Contributed by Meg Sobkowicz Kline, Assistant Professor of Plastics Engineering, University of Massachusetts Lowell
I first came across green chemistry as a Ph.D. graduate student of chemical engineering at Colorado School of Mines. Before that I knew I liked chemistry, but I did not think of it as having the power to change the world. My Ph.D. adviser, Professor John Dorgan, encouraged me to apply for the ACS Green Chemistry and Engineering Summer School. I received an NSF scholarship to attend the summer school and ACS GC&E conference held in the summer of 2006 in Washington, D.C. I remember learning so many new things and ways to look at the choices I was already making in my research. I was impressed by the sense of greater purpose that draws the community of green chemists and engineers together across disparate fields of research. I was also fortunate to meet Dr. Mary Kirchhoff, Director of Education for ACS, who became a friend and important career mentor to me.
Even though that first encounter with green chemistry was not particularly early in my career – I had already obtained my Bachelor’s degree and spent four years in industry – I believe that experience was responsible for my lifelong commitment to environmental sustainability in my research. I was already environmentally conscious, having been a field engineer in the oil and gas industry and seen less-than-optimal business practices, but after the Summer School I had an educational foundation to make a difference.
The next year I applied and was awarded a top poster travel scholarship at the GC&E conference. The following year I attended the conference and presented a talk on my research. Over the years, the annual conference has enabled me to maintain my connection with the green chemistry community. Flash forward almost a decade. I am now an assistant professor of Plastics Engineering at University of Massachusetts Lowell. I have a thriving research program focused on improving the environmental sustainability of plastics, and I send students to the Summer School myself.
My research looks at ways to replace toxic and unsustainable petroleum-derived polymers with biobased and biodegradable polymers. We are studying advanced processing techniques for one-step solvent-free synthesis of compatibilized bioplastic blends. Another project is looking at aqueous suspensions as alternatives to chlorinated aromatic solvents in polymer electronics processing. Both research areas draw extensively from the Principles of Green Chemistry and Engineering for design of safer materials. We have also worked with the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) in Massachusetts to align our research on safer plastics with the needs of industry.
Recently, I had the opportunity to bring green chemistry and engineering to my campus community in a unique way. I am a co-organizer of the 50/50 Lecture Series at UMass Lowell, which aims to both promote a notable scientist’s work and highlight the varied paths that lead to successful STEM careers. I invited Professor Julie Zimmerman, a scholar and champion of green chemistry and engineering, to address our faculty and students on her research and career journey. I first heard Professor Zimmerman speak way back in 2006 at the GC&E Summer School, and I was proud to be able to share that experience as a professor myself. The task of greening our research and industry is a formidable one, but I feel confident that the people I have met through my involvement with GC&E are up to the job!
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