Wanted: Green Chemistry Education and Skills for Careers in Industry

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Chemistry has historically been considered a discipline that could guarantee you a job. When chemistry is everything, how could it ever be otherwise? Unfortunately, in recent years in the United States we have begun to observe "otherwise." In 2012, an American Chemical Society Presidential Commission issued a report on the current state of graduate education in the chemical sciences. Leading experts from academia and industry concluded that current educational opportunities for graduate students do not provide sufficient preparation for their careers. Following this Commission report, in 2013 the ACS conducted a survey of members who had recently graduated with different chemistry degrees, from bachelor’s to PhD graduates. At that time, unemployment had risen to nearly 10% and median starting salaries remained static. The major recommendation stemming from this survey was that chemistry departments should partner with campus career centers to develop a comprehensive suite of career resources targeted to the needs of graduate students at all levels in chemical sciences.

So what direction is chemistry and therefore career opportunities moving towards? Students are still learning the basics in their general, organic, etc. classes, but the fact of the matter is that our students have been doing the same experiments since World War II. The chemical enterprise however (which is expected to grow to more than $14 trillion by 2050), has not stagnated the same way our undergraduate and graduate programs have. Currently more than 50 percent of American chemistry graduates go on to pursue careers in industry, yet only 26 percent of graduate students responding to the 2013 ACS survey reported that their advisors provided information about non-academic career paths to a considerable extent. As ACS Director of Education, Dr. Mary Kirchhoff, explained, there are many skills to be gained by paying closer attention to industry environments, “When students have the opportunity to work in industry, they learn important safety protocols, polish their communication techniques, and develop teamwork skills.”

As we begin to observe trends in industry and feel the pressures of a growing, consumptive global population we see another wave of needs for the chemistry education community: green chemistry and engineering skills. The markets reflect this (as evidenced by the report from Pike Research stating that the green chemistry market opportunity will grow by more than 3400% from $2.8 billion in 2011 to $98.5 billion by 2020). As chemistry continues to further integrate into our modern lifestyles and the public becomes more aware of how it affects society, it is vital for education to reflect this changing landscape. Dr. Jim Hutchison, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon describes green chemistry as "use-inspired" because it exists within the context of making products better and processes more efficient. Improving lives is an implied endeavor of the field, and to do this chemists need an understanding of the impact of chemicals and the entire life cycle of their processes and products to determine how to design for sustainability. Increasingly chemists need to be able to work across disciplines and collaborate with engineers, but companies are finding that graduates often don’t arrive with the awareness or capacity to do so.

This is not a new demand in the community, but the call is getting louder. For years green chemistry leaders have organized on this issue, championing the need for chemistry curricula to accurately reflect genuine career opportunities and growing sustainability needs. For example, in 2007, there was a workshop titled “Exploring Opportunities in Green Chemistry and Engineering Education” hosted through the National Research Council Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Three major speakers, a panel, and a series of breakout sessions were dedicated to assessing the status of green chemistry and engineering education, and why educators incorporate these topics (or not).

Most current faculty members do not have green chemistry experience and face a very crowded curriculum, but if we are to truly shift the way chemistry is taught and address this career gap for graduates, change isn't needed just from academia. Fortunately over the years we have begun seeing larger and more organized initiatives to invigorate green chemistry education on all fronts from educators, students, organizations, and industry.

One of the most robust efforts to train educators is the University of Oregon’s Green Chemistry in Education Workshop. It is a five-day workshop to help educators incorporate green chemistry experiments and concepts into their teaching without further crowding their curriculum. More than 250 educators have completed this workshop, and they have reported increased engagement from students in addition to personally feeling reinvigorated and empowered by this principle-based and creative approach to teaching chemistry. Hutchison, a founder and coordinator of the workshop, describes it as a win-win for the universities; not only are educators seeing diverse benefits, the departments experience less waste, positive publicity, and opportunities for faculty scholarship.


The 2014 cohort of chemistry professors at the U of O Green Chemistry in Education Workshop.

On the other end of the classroom there are the students and recent graduates, and they have also begun organizing for greener science and education. This year has seen the launch of the Network of Early-career Sustainable Scientists and Engineers (NESSE), an organization dedicated to mobilizing the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists and engineers to integrate sustainability into their work. NESSE is building interest and power among students and young professionals to take proactive steps to change the way science is done, and plans to provide programs and training through several avenues. Whether it’s creating and supporting interdisciplinary campus groups or coordinating a mentor program, NESSE is a free network providing early-career scientists the platform and resources to fill the gap that their education does not address.


