Sara R. Rivera

STAFF – Geomicrobiology Lab Manager

Yeah, so I’m originally from Michigan. And I came to University of Michigan as an undergrad, with every intention of transferring and leaving, because I really wanted to do oceanography and live on the coast by the ocean somewhere. Really, when I was eight, I decided I wanted to get paid to live on the beach and I was good at science. I double majored in Biochem and what is now Earth and Environmental Sciences to just get as much science in there as possible. Then after I graduated, I got my PhD in Oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography out in San Diego. I lived like a 10 minute walk to the beach, it was delightful. And then my spouse had a job in Michigan so I was flying back and forth across the country. [I reached out] to Greg Dick, who is a professor in the Earth [and Environmental Sciences] department, also my boss [now], about who would potentially have money to hire me as a postdoc so that I would have a job in Michigan. And I actually got stuck here during COVID, quite literally, like I flew in, and then the next day, everything shut down. I was really glad that I had a job lined up already out here. So I was one of the 2020 COVID graduations on Zoom. It was very special. But we stretched my one year postdoc into two years, and at the end of that second year, I transitioned to a permanent staff member role. I am currently the lab manager of the Geomicrobiology lab, which is Greg’s lab. But I also lecture occasionally as needed and desired.

I’m in a unique position because I have a PhD so I can teach but I don’t want to be tenure track. I like working with undergraduate students mostly. So this is a great job for me. It’s kind of my unicorn position, because I get to work in the lab. I get to do science, but I don’t have to do the tenure track jumping through all the hoops. I get to focus on things that actually really matter to me. One of the really big things for me is laboratory accessibility. So how do we adapt laboratory and field spaces that weren’t designed for people that have different kinds of abilities? I’m also really big into sustainability and a lot of that is just going back to what I think of [as] the traditional ways of lab work.  So instead of using disposable plastics, going back to glass. [In our lab], we do a lot of microbiology work. We take samples from Lake Erie during harmful algal blooms and we try to culture the organisms that are responsible for those harmful algal blooms. And we have a collection that’s publicly available. But a lot of that work has, in the past decade, relied on plastic petri dishes and sterile individually packaged, disposable plastic pipettes. And so one of the things that became really obvious during COVID, when we had supply chain issues, was how reliant we were on these disposable products, having to order more, and [realizing]  how scarce they could be. And so it really kicked off this motivation to figure out if we could move the lab towards a more sustainable system. 

And this is [another] one of the benefits of my job, because [when working on lab accessibility and sustainability], I have the flexibility to put feelers out into lots of different departments and colleges. I’m not as beholden to the university structure as some of the other people who are based on physical building locations for facilities people, or department for a lot of the tenure track faculty. There’s a lot of red tape and bureaucracy involved and so often, I described these things as like my secret mission. I just talk about it, to everybody, until I connect with the right people [and] there are still some people that I’m just connecting with. So Jill Myers, over in the Biodiversity lab, has a similar position to me. I did not know her–we’d been on email chains together, but [otherwise] did not connect. She wanted the micropipette tip washer that I also wanted, but I was a little bit farther in the process than she was. So Caitlin [Jacobs] or Jenna [Steele] told her to talk to me about it so she could get caught up on where we were at. But like, she spent six months working on that and we should have just been working together! And I [had] connected with other people in [her department], just not with Jill. And nobody had connected me to Jill. So there’s some stuff like that, that’s hard. But I just talk to as many people as possible to get as many things [as possible] moving or flowing.

And Jill actually just got a robot [for pipetting]. And I really wanted one of them, the types of robots that she’s getting, but they’re usually like $50,000, which is a big ask. But then the company that she was working with just started an educational discount program so I can get 50% off. So now the robot that I want is like $25-30,000, which is a much more reasonable ask. But I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t talked to Jill and the only reason Jill talked to me is because we wanted the same sustainability equipment. [And] when I started this, I can’t tell you how many people said ‘no,’ to me, and I was like, then you’re not the person I need to talk to! “

“I think the biggest thing [with climate change] is just the impact that a changing climate is having so rapidly on countries on populations that have done very little to contribute to that. Like, there are climate refugees in the world already, countries that are completely underwater because of changing sea levels. And it doesn’t make any sense to me that you can know that people are experiencing harm, and then just continue with the day to day like nothing’s happening, especially when we can make changes that are sustainable and long lasting. And sure, I’m not like Exxon, you know, like, I can’t just turn everything off. But I can do something and, to me, that’s better than doing nothing. So I think a lot of [my work] is also just motivated by that, and what the future is gonna look like, you know? Like I said, I like to work with undergraduate students and in the future, they’re going to need to know how to do sustainable laboratory work. Because at some point, hopefully, we’re gonna get to a point where it’s like, ‘oh, you know, what, we’re not going to make these single use sterile disposable plastics, outside of medical facilities,’ right. So I think it’s just really important to build the world that you want to be in. And so whatever I can do to contribute to that, I think, is kind of motivating.

[On the flipside], I think–Oh, this is gonna sound negative, but this is true, though. A lot of people talk about things like, ‘Oh, we’re killing Earth,’ [but] we’re not killing Earth, we are killing ourselves, Earth will still be here. A lot of life on Earth will be different. A lot of what we might find valuable, will probably become extinct. We will likely become extinct. But in reality, the Earth will be fine. Like the Earth will keep spinning. And eventually, you know, like the systems, the chemistry, [will work] itself out, and everything will get regulated back to something, we just won’t be here anymore. And so at the end of the day, when we’re talking about climate change, and the impacts of climate change, we can talk about saving the environment and conservation, and we can talk about the harm to people. And at the end of the day, if we do nothing, or if we don’t do enough, or if we don’t do it fast enough, the world will keep spinning, and it will look different, and we just won’t be there to see it. So it’s really about saving humanity. At the end of the day, working on climate change is really just about saving humanity from itself.

[Despite how that sounds], a lot of my work is driven by hope and optimism. Like I said before, you know, it’s really about looking towards that future, and then figuring out how you can create that world. And so if I can continue to progress with teaching sustainable laboratory techniques and sustainable lab practices, and expanding that on campus, and bringing in some of these newer technologies, and having other people buy into it by being able to experience it for themselves…That kind of stuff, I think–those are the pieces that are really driven by optimism, that by teaching this and by having [that] instrumentation and creating spaces for these different kinds of people that in the future, they will bring those lessons and technologies into the next thing. And that’s all I can really hope for. That, hopefully, what I am giving people is useful, and they can build on that and take it to the next level and create the next technology or the next thing. So yeah, I’m really hopeful about what the students that I work with [are] going to do next. And I always, always tell them to do what they want, [not what] someone else tells them to do. So at the end of the day, I think that they’re all going to do something amazing, because it’s what they’re driven to do.”

As part of the LSA Year of Sustainability, LSA Dean’s Fellow Cherish Dean sat down with a range of students, staff, and faculty across the University to illustrate the various relationships people across campus already have to this work, to showcase ways people can get involved, and to highlight the reasons that this work should matter.

To view an abbreviated transcript of Cherish’s full conversation with Sara, click here.

Cherish can be reached at To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team as a whole, please contact