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Campus Changemaker: Vicky L. van Santen

By September 1, 2022January 20th, 2023No Comments

by Camille Colter, Office of Sustainability 

It isn’t every day that you ride to campus on a bicycle. Well, unless you are Dr. Vicky L. van Santen. In fact, Vicky has been riding her bike to work almost every day for the past 18 years. She rides 4.4 miles to work and 4.2 miles back home down two different routes, but it doesn’t stop there. Vicky travels most places on her bike and currently averages 60 miles a week. In the time the average college freshman has been alive, Vicky has ridden 33,565 miles on her bicycle!

Photo of Vicky with her bike

Vicky with her bike after riding about 75 miles from Montgomery to Marion in October 2019. Vicky had been participating in a two-day group ride from Montgomery to Birmingham with stops in Selma and Marion. The ride raised funds and awareness of rural poverty in Alabama and included stops at historical destinations. Photo credit: Nathan Byrd

Odds are, if you haven’t seen Vicky on a bike, you’ve probably seen her elsewhere, as her career at Auburn University has spanned 34 years now. She is a professor and researcher within the College of Veterinary Medicine in the Department of Pathobiology. She teaches students in the college biomedical science graduate program and currently focuses on researching avian viruses in poultry production.

Biking has always felt normal to Vicky since the 1973 oil crisis when gas stations weren’t always open, and when they were, gas prices were high. Vicky sees this experience as an advantage because she learned not to rely on motorized vehicles. Before moving to Auburn, Vicky lived in Madison, Wisconsin for six years – which was also a perk. This city is very much set up for bicycling. She was used to riding a scenic route to work along Lake Mendota and motorists who carefully drove with cyclists – even without a bike lane. She would bike every day and nearly everywhere until winter hit, then she would take the bus to avoid the dangers of biking in the snow. Upon moving to Auburn, she was ecstatic that snow was no longer an issue; however, there were other problems. The cars were terrifying! The infrastructure in Auburn was not conducive to safe biking, leading Vicky to stop biking for 15 years.

Luckily, time was her friend. The city of Auburn and Auburn University gradually became more bike friendly. The university was even awarded a Silver Bicycle University recognition by The League of American Bicyclists. Eventually, Vicky felt more comfortable on the road and on her 50th birthday, she bought herself a new bike. She joined the City of Auburn’s Biking Committee and was a part of the organization for several years. Being on this committee gave her peace of mind as she could see how much behind-the-scenes work was going on to improve bicycling facilities and why things like more bike lanes take time – money and resources.

In the summer of 2013, Vicky participated in a sabbatical in the Netherlands, where she witnessed great examples of quality biking infrastructure. They have a strict separation of cars, pedestrians, and bikes, and the building she worked in even had a parking garage strictly for bicycles. Vicky isn’t expecting Auburn to change overnight, but she hopes for more investments that will create quality changes.

Vicky advocates for others to bike. When people complain about how there isn’t enough parking on campus, she suggests they ride a bike. She gives tips to people who want to bike and encourages them by letting them know it isn’t hard. This month, Vicky is participating in Love to Ride USA’s Cycle September challenge for Auburn University and has been personally asked by the organization to be a “Champion.” This title means Vicky has the most miles of anyone else at the Vet School and has been tasked with encouraging people there to participate in the challenge. She’s excited for people to get involved!

Her positive contributions to our environment don’t stop at biking, either. She was raised to save money, instilling a desire to rarely waste anything. Wasting less as a child turned into caring about sustainability as an adult. Vicky brings her own dishes to places that otherwise have disposable options to reduce landfill waste. She doesn’t waste electricity by leaving unnecessary lights on. She also doesn’t waste food and has volunteered with Campus Kitchens, which she says is an amazing program that Auburn University offers.

Aubie standing beside a bike

Aubie the Tiger standing with Vicky’s bike at the City of Auburn Bike Committee’s Bike Bash. Photo credit: Vicky

Vicky wants to leave everyone with some of her tips for bicycling:

  1. SAFETY: Be visible, be predictable, and be alert. Don’t wear headphones or earbuds, as they limit your ability to hear cars around you. Have lights on your bicycle if you bike at night. Safety is super important when you’re bicycling.
  2. SWEATING: From a biologist, sweat isn’t the end of the world. If you sweat on your ride to campus and let it evaporate off of you, you will not stink (unless you haven’t showered for a week, but Vicky doesn’t suggest that).
  3. ROUTING: Use Google Maps to route your trip before you bike. This will optimize your route like it did for Vicky. She never hits a stop sign or sharp turn at the bottom of a hill after using Google Maps and tweaking the suggested routes for safety reasons. It is important to note that you do not have to take the same route you would in a car. Even if the route is longer, it is better to take the safest one.
  4. RAIN: Getting wet will not kill you but be cautious of heavy downpours that will affect your brakes. Get in the habit of looking at the hourly forecast to be prepared for when you bike or to know if you shouldn’t. The forecast may say there is a 100% chance of rain for the day but only from 2:00-4:00 pm when you might be in class or at work.
  5. TRANSPORTING: Many things can be transported by bike that you might not think are possible. Hauling a backpack with all your electronics can be done via a rear basket. You just must use your imagination.

And Vicky’s number one suggestion? “Ride a bike!”

To learn more about biking at Auburn University, visit


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