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Thank You, ACS: 2016 GC&E Conference Reflections

Valued Contributor II
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Tova N. Williams, 2015 Ciba Award Winner, North Carolina State University

Little did I know when finally granted permission by my mother to dye my hair for the first time as a high schooler that this experience would lead not only to my experimenting with many colors, but also to my becoming an advocate for the design of sustainable consumer products. Becoming aware of the toxicity concerns associated with the permanent (or oxidative) dyes that I had been using motivated me to start phasing out my blonde and auburn hair and eventually to the heart of my doctoral thesis research—to improve the safety of hair dyes for hair stylists, manufacturers, and consumers while not reducing their efficacy. In fact, as a career, I am dedicated to utilizing green chemistry principles to design environmentally friendly consumer products.

Thanks to ACS and GCI, I have been able to take concrete steps toward becoming the green chemist I strive to be. Last year, I attended my first GC&E conference and the student workshop, and learned about the opportunities associated with the field of green chemistry, by meeting colleagues from around the globe who share my passion to resolve some of the world’s most challenging problems. Keen to present some of my own research and to reunite with familiar faces and meet new faces, I had the opportunity to attend the 2016 GC&E conference with the aid of a Ciba Travel Award. It was especially nice to reconnect with Nidia Trejo, a colleague who recently graduated from Cornell University’s Fiber Science and Nanotechnology program.

To kickoff my conference experience this year, I participated in the student workshop again and was challenged within a day to devise a unique way to improve the impact of color with the aid of a team comprised of a color expert, a designer, an engineer, and two chemists. It was beneficial to serve on a diverse team to approach the challenge from different perspectives and ultimately synthesize solutions for making the most common first step in the hair coloring process, bleaching, more sustainable. I also attended the Communicating Science workshop, and was challenged to describe my research within two minutes to a layman. This workshop was especially helpful because not only did I receive feedback from the facilitator, James Rea, but also from workshop participants who work in unrelated disciplines.

The first keynote address on Day 1 of the conference was given by Dr. Paul Anastas, who reviewed the beginnings of green chemistry and engineering, including the contributions of other pioneers in the field.  During the GREENX discussions held later that evening, Cyrus Wadia, Vice President of Sustainable Business & Innovation at Nike, Inc., made us aware of some of Nike’s sustainability initiatives. The next day, I had the opportunity to tour the campus of Nike’s headquarters to see firsthand that their efforts go beyond making their products more sustainable, as they also seek to make their work environment more environmentally friendly. I was struck by the special care given to the vegetation on campus and the use of bicycles for greener transportation on campus. I could definitely envision myself working there.

On the second night of the conference, I gave a poster presentation covering some of my findings relating to the use of human hair-based keratin films as alternate substrates for hair dye design. The feedback that I received was plentiful and invaluable and will inform my next project steps.

Day 3 of the conference included a technical session pertaining to green chemistry design of synthetic colorants. This area forms the basis of my research. The presentation by my advisor, Dr. Harold Freeman, highlighted an approach to designing safer azo dyes. A presentation devoted to the toxicological properties of organic pigments was given by Dr. Robert Christie who proposed mechanisms for the formation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) during the synthesis of pigments from chlorinated aromatic amines such as dichlorobenzidine. PCBs are known to be carcinogenic but they have proved difficult to fully remove from certain commercially important yellow pigments.  Though not covered during any of the technical sessions held during the 2016 conference, there is a need to improve the toxicological profile of cosmetics, in particular hair dyes, a challenge I am excited to take on!

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The most important (and fun) experience at the conference was connecting with other scientists who care about green design strategies.  I met people from diverse arenas ranging from academia to government to industry. Two special connections I made were with Drs. Richard Blackburn and Robert Christie, who have expertise in the coloration of hair and who may collaborate with my research group on future projects.

Reflecting back on my conference experience as a whole, I am very grateful to have received a Ciba Travel Award to travel to a region of the country where I had never been. I cannot wait to see what is in store for next year’s conference!

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