Student Perspectives on the Importance of Training in Green Chemistry and Sustainability

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By David A. Laviska, Ph.D., Portfolio Manager for Green Chemistry and Sustainability in Education, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

An interview with graduate students Krystal Grieger and Francisco Yarur Villanueva.

By David A. Laviska, Ph.D., Portfolio Manager for Green Chemistry and Sustainability in Education, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

What is the chemistry student’s experience of green chemistry and sustainability in their training? How do they interpret the need and value of learning about these concepts? As we prepare to welcome an impressive group of educators, industry professionals, and other stakeholders at our 2nd Annual Sustainability Summit on Reimagining Chemistry Education in December, there will be two graduate students among the invited guests.

 These two individuals have shown exceptional academic promise as well as leadership skills that distinguish them as important voices in conversations about the future of chemistry education and sustainable innovation. In advance of the ACS GCI summit, I asked them to reflect on a few questions about their educational journeys and thoughts about their future careers. Both students are working to earn their Ph.D. degrees; Krystal Grieger is researching chemical education with a focus on Green Chemistry under the guidance of Alexey Leontyev at North Dakota State University and Francisco Yarur Villanueva is specializing in experimental physical chemistry at the University of Toronto.

Graduate students Francisco Yarur Villanueva (left) and Krystal Grieger (right).Graduate students Francisco Yarur Villanueva (left) and Krystal Grieger (right).

 

Q: In your opinion, what are the most important drivers or inspirations for future scientific innovation?

Yarur: I think the main driver for future innovation … is education because it is at the center of all human behaviors and actions. It informs and shapes our core values, and it influences our choices.

 

Q: Do you think that concepts central to green chemistry and/or sustainability (GC&S) are important to your future careers?

Grieger: As a future professor, I feel that having knowledge about GC&S is very important. I believe that integrating it into the curriculum will make courses more relevant for students as they can see the real-world implications of reactions and tie new concepts [they’re learning] to those that they are already familiar with.

Yarur: We have a climate crisis and people have not acted accordingly in the past. Everyone deserves equal access to resources (food, water, energy), clean air, etc. and people are suffering right now … I want to be part of the team that will [address] these mistakes (present and future) and steer the field into a greener and sustainable era.

 

Q: Do you think that your interest is an outlier among your peers, or do many students also have an interest in green and sustainable chemistry?  

Yarur: I am fortunate to be at the University of Toronto where GC&E is pretty well integrated into the undergraduate curriculum. Therefore, when my peers need to teach those courses, they are exposed to green chemistry on a regular basis. We also have a student-led green chemistry initiative that promotes GC&E throughout the university. We have multiple activities going on throughout the year including waste awareness campaigns, green chemistry trivia, blog posts, monthly seminars, and a two-day symposium. The Green Chemistry Initiative at the University of Toronto has been instrumental in getting students interested in the topic.

Grieger: My peers express a wide range of interest in GC&S, from being highly interested and using it to develop reactions to feeling that it is a good thing but not applicable to their research topics. I think their interest levels are dependent both on what field of chemistry they are pursuing which ties into its relevance to their research topic and their own familiarity with the topic.

 

Q: You’ve previously expressed that you could have benefited from more green and sustainable integration in your college experience. What was most lacking in your undergraduate training?

Yarur: Green chemistry in general, to be honest. The knowledge gap between institutions that teach green chemistry and those that don’t is quite large and it’s leaving people behind on urgent scientific and societal issues.

Grieger: I do wish that we had learned more about GC&S and systems thinking during our undergraduate career because it was not really taught in any of our courses. For myself, I think it would have been valuable to see the bigger picture of the reactions and concepts that we were learning about and see the connections to real-life applications of science.

 

Q: What value can you ascribe to any connections you may have had beyond the academic environment—for example, with industry or government professionals?

Yarur: I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to network with many people in my studies through conferences, seminars, summer schools, etc. This has allowed me to grasp a broader picture of the opportunities available to me as a scientist and educator. Hearing other people’s perspectives is definitely a useful thing that has informed my future career decisions and trajectory. Diversification of skills and knowledge is something that people [outside academia] can provide and that students should be seeking. This is linked to how multidisciplinary the sciences are and so pursuing opportunities to network and get advice from academia, industry, and other sectors is essential to plan your career and have options.

Q: What is your sense of the GC&S community? Do you consider your network to be primarily localized at your institution or do you feel part of a larger more geographically diverse community of practitioners?

Grieger: While early in my graduate career, I would have described my community of practice as primarily local, through my interactions and network building at conferences and the green chemistry summer school, I would now describe it as international because I have people from several countries that I can collaborate with and turn to for help or feedback. I would like to continue to grow my “community of practice” because everyone brings unique perspectives and strengths which leads to richer and more in-depth research outcomes.

Yarur: Science works at its best when we collaborate and so I envision my community of practice to be spread worldwide.