Students Ask, We Tell: Opportunities for green chemistry students

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Contributed by Ashley Baker, Research Assistant, ACS Green Chemistry Institute®

The ACS Green Chemistry Institute® has become a hub for green chemistry education and for students and educators to find new ways to integrate green chemistry into their curriculum. As a recent college graduate with a chemistry major - who now works on education projects at ACS GCI - I resonated with this question that recently arrived in the ACS GCI inbox:

“I am a chemistry major in my sophomore year at the University of -----.”  I recently learned of ‘Green Chemistry’ and have become very interested in the idea. My school currently doesn't offer a Green Chemistry program or any related classes, but I really think they should. It has become apparent to me that Green Chemistry is the future in the world of chemistry.

My question to you, the ACS, is what can I do to promote the study of Green Chemistry at my university, not only for myself, but for future chemistry students as well?”

For students wondering how they can create a green chemistry presence at their colleges and universities, there are fortunately many ways to make green chemistry a part of their lives and educations. Oftentimes the biggest road block for students is not knowing where to begin.

The most common and successful place to start is with a university’s existing ACS student chapter. ACS student chapters have the chance to earn a “green student chapter award” by completing at least three green chemistry activities. The ACS GCI has provided a reference of what could count as a green chemistry activity, listed here. Students can also explore the ACS GCI website which hosts a variety of resources about green chemistry – its history, examples of its use, and more. When thinking about completing a green chemistry activity it’s essential for students to remember that, while very important, sustainability initiatives and general outreach events are not necessarily green chemistry. Being able to draw specific conclusions between an activity or event and the green chemistry behind it is imperative. For example, analyzing pollutants in a body of water would be an environmental chemistry activity, but brainstorming ways chemistry could help prevent that pollution in the first place would more likely qualify as a green chemistry activity.

In the coming months, we will be highlighting exemplary student chapters and their green chemistry activities in The Nexus (see this month’s feature on Gordon College by Irv Levy). These chapters qualified as Green Chemistry ACS Student Chapters based on activities they conducted in the 2014-2015 academic year, and the articles will provide a wide range of ideas for student chapters who want to incorporate green chemistry at their colleges and universities.

“What if my university doesn’t have an ACS student chapter?”

Having a student chapter is far from the only platform for green chemistry outreach or learning opportunities. The ACS GCI facilitates a number of annual travel awards to support students who wish to attend green chemistry conferences and workshops. Students who apply for and receive these awards have opportunities to present and gain valuable feedback on their research, engage and make connections with peers and professionals, and learn about new career pathways and cutting-edge technologies in green chemistry.

15162-205.JPGThese awards include the Joseph Breen Memorial Fellowship, Ciba Travel Awards in Green Chemistry, and the Kenneth G. Hancock Memorial Award.

Lauren Grant, who was able to attend the 19th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference (GC&E) as a 2015 Joseph Breen Memorial Fellow, is preparing to begin graduate school in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania with an interest in developing sustainable activation and transformation methods of dinitrogen. Grant was first introduced to green chemistry during her undergraduate studies through the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC). She reflected that, even with this background, attending the conference was eye-opening and gave her unique perspectives on her research and said, “Speaking with fellow green chemists about my work gave me new ideas to try and different ways of looking at the results I have. In fact, speaking with two other students gave me ideas of reactions to try to accomplish one of my goals.”

DSC_8834A.jpgThrough a grant from the National Science Foundation, the ACS Green Chemistry Institute® has facilitated the participation of dozens of students in a yearly “Greening Your Research” student workshop that coincides with the annual GC&E conference. NSF Scholars consistently report that their experience at the conference and workshop gave them new tools for thinking about their research. Andrew Alexopoulos, a 2015 NSF Scholar and graduate student at the California State University, was empowered by the experience and said, “What I gained from the [workshop] was not a formula on how to use green chemistry, but a new mindset. I realized that I would not be able to find a green way to solve every problem but what I can do every time is try.” Additionally, Alexopoulos was able to evaluate his own research with using the tools and exercises provided in the workshop, allowing him to address complex laboratory problems with new solutions.

"I want to pursue green chemistry beyond my college education – what resources can help me do that?"

15163-476.JPGThe ACS Career Workshop, another event that happens in conjunction with the GC&E Conference, provides students with a slightly different approach to implementing green chemistry. The workshop helps to show students the myriad ways that green chemistry can be a part of their lives in the long run. Kelsey Boes, a 2015 NSF Scholar who attended the workshop, realized that her passions for design and chemistry could be united through green chemistry. Boes, a graduate student at North Carolina State University, said that the career exercises helped her see that long-term lab work might not be for her but that through science communication she could increase awareness of green chemistry and scientific inquiry in a different way. Upon return to her lab, she immediately began prompting discussions with her peers about making conscious chemical choices.

Another way to become involved in green chemistry is by joining a sustainability-focused organization for young chemists, such as NESSE (Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists and Engineers). NESSE is a growing international, interdisciplinary, grassroots organization celebrating sustainability in science and engineering and creating new pathways to embed it through careers. It is a network of people who are passionate about using science and technology to build a sustainable and prosperous future for all. Students and professionals can interact with others interested in greener science through NESSE via member-run events like local lectures and meetings or virtually through webinars and the group’s website. Additionally, there are opportunities to join NESSE as an outreach volunteer, mentor, or even participate in elections for the organization’s Executive Board of volunteers.

Laura Hoch, NESSE’s Director of Sustainable Science Groups and chemistry Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto, says she wasn’t sure where to begin with green chemistry when she first learned about it in the second year of graduate school. Her advice to students? “I would suggest that you start talking to people in your department and see who else is interested in green chemistry. Then, figure out how you can work together to bring in people who can teach you what you want to know (e.g. by organizing a seminar series, or webinars, or a symposium). This is what we did at the University of Toronto and it has honestly been the best part of my Ph.D. experience.” She stressed that fostering an enthusiastic community is key, and that this can be started simply by initiating discussions among peers about green chemistry.

Not all green chemistry initiatives will reach a wide audience through outreach; enough individuals making green choices in their research adds up to something equally valuable. With so many avenues for involvement in green chemistry, students can choose what works for them while still making a meaningful impact. There are ways for everyone to get involved in green chemistry; it’s less a matter of finding a path and more about choosing which one to take.

Want to get involved and aren’t sure where to begin? Email with comments and questions.

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