Contributed by Thomas P. Umile, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Gwynedd Mercy University
“I am pleased to announce that you have been selected to receive an NSF Student Scholarship to attend the 2007 Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference, June 26-29, in Washington, DC.” Those words simultaneously evoked excitement and fright in a naïve first-year graduate student, caught in the whirlwind of taking challenging classes, joining a research group, and trying simply to fit into the rigorous academic culture on a storied, ivy-draped campus. In retrospect, the experience of attending the Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference (CG&E) and ACS Green Chemistry Institute’s (ACS GCI) student workshop would help that student (i.e., me) to mature as a graduate student and greatly impact his future development as a scientist and scholar.
My interests in Green Chemistry began with my undergraduate mentor, Michael Cann, who wove the topic into many lively, 9:00am organic chemistry lectures at the University of Scranton. I would go on to coauthor a second volume of Real-World Cases in Green Chemistry educational materials with him. However, beyond that, I had little connection to the larger Green Chemistry community. Simply put, Green Chemistry was merely a concept for me (and one which, at the time, was barely a footnote in most textbooks).
Attending the 2007 GC&E showed me that Green Chemistry was less an abstract idea and much more a community. At the ACS GCI student workshop, I met, for the first time, other young and enthusiastic scientists who shared my interests in Green Chemistry. Later that evening, I attended the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards ceremony and sat amongst scholars and entrepreneurs who believed in the transformative power of Green Chemistry and brought it into successful practice. Seeing the Green Chemistry community “in action” for the first time (at such prestigious locations as the American Chemical Society’s headquarters and the National Academy of Sciences) emphasized the broad significance and importance of the field to my then-inexperienced eyes. When I worked on the Real-World Cases project as an undergraduate, a part of me perhaps thought of my Green Chemistry interests as noble but not widely shared. That notion quickly evaporated upon seeing and meeting so many undergraduates, fellow graduate students, faculty, and field leaders over the next week at GC&E. The excitement and energy of the Green Chemistry community provided unexpected solidarity.
At the same time that GC&E impacted my views of the Green Chemistry community, it also provided a number of “firsts” for my career. GC&E was my first conference and my first professional, oral presentation. For this first-generation college graduate trying out being a scientist, attending (and presenting at) such a significant event provided a sense of encouragement and approval. Orally presenting the Real-World Cases project (and the subsequent “debriefing” with my former advisor) taught me a lot of presentation lessons and fundamentals I would carry with me and now pass on to my own students: the audience is overwhelmingly on your side, being asked questions is an indication that people are interested (and not looking for mistakes), and one must always graciously accept criticism.
In the nine years since that first GC&E, Green Chemistry has continued to influence my career. My doctoral dissertation, although not focused on Green Chemistry, took on green overtones as I explored the application of my catalyst system as a cleaner and safer alternative in water treatment. In my classroom, Green Chemistry finds its way into all of my courses, from discussions on biodegradable plastics in non-major lectures to the use of greener solvents and reagents in major-level chemistry labs. In 2015, I attended the ACS GCI student workshop, not as an attendee, but as a speaker and breakout session leader. Of course, myriad other events have influenced my academic career. However, I consciously trace roots to that 2007 GC&E. The sense of community reinforced my interests in applying green thinking to my research and teaching, and the welcoming and collegial nature of that community provided a young, trepidatious chemist with many “firsts” that would lead to continued career successes.
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