By the ACS Green Chemistry Institute
The annual Green Chemistry and Engineering (GC&E) Conference gathers key players in STEM to build community and drive sustainability. As we gear up for the 28th annual conference, hosted by the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute (ACS GCI), we’re excited to once again convene scientists, industry professionals, and advocates to inspire innovation toward a greener future.
This year’s conference centers on “AI-Enabled Green Chemistry” and will explore how artificial intelligence can enable green chemistry and engineering innovations that underpin solutions to global sustainability challenges.
We caught up with Sederra Ross, Ph.D., program specialist at ACS GCI, to learn more about what the 2024 GC&E offers attendees — and the larger green chemistry and engineering community. Ross is the lead staff member coordinating this year's hybrid conference, set for June 2-5 in her hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. In this Q&A, Ross offers a sneak peek into what’s new at the GC&E and what she’s most excited about.
Can you share a bit about your involvement with the GC&E Conference?
I was first involved with the 2023 GC&E Conference in Long Beach, California. After last year’s conference, we knew we wanted to make a few changes, including refocusing the theme. Previously, the Conference theme had explored the design, make, use, and end-of-life stages of the chemical life cycle, with “Closing the Loop” completing that cycle in 2023. For 2024, we know artificial intelligence (AI) is an up-and-coming topic that people are interested in, and we want to be at the forefront of how we can use AI in chemistry.
Last year was the 25th anniversary of green chemistry. The concepts of green and sustainable chemistry are still relatively new to chemists and how they engage in research or teach their students about chemistry. We want to make sure that we’re not stagnant and that we can grow, and we want to ensure that as technology grows, we’re also making sure that it factors into green chemistry.
How does the GC&E Conference expand the fields of green chemistry and engineering?
One key way we try to expand the field is by being on the cutting edge of what’s coming up in the green chemistry and engineering space. We try to learn people’s interests, what they want to learn when they come to the conference, and how they want to be able to use certain knowledge. That way, attendees can take what they’ve learned at the conference back to their research lab, university, or industry.
We continue to try to ask: What do people want to know? What is new and cutting-edge in the field? And how can we bring people together so that they can go out and put that into the world?
A lot of the conference is about convening people so they can gain the knowledge base in areas, such as AI, that they might not have from their daily work. It’s valuable for attendees to make connections and connect with people who can further propagate their ideas and build their capacity so they can execute them — because we can’t do this work alone.
Who should attend the GC&E?
Anybody with a STEM background and interest in promoting sustainability. Typically, we say the conference is geared toward people working in green chemistry and engineering, but I think the conference is important to people who are in biology, physics, and computation because it allows them to see what other areas are doing in their research and if there are ways to partner with them. People sometimes think research happens in silos and you just do your one project, and sometimes that happens, but the best kind of research happens when it’s interdisciplinary. Attendees include anyone from students to professors to industry leaders — anyone who wants to further sustainability within their organization.
What can attendees expect from this year’s conference, focusing on “AI-Enabled Green Chemistry"?
We’ll have sessions focused on AI-Enabled Green Chemistry. Some of our hot topics include computer-aided design of different molecules and how AI shifts businesses for green chemistry. The conference won’t be limited to AI — we know people are still trying to figure out how to use AI, and a lot of computational work is done in labs and research. Session topics will also include chemistry education, green energy and fuel, sustainable process design, sustainable product design, polymers, and many sessions about how we can integrate these practices into industry and academia.
We also have poster sessions where students have a chance to present their work, a reception for our industry leaders, activities like running and yoga in the garden, a tour of the World of Coca-Cola where we’ll learn the chemistry behind Coke, and we’ll close the conference with our Green Chemistry on Tap pub crawl.
What’s new at this year’s GC&E Conference?
We're expanding our conference from three days to four days because we have so many workshops to include (Sunday, June 2 will be the extra day). These workshops provide hands-on experience with specific topics, and participants can get a certificate showing that they attended and gained background knowledge on the topic. Workshop topics include green chemistry education, metrics, environmental justice, and more.
The conference is hybrid, with a selection of workshops that will be available to the virtual audience. This year we’re creating a more personalized experience for the virtual audience by asking organizers who have a plan to engage the virtual audience to be the hybrid organizers. There will also be some gamification so it will be more fun for virtual attendees to engage with the content.
What elements of this year’s GC&E conference are you most excited about?
I’m excited about all of it, but definitely the AI Hackathon for students and postdocs — I think that's going to be really fun. Participants will use data sets to come up with ways they can use the information to better inform their green chemistry efforts and research. (Plus, we’ll be giving out a prize!) It’ll be a good opportunity for real-time ideation and innovation, which is one of the things we're trying to build in the conference. We want people to have an opportunity to dream — not just come to a conference to listen to talks — but also innovate in real-time in these spaces. I think COVID showed us that the benefit of being in person is different than having 100 Zoom meetings. Those are great, but I think it's important that we figure out how we can brainstorm and collaborate in real time, so we can get to a more sustainable future in a faster way. So that's kind of what our conference is going to be geared toward — bringing people together and making sure that we network and make connections, and people can start thinking about what impact they can have in the now or in the near future.
We have a lot of special events this year, including an opening night award ceremony (June 2) that will highlight people doing work in different areas across the field. Sometimes we don't get a chance just to sit back and celebrate the people who are doing the work in the field and give them a spotlight. I think doing this will support all the people who attend the conference to feel encouraged about their work and see that they are making strides towards a more sustainable future.
Additionally, I'm excited about the BIPOC (Black.Indigenous.People of Color) luncheon. If you look at the statistics, there aren't as many people of color in science as I think there should be. Especially when we want to talk about innovation and how it can lead to change. We need different schools of thought, we need different backgrounds, and we need different experiences. Because it's not always just about knowing the answer. It's about knowing what questions to ask. And if you don't have enough people in the room to ask the right questions, you'll never get to the right answer. We think it's important for us to have this luncheon and to celebrate the diversity that we see in the field and that continues to grow and talk about the steps we want to take to move forward, but it'll be a chance for everybody to chat and have fun.
Can you share more about the student and postdoc experience?
We really want to give an opportunity for students and postdocs to have their own journey through our conference. We want them to have a chance to meet each other and build camaraderie, but then also to participate in GC&E, so we’ve had a few offerings available to them travel awards and low-cost housing at Georgia Tech.
The student experience kicks off with a service project, which allows students to visit a community within Atlanta. We're working with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, an organization that does a lot of work in the community including water testing, beautification, and environmental preservation. We want to tie this to how our activity in community is important for us as chemists to understand — we don't want to disconnect our chemistry and the work we're doing from the people that it impacts — so we want to make sure that students are aware of that and how they can get a better understanding what's going on in local communities. And maybe that can spark innovation and what they think they want to move forward when it comes to doing their green chemistry and engineering.
We'll also have a GC&E Careers and Networking Reception. This is an opportunity specifically for undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs trying to determine their next steps and which avenue of green chemistry is right for them. Students and postdocs will have the opportunity to meet industry leaders, learn about job opportunities, get updated headshots, and more. We want to give hope to people who are trying to figure out what’s next and showcase that there are career opportunities in green chemistry and engineering.
Other parts of the student and postdoc experience are the GC&E Poster Competition and the AI Hackathon. Learn more here!
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