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The Journey Towards a Career in Green Chemistry

Valued Contributor II
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By Nakisha Mark, 2020 Heh-Won Chang Ph.D. Fellowship in Green Chemistry Winner

My passion towards chemistry began with my ingrained curiosity for cosmetic formulation and fertilizer production. This curiosity was amplified when I realized that many of the aforementioned products were composed of non-environmentally friendly ingredients. My dream, therefore, was to provide a more environmental and sustainable approach to chemistry as it relates to making those said products.

During the pursuit of my undergraduate degree at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus, I developed a keen interest in catalysis and decided, during an inorganic chemistry course, I would conduct graduate research in green catalysis. My dream did not come without challenges. During that period, my university did not have experts in the field. As such, I decided to enter the world of work while still keeping a keen interest in the current literature of catalysis research.

While working as a research assistant on an agriculture-based project at UWI, I was exposed to the vast amount of unused agricultural waste. It is during this tenure the idea of creating a link between the energy and agriculture sectors in the Caribbean region became important to me.

Graduate Research Focus

With my passion for catalysis at my core and the opportunity to utilize agricultural waste, I began exploring along these lines.  I soon initiated a Ph.D. in Chemistry at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, in the Forde Research Group. My research aims at using novel heterogeneous materials to convert biomass-derived compounds into fuel and fuel precursors whilst utilizing the 12 principles of green chemistry.  

The multidisciplinarity of green chemistry has allowed me to work intensely across various sectors such as chemistry, agriculture and economics. This demonstrates green chemistry’s demands of lateral thinking and has given me transferrable skills that I currently used under one umbrella in my research.  

Despite being in such an advantageous position, there are obstacles.  I am most likely the first student pursuing research in green heterogeneous catalysis in the English-speaking Caribbean. This is a challenge as the required foundation and facilities are lacking, especially with respect to catalyst characterization. Regardless of such challenges, my supervisor, Dr. Forde, and I have been fortunate in accessing several global opportunities.

I have conducted experimental work at renowned facilities such as Brookhaven National Laboratory in the U.S., University of Guelph, in the Schlaf Research Group, in Canada and Cardiff Catalysis Institute, in the U.K. I have also attended foundational courses at the University of the French Antilles in Guadeloupe and the University of Liverpool in the U.K. It is therefore paramount to create a SMART* plan that will allow one to attain a level to implement green chemistry.

Career Advice

The advice for anyone beginning a career in chemistry or any other field is “Dare to Dream!” It is important for all pursuing careers in chemistry to be honest with themselves and determine what they want to achieve, and specifically how it can be achieved.

Furthermore, we must remember to celebrate the small accomplishments as they lead us to fulfilling our goals, as each individual career path is unique to him or her. For those embarking in graduate research, it is imperative that you maintain a healthy balance: spiritually, mentally, physically and academically so that at the end of the graduate experience you would have grown ten-fold.

Most importantly, as graduates, we must not let our research environments define what we can accomplish as there are many organizations such as the American Chemical Society providing support to all of us without prejudice. Therefore, I encourage all undergraduates, graduates and non-students to become members of a chemical society!

Nakisha Mark is a doctoral candidate in the department of chemistry at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.

*A SMART plan is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound.