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Leah Johnson stands beneath an array of solar panels on the roof of UW-Madison’s Leopold Residence Hall. Photo: Michael P. King

Leah Johnson BSx’19 didn’t have cable TV until her freshman year of high school. Even after the box arrived, her parents enforced a daily one-hour rule for screen time. So she spent much of her childhood exploring the natural landscape around the Twin Cities suburb where she grew up.

“Our version of forced family fun was to go hiking or to tromp up and down a muddy river,” Leah recalls. Apparently, her parents’ approach worked: Leah quickly decided that she wanted to make the environment part of her career. “I realized it wasn’t enough to just care about the environment,” she says. “I wanted to do something.”

Now entering her senior year as a biochemistry and environmental studies major, Leah is a fearless doer who complements her environmental ethics with concrete action. As a first-year student, Johnson discovered the ASM Sustainability Committee, a subgroup of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) that focuses on identifying and addressing ways for the university to advance its sustainability practices. She moved up the ranks quickly, serving most recently as chair.

In this leadership role, she sought to infuse sustainability into the everyday fabric of campus, making green living an easy choice — and perhaps not a conscious choice at all. For instance, she argues, “No one cares about the tiny delay in automated lights in bathrooms and common areas. No one says, ‘this split second of darkness is terrible.’ And yet the energy-saving benefits of installing them are enormous.”

But Johnson quickly realized that achieving large-scale operational change means building coalitions. She cofounded CLEAN (Campus Leaders for Environmental Action Now), a group of student leaders who want UW–Madison to commit to using solely renewable energy by 2030. The group has taken off, says Johnson, and campus leaders are taking notice: members of CLEAN recently presented their case to administrators in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration and the Office of Sustainability.

Johnson has gone from tracing muddy waterways in Minnesota to making waves in sustainability at the UW. It’s a safe assumption that she’ll keep expanding her green horizons through her last year of college and beyond.