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Reflections from the 20th Annual GC&E Conference as a First Time Attendee

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Contributed by Sarah Kwan, Ph.D. Student, Yale University

On March 21th, 2016, I received exciting news that read, “Congratulations on being selected as a 2016 Breen Award Winne.r” I was elated, as not only is it a great honor to receive such a competitive award but it also afforded me the financial ability to attend and be part of the GC&E international conference, and on its 20th birthday! I knew this would be an invaluable opportunity to share my work and knowledge with a distinguished group of students, professors, and professionals from a cross section of disciplines, different from those I meet at the indoor microbiome conferences I more commonly attend.Sarah Kwan.jpg

My research merges biotechnology, engineering, and public health. By investigating ways of mitigating adverse health effects associated with indoor environments, namely asthma and allergies, applying a rational engineering approach to my findings, and applying the principles green engineering I hope to design inherently safe, culturally sensitive, economically feasible, and sustainable solutions for healthy indoor microbial environments to live and work in.

I knew that attending GC&E would enable me to develop a much broader perspective of green engineering solutions used to create healthier indoor environments. It would also allow me to showcase my work to an audience that may not have had the opportunity to think about the possible links between green chemistry/engineering and the indoor microbiome.

I arrived a day early for the conference to attend the GC&E student workshop. The workshop featured a design challenge centered on applying green chemistry to the world of color. I was both nervous and excited to be part of a team tacking this topic as I am an engineer, not a chemist. I was worried I would be the odd one out in a room filled green chemists and would not be able to follow alone or contribute much to the challenge. These fears were squashed almost instantly as workshop attendees stood and introduced themselves and their backgrounds. There were people from all over the world and from many different disciplines, those that had in depth knowledge and passion for green chemistry, of course, and people that specialized in textiles, green engineering and even color and design experts assigned to each group to help contribute and guide us through our design processes. The workshop started off with three great presentations from Eric Beckman, Adelina Voutchkova, and John Frazier, that overviewed how color is used in products and the how to use different tools to design safer chemicals, and ended with numerous group presentations with the ideas we had generated to answer the design challenge that included a variety of solutions from greener hair dyes, phone apps that informed users and manufacturers how to make more informed decisions on the production and purchasing of products containing dyes and pigments to inkjet printers designed to coat threads with pigment saving gallons of water wasted in the material dying process.

The conference itself was equally as interesting. It was kicked off with a keynote address by Paul Anastas touching on the past, present, and future of the world of green chemistry and engineering and then spanned out to cover a variety of topics within the green chemistry and engineering field over the next few days. I attended numerous talks/sessions, too many to cover them all, a couple that really stood out for me were Heather Buckley’s talk on the utilization of waste cardboard for low-cost, greener, building materials used for roofs in India, what an innovative and sustainable solution for affordable roofing materials. I also really enjoyed the talks in the Design of Curricular Materials rapid fire session that included presentations on how to integrate maker spaces into student curricula in a sustainable manner, a great look into the future of education.

The most beneficial part of the conference, for me, was the poster session. Not only because this was where I got to present my work, but also because it was a great upbeat session full of people ready to talk and network with everyone in the room. I was very pleasantly surprised to have a steady flow of people gathered around my poster wanting to talk about different aspects of my work and theirs. I got to brainstorm new directions to take my work, and made numerous connections with governmental, industrial, and academic based professionals alike, some of which will hopefully lead on to collaborations in my future academic career. It was great to be in a room filled with so much enthusiasm and professionalism centered on a topic as important and world changing as green chemistry and engineering. I look forward to attending many more of these conferences and can’t wait for next year’s conference themed “making”.

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