Contributed by By Samantha A. M. Smith, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto
The ACS Green Chemistry Institute®’s (ACS GCI) Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference (GC&E) was kicked off with two simultaneous workshops, one of which was tailored toward students and post-doctoral fellows. During this workshop, we were placed into a hypothetical situation where we had to explain why we wanted to attend the GC&E Conference to our department chair. This seemed trivial for me as a University of Toronto student because our department chair is so supportive of our interest in green chemistry, however I quickly realized during this session that that may be a special case. I would like to discuss the reasons why a student, who may or may not be interested in green chemistry, should attend this conference.
First, I would like to touch on the average student’s experience of conferences. Generally, the conferences students attend are either very small, student-oriented, and focused on a particular division, or they are large and sometimes overwhelming national meetings. Either way, we find ourselves sitting in the same few rooms listening to the endless technical talks focused on our fields of expertise. These conferences can further our knowledge of our fields, and they are great places for networking with professors and students. But what about industrial and governmental presence? What about direct applications on a commercial scale? What about the toxicological effects or the measurements of such effects? These are not often the focus at conferences. They are generally geared toward the discoveries and results of chemical reactions, computations, and educational techniques.
The first thing I noticed at the GC&E Conference was that the atmosphere was very different. One of the first talks I attended was an intimate and rather unique conversation between the audience and the “Fathers of Green Chemistry,” John Warner and Paul Anastas, which was focused on the subject of the absence of toxicology in chemistry curricula. John Warner stated that, “If chemists were in toxicology, a lot of our problems would be solved.” Unfortunately, toxicology is not required for a chemistry degree.
In attending the GC&E Conference, I have been exposed to many different fields of chemistry that I was nott aware existed. I attended a talk on the recycling of carpet materials and another on the recycling of electronic waste. I have learned about how local food waste (biomass) can be transformed into components in beauty products and what challenges the apparel and footwear sectors are facing and how they are approached. Chemists from all sectors are discussing their challenges, experiences and innovations with regard to toxicology, waste, environmental and heath impacts, and complying with regulations.
The GC&E Conference was much smaller than I had anticipated in that the number of participants was drastically different than I am used to. A large percentage of speakers were from the chemical industry sector, which is something that is lacking at most chemistry conferences. The size was small enough that networking was easy and meeting very important people (directors of organizations, for example) was not really a challenge. Many times, I ran into a particular director who at a larger conference, I would not have been able to connect with. Not only is this great for me from a networking perspective, but because of the industrial presence, I gained an understanding of the challenges companies are facing and the current sustainable practices they use. I can take these perspectives back to the lab and apply them to my research, using them as tools to focus my research more toward solutions to common sustainability challenges.
The ACS GCI GC&E Conference has given me an experience difficult to replicate. I have connected with professionals well-advanced in their careers, chemists from a variety of industries, the “Fathers of Green Chemistry,” and many others whose passions are focused toward sustainability. I have listened to topics not normally present at chemistry conferences, learned about current challenges faced in industry, and analyzed what needs to fundamentally change in our educational sector. Most importantly, I have learned that sustainability is being implemented everywhere and that it is a worldwide goal.
So, for those of you who are passionate about green chemistry, or even those of you just beginning to think about green chemistry, I believe it is a conference that you should attend, as the benefits surpass the usual student experiences. GC&E will expose you to a widespread collection of exemplary science and discussion, which is proof enough that green chemistry is not only a sustainable movement, but it is also becoming a reality in academia and industry.
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