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By Nakisha Mark, 2020 Heh-Won Chang Ph.D. Fellowship in Green Chemistry Winner


My passion towards chemistry began with my ingrained curiosity for cosmetic formulation and fertilizer production. This curiosity was amplified when I realized that many of the aforementioned products were composed of non-environmentally friendly ingredients. My dream, therefore, was to provide a more environmental and sustainable approach to chemistry as it relates to making those said products.


During the pursuit of my undergraduate degree at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus, I developed a keen interest in catalysis and decided, during an inorganic chemistry course, I would conduct graduate research in green catalysis. My dream did not come without challenges. During that period, my university did not have experts in the field. As such, I decided to enter the world of work while still keeping a keen interest in the current literature of catalysis research.


While working as a research assistant on an agriculture-based project at UWI, I was exposed to the vast amount of unused agricultural waste. It is during this tenure the idea of creating a link between the energy and agriculture sectors in the Caribbean region became important to me.


Graduate Research Focus


With my passion for catalysis at my core and the opportunity to utilize agricultural waste, I began exploring along these lines.  I soon initiated a Ph.D. in Chemistry at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, in the Forde Research Group. My research aims at using novel heterogeneous materials to convert biomass-derived compounds into fuel and fuel precursors whilst utilizing the 12 principles of green chemistry.  


The multidisciplinarity of green chemistry has allowed me to work intensely across various sectors such as chemistry, agriculture and economics. This demonstrates green chemistry’s demands of lateral thinking and has given me transferrable skills that I currently used under one umbrella in my research.  


Despite being in such an advantageous position, there are obstacles.  I am most likely the first student pursuing research in green heterogeneous catalysis in the English-speaking Caribbean. This is a challenge as the required foundation and facilities are lacking, especially with respect to catalyst characterization. Regardless of such challenges, my supervisor, Dr. Forde, and I have been fortunate in accessing several global opportunities.


I have conducted experimental work at renowned facilities such as Brookhaven National Laboratory in the U.S., University of Guelph, in the Schlaf Research Group, in Canada and Cardiff Catalysis Institute, in the U.K. I have also attended foundational courses at the University of the French Antilles in Guadeloupe and the University of Liverpool in the U.K. It is therefore paramount to create a SMART* plan that will allow one to attain a level to implement green chemistry.


Career Advice


The advice for anyone beginning a career in chemistry or any other field is “Dare to Dream!” It is important for all pursuing careers in chemistry to be honest with themselves and determine what they want to achieve, and specifically how it can be achieved.


Furthermore, we must remember to celebrate the small accomplishments as they lead us to fulfilling our goals, as each individual career path is unique to him or her. For those embarking in graduate research, it is imperative that you maintain a healthy balance: spiritually, mentally, physically and academically so that at the end of the graduate experience you would have grown ten-fold.


Most importantly, as graduates, we must not let our research environments define what we can accomplish as there are many organizations such as the American Chemical Society providing support to all of us without prejudice. Therefore, I encourage all undergraduates, graduates and non-students to become members of a chemical society!


Nakisha Mark is a doctoral candidate in the department of chemistry at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.


*A SMART plan is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound.


By Heather LeClerc, 2020 Heh-Won Chang Ph.D. Fellowship in Green Chemistry Winner


With the current pandemic upon us, I have had time to sit back and think about my journey towards becoming a chemical engineering Ph.D. student. As I sit here and write this in my childhood home, I am reminded of why I became passionate about green chemistry in the first place.


I grew up in Connecticut, and oddly enough, my backyard is full of life. I realized my passion for chemistry in high school when I took my first chemistry class and fell in love. But it wasn’t for another year until I needed a class and settled on environmental science that I truly discovered what I wanted to do - find the bridge between the chemistry I already loved and the new-found love of environmental science. This led me to earn a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Chemistry from St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.


Growing up, I was the person who knew what they wanted and always said that I wanted to work in renewable energy; yet my path to get here was not linear. During my senior year, after spending months writing up and submitting applications for chemistry Ph.D. programs, I began to doubt if it would lead me towards my dream. All the projects I saw didn’t excite me as much as I thought they would. So, on a whim, after most deadlines had passed, I decided to apply for the master’s program in chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA.


 I was overjoyed to find out that I had been accepted but worried about choosing a program I had to pay for and would put me into debt over one of the fully funded programs I was accepted into. Upon speaking with professors at WPI, however, I learned of a partially funded master’s project in the pharmaceutical area and accepted.


Graduate Research Focus


I learned more than I could have ever hoped from this project, and it served to catch me up to speed on a lot of the chemical engineering principles I lacked, but it did not excite me the way that renewable energy always has. So, when I was asked if I would like to become a Ph.D. student with the opportunity to switch to a project converting waste to energy, I jumped at the chance and haven’t looked back!


Now, I have the chance to take a common waste and understand the chemistry necessary to convert it into usable, high-quality energy products. I am constantly learning something new, collaborating with new people and loving what I do. 


Career Advice


My advice to you is to follow your dreams and not get discouraged if things do not go as planned. Every person’s journey looks different. Do not be afraid to ask for help. College and graduate school are different in many ways and you should not be scared to reach out for assistance whether it is for classes or mental health.


For me, this difficult journey has been extremely worth-while and I am so thankful for everyone along the way who continues to help make it happen. No matter the major or path you choose, you will end up where you are supposed to be. Thank you to the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute® for the opportunity to write this as well as share my passion at this year’s Green Chemistry & Engineering Virtual Conference.


Heather LeClerc is a doctoral candidate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA.


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