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20th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference: Reflections from a Young Scientist

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Contributed By John Hanson Machado, Upcoming Graduate Student, George Washington University

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” Paul Anastas quoted Newton in his keynote address. I can’t think of a better quote to set the tone for the 20th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in Portland, OR.

The conference was in the “design phase” of its four year life cycle. An interdisciplinary theme was established the day before the conference commenced at the student workshop. Each workshop team consisted of a color expert. For our group, Scott Echols provided technical guidance and direction for the initial stages in the color challenge: “using the principles of green chemistry to design a comprehensive strategy for overcoming the challenges associated with dyes, pigments, inks and structural color.”

Focusing on interdisciplinary work, each team was also equipped with a design expert from the University of Oregon. This coupling, of a color and design expert, proved to be influential in forming a comprehensive strategy for the challenge. Despite our group’s technical response to the challenge, using beta-carotene pigment as a replacement for synthetic allergenic dyes, we were forced as scientists to consider the consumer in our decision-making process.095.jpg

I felt the influence from the design experts most when giving feedback to other groups. I questioned whether offering a more costly, albeit safer, chemical alternative would benefit society or further contribute to the division of social classes. What role does economics play in the safety of others with respect to consumer products? My experience in downtown Washington, DC prompted me to consider policy as a way of addressing this question. In a comprehensive strategy for designing safer chemicals, it is critical to consider product accessibility for all social classes. Without my experience in Washington, DC and the interdisciplinary environment provided by the design experts, I would not have considered addressing policy as part of our comprehensive strategy.

At the Green Chemistry Pub Crawl and Fun Run, we discussed possibilities for future green chemistry student workshops. One idea we considered was a solution to cell phone waste. Just as the chemistry of color prompted comprehensive interdisciplinary answers at the student workshop, so too could a challenge involving a strategy to manage cell phone waste.

The interdisciplinary theme was echoed every day at the conference. “Radical interdisciplinarity” was even a concept described during the first annual GREENX, a special event inspired by TED talks. Attendees and speakers at the conference were from law, government, academia, and industry. As a researcher, this diverse pool of individuals provided an opportunity to connect green chemistry to others beyond the lab.

I found the presence of others attending sessions outside their primary fields humbling. For example, I expected only to see computationally active labs at Jakub Kostal’s workshop on Data Uncertainty in Predictive Toxicology and Alternative Assessment. However, within that room also contained multiple scientists simply interested in integrating computational chemistry in their work as the powerful tool it is.

In a previous NEXUS article, I claimed that I am the same chemist as I was before receiving the Joseph Breen Memorial Fellowship. I now know that is not true. I am different, and the difference comes from the experience I gained and community I joined at my first ACS Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference.

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