Sustainable Medicine: Adam Uppendahl ’18

Author: Natalie Ambrosio '17

Adam Uppendahl

When Adam Uppendahl ’18 entered Notre Dame as a Biology major he was greeted with a drastically different culture than what he had grown up with. “Being from Seattle the environment was always really important to me and it was part of the culture and I was kind of struck when that wasn’t really a thing in Indiana,” Adam says. He wanted to understand these differences, so when he discovered the sustainability minor at the end of his freshman year he quickly joined the program. Adam’s academic path shifted course as he experimented with different interests, but as he prepares to graduate with a degree in Neuroscience, Adam has increased his understanding of these cultural differences, while also focusing on prompting change.


Adam’s was intrigued by scientific research and loved working with cell development and watching cultures grow in petri dishes in his biology labs. Yet, an encounter with schizophrenia during his sophomore year redirected his academic pursuits away from pure research.  “I can’t say I want to go work with schizophrenia without have experience working with schizophrenic people,” Adam says. So, that summer he did an internship working in an inpatient ward. He found that working with patients is very rewarding, and also allows for the scientific inquiry he so enjoys.


Meanwhile, his interest in the brain coincided with the development of the new Neuroscience major at Notre Dame, so he switched from Biology and decided to pursue the pre-med track, at the last minute. “Because I thought it couldn’t hurt,” he says. Adam plans to apply to medical school after a year of working as a Doctor’s Assistant at a dermatology practice in Boston and looks forward to combining medicine with sustainability.


Adam explains that when he tells his family and friends what he’s studying, they often don’t understand how those two fields connect. “Sustainability is just so interdisciplinary it pretty much applies to every field,” he says. And medicine in particular has a lot of waste. Adam also says that hospitals use 2.5 times more energy on average compared to other buildings of the same size.  He knows that he wants to be a doctor with sustainable practices.


Yet, “how I approach that would depend on the context in which I work in the future,” he says. He explains that as a doctor in a hospital he can push that hospital towards sustainable practices, while in a private practice he would likely have large influence over the community and be able to leverage that to encourage sustainability on the city scale. He is ready to where he can integrate sustainability as his career develops.


Meanwhile, Adam has already begun to initiate change in medicine. He worked to develop a Sustainability Committee at Memorial Hospital of South Bend for his sustainability capstone. He had some experience working with University of Washington hospital back home and this provided a direct comparison. Unlike the University of Washington, with its compost, recycling and trash options, “at Memorial Hospital you walk in the door and your really struggle to find a recycling bin,” Adam describes. Although this is about to change.


At first Adam thought about working on a disposal project with the hospital, but he “wanted to work with them to put together some organizational structure to help them continue to be sustainable in the long-term.” So, in the fall Adam finished a 48 page report titled, “Sustainability at Memorial Hospital of South Bend: A Framework for Success.” This outlines the benefits of sustainability, providing examples of success, describing potential problems and explaining the return on investment.


Rather than just handing over a report and hoping someone might read it, Adam also helped the hospital develop the committee. This effort began during his junior year, which found Adam sending emails from his study abroad program in Ireland, trying to identify the correct contact at Memorial. “It was hard to find the people because I was coming at it as an undergrad not from their system and not initially understanding their system,” Adam says. It took months for him to find the right people, but once he did the interest was there. “After a lot of trying and a little bit of luck I ended up talking to one of the executives from the hospital.” This got his foot in the door and allowed him to contact all of the departments. From there, the committee developed and had its first meeting in January.


The group’s first action is to start a recycling initiative. Adam explains their plans to “start small and have success on the small scale and use that success to build momentum and move forward.” The committee also plans to spread its coverage to the entire Beacon Health System. While Adam will not be nearly as hands-on with the program once he moves to Boston next year, he will continue to support it until he feels it is self-sustainable. With a chair, co-chair, secretary and treasurer, the committee is beginning to move forward, but he is eager to see it gain momentum.


As Adam prepares to head to Boston he reflects on how important it’s been for him to explore his interests. He had to push himself and strive to find what combination of passions really felt right for him, but he’s happy he did. “Give it a shot,” he says emphatically.