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New kids on the block

Final year science students Malcolm Borg and Simone Cutajar define better use of existing spaces at university.

Final year science students Malcolm Borg and Simone Cutajar define better use of existing spaces at university.

All is not darkness and gloom. A new group dealing with environmental issues has surfaced on the campus, positively beaming with energy and hope.

In the throes of handing in their final year dissertations, two students reading for a degree in chemistry and biology found time to talk animatedly about Greenhouse, the latest environment-oriented organisation to hit the streets.

Malcolm Borg and Simone Cutajar count themselves among those who believe the individual actions of many can bring much-needed change. Making a start by applying the principles of sustainable living to a small area such as the university campus is where Greenhouse begins.

The group aims primarily to make itself useful in a down-to-earth way, going beyond setting up their own systems for recycling, composting and energy use. Viewing the university as a microcosm of the outside world, Greenhouse is taking the opportunity to introduce the principles of sustainable development on campus.

At 21, Mr Borg sees the period spent at university as a time in a student's life when it is possible to make changes to the world they live in. However, many students are only interested in getting their degree and then finding a job and having a family.

Lack of interest is as much a problem in the student world as it is in the world outside the university. Apathy is the greatest obstacle.

"Many people see university as a prison and they don't really interact," explains Ms Cutajar, 22. She suspects that many students may not even be aware of the precious open spaces around them, like the peaceful arena where we are sitting on campus. The sun filters through the trees and birds chatter as we speak.

Greenhouse wants to get the message across that they mean business. "We are not just here to criticise or to wish things were better - we are here to do something."

With gloom and doom stories filling the media, the environment may seem too huge for people to relate to, and an individual cannot do much about it. This is the mindset that Greenhouse is out to turn around. Making small changes individually can have a great influence if everyone co-operates.

Many projects and theses carried out at university circle around an environmental theme. Mr Borg has made a survey of the flora at Ġnien Ingraw as part of his dissertation. Ms Cutajar helps out at Argotti Gardens as a tour guide, while in her studies she is seeking to identify the botanical source of propolis.

Most beekeepers are aware of the benefits of propolis, a kind of healing glue produced by bees. This anti-bacterial and anti-viral substance is also recognised for its anti-cancer properties. However, due to the public's lack of awareness of its benefits, there is no established market in Malta and this discourages beekeepers from offering it for sale along with honey and other bee products. The type of propolis produced by Maltese bees appears to be chemically and biologically unique. It is known that bees need tree resin to make propolis.

The riddle is finding out which trees provide the unique chemical substances in their resin that makes Maltese propolis different from the rest. There are indications that conifer and pine trees play a crucial role. While still inconclusive, early results suggest that resins from the rare and endangered Sandarac gum tree (Għargħar) may also be involved.

Isolated populations of Għargħar are old and their seeds may no longer be fertile. Micro-propagation can duplicate cells from cuttings taken from trees found in various locations. This is done for the widest possible genetic diversity in an effort to cross-breed the trees, which could help preserve the species. If this rare tree is found to be the source of the special properties of Maltese propolis it would be an added value that would strengthen arguments for better conservation management.

"The student's mind is very creative," says Mr Borg, commenting on the range of environmental projects coming out of the biology department this year. The challenge is taking it outside their minds and doing something about it. Students are encouraged to also look at the viability of science projects and draw up a business plan.

Important work that is often done in isolation in the university's laboratories could take on more meaning if linked to other projects with practical applications. Connecting a science background to an applied business scenario is an interesting challenge.

"Overseas, there are courses that connect science with business. Linking up with the marketing department at university would make for a more coherent approach to get science projects off the ground," muses Mr Borg. The science students' organisation roped in Greenhouse to help with a green-themed seminar held earlier in the year.

Greenhouse sees itself as set to become a reference point for living environmentally both on and off campus. They have been asked to come up with a code of green conduct for other organisations on campus to help them lower their carbon footprint and use less resources.

Simply achieving formal recognition on the university senate is no small thing. Working with the student council to introduce a hands-on approach, Greenhouse must collect 200 signatures before it can be recognised as a student organisation by the University Students' Council senate.

How refreshing to discover a clear environmental agenda on campus, where future politicians, lawyers and academics will graduate, and where it is so vital to instil a sense of responsibility.

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