NESSE launch event at 2014 Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference.

“NESSE will play an important part by mobilizing the next generation to say to educators and industry that we need updated curricula not only for jobs but for the wave of sustainable change that needs to come,” said Dr. Jennifer Dodson, Chair of NESSE and Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at University of York. With respect to raising awareness and increasing knowledge of green chemistry, some student groups such as University of Toronto’s Green Chemistry Initiative and University of York’s greenSTEMS (both are NESSE members) have already seen success with organizing workshops, outreach, and activating students across disciplines. “It’s not going to happen everywhere overnight, but it will create key places and examples of how to bring about change for more sustainable science and education,” said Dodson.

Echoing this call for cross-disciplinary education and further illustrating the need, the 2012 ACS Commission report elaborates that much of industry uses a matrix structure where scientists have two homes—one in their discipline with similar chemists and one in a program/project with a variety of professionals (engineers, business people, sustainability experts, etc.). For years, the ACS has provided opportunities for students to learn green chemistry and engage with industry through programs such as the ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy (a week long program for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to learn about this rapidly growing field), the SCI Scholars (10-week industrial internship opportunities for rising sophomores and juniors), and of course the offerings for Students & Educators through the ACS Green Chemistry Institute.

gcsummerschool.PNG2014 ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy

Programs like the ones discussed thus far not only provide much needed exposure but help students create valuable connections for their career. As this community continues to grow and the need for sustainable scientists becomes increasingly relevant, concrete actions from industry are now needed. “We don’t currently see industry calling for green chemistry skills in their hiring—if they truly do value these skills, they need to be explicit in recruiting and hiring chemists and chemical engineers,” said Kirchhoff.

While it is true there is no groundswell from industry for green chemistry education at this time, there are proactive companies and industrial coalitions that aim to catalyze the flow of sustainable scientists through their practices and programs. The ACS Green Chemistry Institute® Industrial Roundtables (Chemical Manufacturer’s, Formulators’, Hydraulic Fracturing (coming soon), and Pharmaceutical) are one example of groups of companies coming together to change the way chemistry is done in their sector. Many companies who are members also have green chemistry programs (for example, Merck’s Green Chemistry team) which are using green metrics, changing science, and highlighting the need for sustainable scientists.

Amgen, a member company of the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable, is one company that has taken their green chemistry team beyond their firm and into the community. A key program of Amgen’s has the team going to local colleges to give green chemistry seminars to undergraduates so they are exposed to the concepts as early as possible. “The most rewarding aspect is the excitement you build in the students,” said Dr. John Tucker, a senior scientist at Amgen. “There is great concern for sustainability in this generation and green chemistry can activate future scientists. It doesn’t matter what sector you go into, it doesn’t matter what science you do, green chemistry can be applied to any scientific endeavor and will make you a better scientist.”

Tucker has spent 10+ years in the pharmaceutical industry working specifically on green chemistry and is involved with Amgen’s outreach program. His green chemistry background set him apart when he switched jobs and he emphasized how industry values scientists who are adept at cross-disciplinary collaborations; increasingly green chemistry is an example of these skills and a key differentiator when hiring new scientists. “Academia needs to propagate green chemistry across all universities—it should be from California to Maine, and I’m hopeful that it will happen in the next 5-10 years—but we can do better in industry by indicating within hiring practices and job descriptions that we prefer green chemistry skill sets,” said Tucker, "and of course, engaging the local communities."

To coalesce and further mobilize the green chemistry community, the ACS Green Chemistry Institute® is beginning to work with the community to develop an educational roadmap that would define and clarify methods of incorporating green chemistry into the curriculum. The overarching goal is to create an enduring, multi-year strategy to find and implement solutions to key green chemistry education needs. Someday all chemistry will be green chemistry and this will require all hands on deck from educators, students, industry, and more! To learn more check out Need for a Green Chemistry Education Roadmap. To get involved with the roadmap or share your thoughts feel free to comment here or email Jenny MacKellar (j_mackellar@acs.org).

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