By Michelle Muzzio, Graduate Student, Brown University
I never realized how much location could profoundly change an experience until I was walking to class about to learn more about green chemistry from some of the world’s leading experts on the topic, walking past South Table Mountain, breathing in the freshest air I’ve ever breathed, all while talking to my new friends about innovations in CO2 capture and conversion. That was the scene every day while I was attending the ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy this past August at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO. Location is everything. Bringing together people with similar values, research interests, and of course passion for dancing, in one location, is everything.
Over sixty graduate students and postdocs from all over the United States, Canada, South America, and beyond, found themselves in Colorado for the experience, and were welcomed the first night with a barbecue. At first, it was overwhelming: so many new faces in a new location. I am the first from my university to come the summer school and I applied on a whim almost, because my research in nanoparticle synthesis has begun to drive my interests in more sustainable biomass conversion. I was nervous I wouldn’t fit in. However, within minutes, that changed as we all started talking about our shared interests in green chemistry and even our cultures and where we came, from leading us to Colorado and to this summer school. Of course, the welcome from Dr. Mary Kirchhoff, who was the guiding force of the whole week, quelled any residual anxieties, and we were all excited.
Roommates in Maple Hall, right outside of where our lectures were
The week began with a lecture about systems thinking from Dr. Jim Hutchison from the University of Oregon. Using engaging group activities, he made us think about systems thinking in everything we did, from our experiments in lab to even our morning coffee. He gave two lectures during the week, both of which made participants think much broader than ever before. During the allotted times for breaks between lectures, we had a chance to talk to the speaker or each other about anything: the class content, wild ideas for the future, or any in-between (with coffee, tea, and snacks, of course!). These breaks ended up being where so much of my learning happened during the week, being able to process and bond more with those amazing scientists around me.
Two more staple lecturers were given by Dr. David Constable from the ACS Green Chemistry Institute and Dr. Philip Jessop from Queen’s University. Both are powerhouses of the field of green chemistry, so as students, you could argue that seeing them lecture was comparable to a celebrity sighting. Within Dr. Jessop’s talk, we were all exposed to the joys and tribulations of life cycle analysis (LCA), which highlighted the nuances in green chemistry, assumptions that are often made, and all the factors that must go into deciding whether one thing is “greener” than another.
With its location right around the mountain, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) made an impactful presence with lectures from Dr. Emily Warren and Dr. Bryan Pivovar, about solar cells and fuel cells, respectively. They gave us insight in being working scientists thinking about these complex issues of sustainable energy and how we, as the next generation of scientists, can begin to make research a reality. Lectures about entrepreneurship from Dr. Eric Beckman from the University of Pittsburgh and pharmaceutical green chemistry from Dr. Dan Richter from Pfizer gave us concrete tools how we can think about green chemistry in our own lives. Lectures from Dr. Nancy Jensen of the Petroleum Research Fund and Dr. Natalia Martin allowed participants to understand the grant-writing and job-hunting process, both of which are often scary and misunderstood. The lectures closed with Dr. Ryan Richards of Colorado School of Mines and also Dr. Grant Miyake of Colorado State University, a former Summer School participant, who highlighted a career built on principles he learned at the Summer School, which was very inspiring considering all we learned through the week.
Whitewater rafting is more fun with green chemists!
Beyond the lectures, there were two poster sessions in which most participants presented their work. Without comparison, it was the most amazing poster session I’ve ever been to because everyone was so engaged, asking important questions, and the lecturers even came, which added to the excitement of seeing green chemistry icons walk up to your poster.
It wasn’t all schoolwork either. Most of it, actually, was talking and soaking in the beautiful location. From morning hikes up South Table Mountain, to our free Saturday in which this New Yorker whitewater rafted for the first time and then had lunch with her new friends at a delicious Nepalese restaurant, there really never was a dull moment. We also got to explore Golden, stumbling across a street fair that was unfortunately just ending, making our own karaoke, and of course, dancing to new music with our new friends. The ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy is more than just a week of lectures on exciting content; it provides a location and sets a scene for a whole lifetime of experience to come after.
On the way to the poster session, posing with some statues on Colorado School of Mines Campus
Moving forward, I will start a job as a scientific editor at CellPress in September after finishing up my Ph.D., and this experience could not have come at a better time. I am excited more than ever to talk about green chemistry, which as I learned this week, is a facet of all chemistry and life in general, not its own separate endeavor.
Before I go, thanks must first go to Mary and Stephanie Wahl, who organized one of the most significant and reenergizing weeks of my graduate school career. You brought all of us together, and for that, we are forever grateful to you both, and ACS, the sponsors, and Colorado School of Mines for hosting.