Q&A with UW’s Badger Bioneers

October 13, 2015 | by Sarah Olson

Two members of the UW–Madison community are working every day to define sustainability for the university – and the greater Madison community.

Jason Vargo, who works at the Global Health Institute on understanding people as “metro sapiens,” and Shannon Bunsen, who forged a path toward sustainability for UW’s hospitals and clinics, will be honored as Badger Bioneers at an upcoming community conference. Local farmer and energy developer Eric Udelhofen was also named a 2015 Badger Bioneer.

The Badger Bioneers Conference, hosted by Sustain Dane, aims to bring together businesses, neighborhoods, communities and academia to share insights on sustainability, and honors people in the community who exemplify sustainability leadership. The 2015 conference will be held November 10 at Union South.

We sat down with the two UW experts to hear their perspectives on what sustainability could look like in the Madison community.

Jason Vargo

Assistant Scientist

Global Health Institute; Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

Specialty: Urban planning & environmental health

Q: What is your sustainability specialty?

A: My specialty is urban planning. Specifically, I focus on urban environments, and how they shape people’s health. A city’s design can change how people behave and how they interact with the environment. What I’m interested in is utilizing cities as tools to sustain healthy communities that can coexist with their environment.

Q: What do you love about your sustainability-related research?

A: One thing I like about my work is that it’s interdisciplinary. People on this campus are very excited about opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Collaboration is especially important for my work in urban planning because cities are collaborative spaces. If we are going to solve problems in our urban spaces, both locally and globally, we need to work together.

Q: What are you hoping to accomplish with your cross-campus initiative, the UW–Madison UniverCity Alliance?

A: We are focusing on three areas, which are: education, applied research and partnerships with cities.

  • First, we want to foster a relationship between university students and city governments by putting them to work on projects cities may not have the means to pursue. Students want real-world experience, and cities have projects to work on – so it’s mutually beneficial.
  • Then, we want to bring the best data, models and policies we discover through our research and apply them to cities – applied research.
  • Finally, we want to utilize cities to identify new areas of research. What are gaps in existing knowledge we could fill? What can we study to improve the quality of life in cities?

Our hope is that these focus areas will facilitate a strong, vibrant relationship between the university and the people who live and work in our state.

Q: What does a “connection between social, environmental and economic sustainability” look like in the Madison area?

A: There’s a buzzword in urban planning called tactical urbanism. Tactical urbanism is the use of public displays, or changes to the build environment, to communicate ideas or express what is lacking in that environment.

I think tactical urbanism could be employed in Madison to engage people in sustainability. Teaching people something they can do to change their built environment, such as installing art pieces or planting native grasses, empowers them to take ownership in their environment. Many of the changes also have positive environmental effects, and over time, it provides an opportunity to scale up to policy-level changes.

Q: If you could pick one change/action/policy that would change the sustainability status quo, what would it be?

A: I’d like to see citizens and policy leaders alike recognize that cities are an integral tool in shaping the health of both people and the environment. If the three pillars of sustainability are like three legs of a stool, health is the thing we’re sitting on. As increasing numbers of people move to urban areas, we’ll need to focus on cities as tools to ensure both health and environmental sustainability.

Shannon Bunsen

Sustainability Program Coordinator

UW Health

Specialty: Healthcare sustainability

Q: What is your sustainability specialty?

A: My work is in healthcare sustainability, but I think the principles are the same for all industries. While a medical setting is a special environment, we’ve found that we can apply many practices from other areas to our program.

Q: What do you love about your sustainability-related work?

A: Everything; Each day brings new challenges and opportunities. Because sustainability touches every department and unit, I’m able to connect with so many different disciplines and gain a big systems perspective of how a healthcare organization operates. I love problem-solving with people, building green teams and making partnerships. There’s nothing better than seeing that our program is making a difference and saving us money.

Q: What are you hoping to accomplish in the position you’ve created at UW Health? 

A: I aim to improve our environmental footprint in every way possible, through energy and water conservation, waste reduction, site stewardship, alternative transportation and sustainability outreach. I will continue implementing standards to institutionalize and build upon our growing culture of sustainability. I want our efforts to reach all UW Health facilities, the entire community, and beyond.

Q: What does a “connection between social, environmental and economic sustainability” look like in the Madison area? 

A: Madison is headed toward social, environmental, and economic sustainability, but we still have a lot to change. We need to eliminate racial disparities and poverty, and ensure a healthy, high quality of life for all inhabitants and all species. We need to make changes together – the individuals, the city, the schools and the businesses.

Q: If you could pick one change/action/policy that would change the sustainability status quo, what would it be?

A: Requiring all education systems and institutions to include mandatory environmental education would change the sustainability status quo. People being uninformed or misinformed on environmental topics is one of the largest issues we face as a society. As 2014 National Bioneer John Warner argued, chemists should know and be responsible for the environmental impact of what they create. Those in the medical field should be required to learn about the connections between public and environmental health. It should start in grade school and continue into higher education.