Thursday, January 7, 2010

Green Chemistry: Confessions of a Tree-Hugger

My third day of classes at Gordon, I went to see Prof. Irv Levy in the Chemistry Department. Honestly, my initial motive was to seek an impressive research project to include on my resume (already thinking about the application process for graduate school). With all the enthusiasm of a budding scientist, I knocked on the door to his lab and asked if I could assist with any research.
Prof. Levy laid out many topics before me that day. As he started to run through the list of opportunities for scientific collaboration, I heard the words “ecotoxicity and biodiesel” . . . and something clicked. As a self-identified “tree-hugger” (at that time I labeled myself with vague understanding of what it meant), I became part of his team, not realizing that day that I would head the project, not assist or observe from the sidelines. (An encouraging realization, looking back, that is a rarity in terms of student experience at the undergraduate level.)
Over the years my research developed a laboratory experiment that helps educate students about ecotoxicity and concepts of green chemistry—which Gordon College fervently advocates. The process measures ecotoxicity by the average elongation of germinated lettuce seeds treated by alcohol of different concentrations. The experiment clearly shows the difference between ecotoxicity and human toxicity. Most importantly, it is simple and fun—making it a great tool to engage middle and high school students on the concepts of “green chemistry.”
Working with Prof. Levy, I presented the research at the American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans during a Chemical Education poster session. The project interested many science instructors who teach environmental science and green chemistry courses. More than ever, with education budgets tightened across the country, this experiment, in addition to being fun, is affordable, making it very appealing to reproduce in classrooms.
Three weeks ago I graduated from Gordon College. Today my research has expanded beyond the resume and into the hands of chemistry curricula across the country.
This year I’m presenting at two other national green chemistry conferences, and my research experiment is about to be published in a journal for chemistry educators. An idea that started on my third day as a Gordon student has developed into a model with great potential to be adopted in a majority of laboratory curricula across the country. Gordon has fostered great opportunity for my growth as a scientist. Moreover, I am pleased to be a true “tree-hugger” now as my work contributes to the future of young scientists adopting green chemistry practices.
Looking back on the college search process, I remember first hearing about Gordon College. I remember close friends (and even some relatives) asking why Gordon and not an internationally known Ivy League school. But I saw Gordon not just as a place of intellectual development but as a place for nurturing character. It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.

SooYeon Kwon is from Seoul, Korea. Her work is continuing to draw national attention and is being adopted by science teachers in many areas of the United States.

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