There are many champions of green chemistry in the world, but somewhere near the top of the list is Dr. Milton T. W. Hearn. Dr. Hearn has headed up the Centre for Green Chemistry at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia for the last 10 years, and will now be the Associate Director of its next iteration, the newly formed Green Chemical Futures. Securing over $100 million in funding for the new center as the lead scientific applicant, Dr. Hearn has strengthened Australia’s position as a green chemistry powerhouse for years to come.
Born into a small farming community east of Adelaide, Australia in 1943, Dr. Hearn was the first member of his family to go to a university in Australia. His parents were businesspeople, and grandfathers were engineers trained in Europe. As a small child, young Milton’s fascination with “what makes things work” was kindled by watching his older cousins “carrying out small experiments,” with a home chemistry set. In high school, his interest was further buoyed by several “marvelous teachers who created the wonder of chemistry” for him and instilled an enthusiasm in the “enormous contribution that the chemical sciences make to practically every area of our normal lives.”
At the University of Adelaide, Milton Hearn studied organic chemistry, receiving ‘First Class Honours’ as the top student in his major, and then worked toward his PhD, researching a combination of more traditional synthetic approaches as well as biological approaches to synthesis. He recalls at the time the separation tools weren’t particularly effective, equally the task was technically quite demanding. Finding the solutions to these challenges only served to make Dr. Hearn more enthusiastic for his chosen path, and he received his PhD in 1970.
As his career developed, he found mentors from a number of “people who in their own right were really quite outstanding”— among them, Dr. Goran Schill, a Swedish pharmaceutical scientist, Professor Sir Ewart Jones, a leading Oxford University-based organic chemist and Dr. Csaba Horvath, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at Yale University. What he attributes to learning from his mentors is that science requires multidisciplinary thinking—a concept that was rarely thought about at the time. “It’s not just chemistry for chemistry’s sake, but chemistry for what chemistry can do to provide solutions.”
Hearn began his career long before the concept of green chemistry was around. Yet when Dr. Anastas and Dr. Warner defined the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry in their 1998 book, he found he “was doing green chemistry before it was called green chemistry.” And it wasn’t by accident. Dr. Hearn was driven towards towards being mindful of issues such as making chemical processes more efficient, increasing yield, and working with benign compound classes. Interestingly, he attributes this innate understanding and approach “to issues of integrity” formed in the early years of his background. Growing up in a small farming community, especially one nestled in Australia’s fragile ecosystems, issues like land biodegradation, resource limitations, bushfires, and droughts had to be grappled with. This first-hand environmental awareness was not left behind, but became part of what informed his consideration of chemistry. “How do you apply your science to have a social responsibility that impacts upon a task?” Dr. Hearn asks, adding that this aspect could be considered “the 13th Principle of Green Chemistry.”
Crossing over disciplines, embracing new opportunities, and going outside the immediate constraints of his expertise to form collaborations with others seems to be a specialty of Dr. Hearn, and perhaps a key to his success. After positions in several different Canadian, UK, Australian and New Zealand Universities and research centers and shorter term positions as honorary visiting lecturer or professor in the USA, Sweden, Germany, Taiwan, France, and Japan, Dr. Hearn joined Monash University as a Professor of Biochemistry in 1986. In 2001, when the head of the chemistry department and the Deputy Chancellor of Monash approached Dr. Hearn to take up the opportunity to direct the newly funded Australian Research Council Special Research Centre for Green Chemistry at Monash, he said yes. “It was an exciting opportunity and an interesting set of new challenges.”
It could be said that one of the ways that the Centre for Green Chemistry and the formation of the new Green Chemistry Futures project has succeeded, is in bringing together a mix of interest groups. “Green chemistry,” says Dr. Hearn, “creates a different kind of collaboration that can lead to more opportunity for innovation.” Pointing to the importance of this in a time where university research centers around the world are facing funding cuts, the ability to better connect academic research priorities—which historically have tended to solely focus on “when can the next journal publication be submitted”—to industry’s different sense of timelines, expectations, and value propositions assigned to a piece of science, can be very beneficial and can “open unexpected doors.” Dr. Hearn certainly seems to have mastered the art and science of collaborations like these, although he denies it is has much to do with his inherent character traits, but instead attributes his success in this area to experience, learning from mistakes, and developing a large network. That being said, there is no hesitation when asked what it takes: “You have to have integrity. You have to have perseverance. You have to be willing to listen to other points of view. You have to think laterally at times. [You have to] go outside your own experience base and have a willingness to collaborate with people who are equally able and eminent in their own area of research. but not consumed by the academic publish or perish syndrome”
Over the last decade, Dr. Hearn has received most major awards the Royal Australian Chemical Society has to offer, including the Green Chemistry Medal (2010), the Analytical Chemistry Medal (2005), the Applied Research Medal (2003), and the H.G. Smith Medal (1998), and as 2012 came to a close, he received the highest award that the Royal Australian Chemical Society has to offer, the Leighton Memorial Award. The Leighton Award recognized for Dr. Hearn for his work embedding green chemistry into Australia in its broadest context, but equally for the contributions he’s made over the years in separation science which have revolutionized a number of fields of biotechnology and for his discoveries in early stage compounds that have led to new opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry. Yet, when asked what he thinks his biggest accomplishment is, Dr. Hearn replies, “I’ve trained nearly 70 talented young PhD scientists. Many of them have gone onto quite significant positions in academia, government and industry. These are my greatest accomplishments.”
Looking forward, Dr. Hearn is optimistic about the potential of green chemistry but points to academia as the laggard. Industry, he observes, is embracing green chemistry and seeking new information and approaches that are economically and technically sound. Government—in Australia at least—is embracing green chemistry because “it avoids landfill, problems with the environment, risk of hazard and industrial health disorders, and gives an opportunity to adopt innovations.” Universities, however, with notable exceptions, have a long way still to go. For example, Dr. Hearn points to the lack of research funding, noting that despite its demonstrated importance green chemistry still does not have its own Field-of-Research (FoR) classification compared to other subtopics of chemistry when you go to write a grant in Australia. Similarly, most Australian Universities, as is the case at many Universities globally, have yet to establish three/four year chemistry curricula majors that focus predominately on green and sustainable chemistry and its industrial uptake. Certainly there is a long way to go, but getting to where we are has been in part because of the efforts and leadership of persons like Dr. Hearn. And his advice to the next generation—the young undergraduate scientists—“Believe in yourself.”
Dr. Hearn will be keynoting at the 17th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference June 18, 2013.
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