A Challenging Road to Become a PhD Student in Green Chemistry

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By Gabriela Gastelu, Ph.D. student at the National University of Córdoba, Argentina, and 2021 Heh-Won Chang Fellow in Green Chemistry

gabriela-gastelu.jpgI remember the first time I entered a laboratory as a secondary school student in my home city in Argentina. Its equipment was quite basic; however, I was delighted with all the glass material and the idea of making new things just by mixing components. Yes, I know my idea of a chemist at that time was really simple! But that simple idea inspired me to decide to study chemistry at the university.

I got my Licentiate’s degree (equivalent to a Master’s Degree) in Chemistry at the Faculty of Chemical Sciences, National University of Córdoba (FCQ-UNC), Argentina. There I realized chemistry was far more complex than I initially thought. It is everywhere: In everyday material, in fuels, in medicine, in micro and macro life. It helps us to address everyday needs, as well as global challenges. Unfortunately, the way chemistry has been (and often is still) practiced has led to unintended consequences, and generated pollution that deeply concerns us today. Thus, we, as chemists, need to pursue chemical strategies that minimize the generation of waste, avoid toxic compounds, and do not create pollution.

Understanding this context inspired me to pursue green chemistry approaches in my research. As an undergraduate student, I was able to find really good projects that followed some green principles. I started working on a research project using light as an energy source and I focused my licentiate thesis on the use of biomass as starting material, looking for a decrease in the carbon footprint generated by the synthesis of new compounds and materials. These first steps into green chemistry made me decide that this was the path I wanted to follow: to not only synthesize new compounds, but also promote a more sustainable way to do it, in order to take care of the planet we live in.

My experience in graduate research

I decided to continue my research, becoming a Ph.D. student at the FCQ, which I can finance thanks to CONICET (Argentinian Council of Scientific and Technologic Research). I do research at the Organic Chemistry Department, as member of INFIQC (Physicochemical Research Institute in Córdoba). The journey to become a Ph.D. student focused on green chemistry research hasn’t been easy. My supervisor and I started a new research area in our Institute: Organic synthesis using CO2 as a carbon source. It is a challenging topic all over the world, but especially in Argentina, where not many resources are devoted to addressing climate change. 

On one hand, this new topic is really interesting. Promotion of CO2 as a carbon source is sustainable because it is a renewable source and also, it implies the capture and reduction of the concentration of this gas in the atmosphere (reducing global warming impact). We believe its development is very important, so we are glad to initiate this new project and share it with our scientific partners in Córdoba, Argentina.

On the other hand, starting an entirely new topic in an Institute means adapting the laboratory to it, getting new equipment and its proper installation. Time, funding and a lot of initial work are needed to start running the project. But when the project is worth it—as we think this one is, especially for green chemistry development—all these efforts make sense.

For the development of my thesis, collaborative research with international laboratories was planned. These experiences help not only the project itself, but also for professional and personal growth. Professionally, they make you learn new techniques and new ways of working. They also help you make new contacts, and allow you to share your work with people that work in similar topics. Personally, they allow you to have the experience of living abroad, learning a new culture, meeting new people and visiting new places. For all these reasons, I strongly recommend international stays for graduate students.

I had the opportunity to make a short-term research stay in Regensburg, Germany and I plan further stays at Lausanne, Switzerland and Prague, Czech Republic. Gratefully, there are many international fellowships and programs in which oneself, or the lab group, can apply. These resources are essential to make international research exchanges possible. Don’t be afraid to apply to them—it’s really worth it!

Some advice for those interested in chemistry research

While being just in the middle of my Ph.D., I’m not sure I’m the best person to give advice. However, taking into account my little experience, I have some hints that I think could help those just getting started or thinking about pursuing graduate research.

First, it really helps to find a project that gives you enthusiasm and encourages you to make yourself and the world better. Although the path can be tough, having a clear objective of what you want to achieve helps to get through it and reach your goals.

I also believe that finding a good work environment where you can feel comfortable is essential. It will really help having a good relationship with your lab mates and finding support in them when things aren’t going as expected.

Last but not least, collaborative research is very important to help your project spread and develop, and to generate new ideas. If we want to make better and more sustainable chemistry, we have to do it together.

Gabriela is a winner of the 2021 Heh-Won Chang Fellowship in Green Chemistry and will be presenting her research titled, “Dual CO2 use in O-formylation of alcohols”, at the Virtual 25th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference (gcande.org).