#WhyIScience Q&A: A molecular biologist promotes sustainability in scientific spaces

Amelia Weber Hall discusses how she has integrated science and sustainability throughout her life.

A portrait of Amelia Weber Hall
Credit: Allison Dougherty, Broad Communications
Amelia Weber Hall helps lead Sustainability@Broad, an affinity group for Broad employees that advocates for environmentally-minded policies and programs.

Amelia Weber Hall grew up with an appreciation for life on Earth. As a child, she took nature walks with her family, observed fish eggs developing while swimming in nearby ponds, and used her family’s microscope to examine paramecium, a single-celled organism found in pond water. Her mother taught her how to live sustainably — how to compost, recycle, and reuse clothes and materials. Weber Hall’s passion for observing life would grow into a career studying it at a molecular level, while intertwining it with her strong sustainability values and practices. 

Weber Hall completed her PhD at University of Texas, Austin, under the mentorship of Vishy Iyer, where she studied global transcriptional networks using next-generation sequencing technologies. She joined the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in 2017 as a research fellow studying cardiovascular genetics with Patrick Ellinor, an institute member who leads the Cardiovascular Disease Initiative at Broad. Today, Weber Hall is a research scientist in the Gene Regulation Observatory (GRO), primarily working with Chuck Epstein, a senior group leader in the Broad’s Epigenomics Program to improve a multi-omic assay called SHARE-seq, which can analyze how genes are regulated in millions of cells at a time at relatively low cost.

Weber Hall is also a member of the steering committee of Sustainability@Broad, an affinity group for Broad employees that advocates for environmentally-minded policies and programs. Since joining the group, she and other members have organized several projects to promote sustainable practices at Broad and recently helped coordinate guest speakers and other activities for Earth Week

In this #WhyIScience Q&A, Weber Hall spoke with us (before Earth Week) about her work with the GRO, the role science played in her childhood, and what motivates her to advocate for sustainability. 

What are you working on now?

I’m the wet-lab lead for a multi-omic assay called SHARE-seq that we're developing with Jason Buenrostro, co-director of the GRO. Sai Ma, a former postdoc in Jason’s laboratory, developed it in 2020 and we're productionizing it so that many tissues from different sources can be processed. 

The assay allows for single nucleus or single cell multi-ome sequencing. It produces ATAC-seq data and RNA-seq data, which allow you to use the transcriptome to identify cell type and see the physical conformation of the DNA. We’re working with collaborators and starting to produce lots of single-cell multi-omic data from many different sources, predominantly human cadaver samples. 

Using the assay, we can see what kinds of transcripts were being made in the nucleus at the time the tissue was frozen. In the spliceosome, immature mRNA gets turned into mature mRNA, so when we sequence nuclear mRNA, we see mRNA at various stages of maturation. We are able to detect a range of molecules across this process, which allows us to see many cell types and how they differ from one another.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I get to discover really cool stuff. While there are other multi-omic assays, ours has certain cost and scale advantages. With SHARE-seq, we can process millions of cells at once at a lower cost than other multi-omics assays.

This is also the first time I've been in a management role. I’m responsible for teaching four research assistants how to be independent scientists, and helping them think about their careers — whether they want to go to graduate school, medical school, or something else. 

I enjoy teaching them how to think about science. In the course of the last 10 years, a lot of science has become kit-based and commercialized, which is great because you can do a lot of things fast, but it often discourages people from learning the principles of molecular biology.

I try to push us to do things without kits, so that we have an understanding of the principles at work. I want them to understand why the kit works and why it might fail. You can do biology in a box, but you can also do it with chemicals, a bench, and a couple of pipettes. There is a home-brew aspect of molecular biology I sometimes think is lost, and showing people it exists is really rewarding to me.

What initially inspired you to practice sustainability and what does it mean to you?

Sustainability has been a part of my life since I was a little kid. It means thinking about the use of resources now, with respect to the future. My mom was on a recycling committee so we grew up composting. There were times we'd accidentally grow potatoes in the compost, then eat them for dinner. Once, she weighed everything that went into the compost, and determined it reduced the amount of trash we produced by around 50 percent.

I also lived in an eco-commune in college, where I got the zeal for communal living and living lightly on the land. Seven of us lived in this beat-up house in Rochester. We’d bike to the farmer's market to buy 50-pound bags of oats to make our own granola, bought almost everything locally, and never used packaging. There was little single-use stuff in our lives. Living with people, cooking with people, and sharing the effort in moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle was really nice.

Today, my hobbies include patching and mending my clothes, making blankets out of worn-out t-shirts, and making tiny rag rugs that can be used as trivets. I make my own yogurt because then I don't have to dispose of yogurt containers, and I save money.

A photo of Amelia Weber Hall in the lab placing a tip box into a recycling bin

Amelia Weber Hall is passionate about recycling plastic used in the lab. Credit: Allison Dougherty, Broad Communications

How does sustainability intersect with science?

My plastic usage is higher than the general population’s because I use it so much in molecular biology, so I reduce my usage in my personal life to compensate for my professional life. 

That being said, we're actively trying to use less virgin plastic in the lab. I started trialing these Eppendorf bioplastic tubes with plastic feedstock that is 90 percent derived from used vegetable oil.

There are also a number of labs that use Alpha Carbin boxes to recycle their tip boxes. The boxes for micropipette tips are made from polypropylene, a number 5 plastic. And when you mix different plastic types, you produce number 7 plastic, which is very rarely recyclable. However, if you put tip boxes, which are all number 5 plastic, in a container, and then recycle those into more tip boxes, you get more uses because you're putting number 5 plastics together, while preventing mixing with other types of plastic.

What are some Sustainability@Broad projects you’ve been a part of?

In one of our first projects, we determined that Broadies used over 250,000 Keurig pods in a year, because we had K-Cup coffee machines in all the kitchens. In 2018, we piloted machines that take and produce coffee grounds that are compostable. The Broad is still using those machines.  

I also helped get rid of plastic flatware in all the kitchens; this was part of a wider effort to compost in almost every room at the Broad where there are compostables championed by a Sustainability-associated group known as the composting mini-charter. Now all the flatware is compostable and gets diverted from the landfill. It makes me really happy when I go into a kitchen to grab something and it's all compostable stuff.

In 2021, we did an all-remote Earth Week, and in 2022, we did a hybrid Earth Week. This year we're gearing up to do Earth Week again, and I'm really excited about it — we're hosting more speakers and talking with other groups about sustainable intersectionality, which means sustainability and environmentalism as they intersect with race, racialized politics, and power.

How do you envision sustainability in scientific spaces in the future?

Ideally, we'll be working with biodegradable materials. I know that won't work with some solvents, but it’d be awesome if you could use a pipette tip and put it into a compostable box. I think a lot of our materials could be made from non-virgin plastic, post-consumer material, or derived from vegetable bio-oils. I think that’s a big part of the future, but to avoid contamination of samples in the lab, molecular biology is still going to have higher plastic consumption than other fields, so it’s important to be mindful of the amount of resources we use.