasteful in clinical environments that is distributed to incoming students before they enter their first clinical immersion. The group’s Co-Presidents sat down with WUSM Sustainability Coordinator, Heather Craig, to share more about the group and why they got involved. Co-President Caellagh Catley, a second-year medical student, stated, “We aren’t going to be practicing physicians for quite some time, but we hope that having early conversations with fellow students about sustainability in healthcare means that it won’t be shocking for people down the road. We hope to provide a framework for our fellow students so that they can be proactive in their own future practices.”  

When asked why she became involved in leading the group, Caellagh said, “Sustainability is something I prioritize and want to bring to different places. Looking towards the future at the effects of climate change is something that seems so integral to health and that the healthcare industry at large has such a huge impact on. For me personally, reducing hospital waste is one of the things I’m really interested in, especially innovation as a way to reduce waste. How can we practice healthcare in a way that’s better for the planet and also financially incentivizing? I feel like there’s a lot of untapped potential in the healthcare field. We sent someone to the moon – I think we can figure out a way to require less packaging in hospitals!” Caellagh laughed.

Fellow Co-President and second-year student, Sarah Fracasso-Francis, also has a personal interest in reducing hospital waste, but emphasizes the importance of living your life sustainably and staying engaged with a sustainable community. She explained, “It can be difficult for people in the medical field who care about sustainability to identify each other, on top of [sustainability] not being a primary factor in most people’s research. When we first started leading this group, we met with so many people in medicine who really believe sustainability is important. But we had a hard time finding people who were able to take time away from their practice or research to dedicate additional time to sustainability related issues.” 

Sarah’s concern has been voiced by others across WashU’s campuses. To address these concerns, Sustainability Coordinator, Aamna Anwer, and WUSM Sustainability Coordinator, Heather Craig, are working to provide WashU students and employees a way to network with sustainability-minded individuals. The Sustainability Action Team has historically been specific to WUSM, but has now expanded to include all WashU campuses. For those who are not able to join quarterly SAT meetings but still want to be in the loop with Sustainability staff and interested peers, Heather and Aamna have created a Sustainability Microsoft Teams account for campus community members to engage on topics about sustainability in a format that works with their schedules. 

Caellagh and Sarah noted that there are a variety of faculty and staff members at WUSM who are making an effort to have conversations about climate change and sustainability with students in order to train them for the inevitabilities of dealing with climate migrants at an increasing rate. Caellagh mentioned, “We don’t always have full on conversations about it between our classmates, but there are people who are in class with us coming from places where it’s obvious that the environment is changing and public health is being adversely affected. As that becomes more prevalent, I think more people will start thinking about it. It’s inevitable.” Sarah added, “On one hand, climate change is going to affect every single patient, but there are definitely fields that it will affect more, such as pulmonology. Training in those areas will have to evolve as we learn more about the effects of climate change.”  

To get involved with the WUSM Sustainability Group, contact Caellagh Catley or Sarah Fracasso-Francis, and to join the Sustainability Action Team, contact Heather Craig or Aamna Anwer.