Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ten Years Towards Benign

By Hilary Sherratt ’12

“The real question is, how do we train chemists?” John Warner looked intently at each face in the front two rows of the MacDonald auditorium. “How do we expect chemists not to make harmful compounds if they’ve never been taught how to identify them?” Education was the key word at Monday afternoon's Green Chemistry Lecture at Gordon College. Warner, a world renowned industrial chemist and founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, shared his personal journey into green chemistry and his commitment to calling attention to this unmet need.

When he was a lead researcher at Polaroid, Warner met with his college friend and colleague, Paul Anastas, at the Environmental Protection Agency. Anastas was working in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, and the two men got to talking about the need for environmentally benign non-toxics. This, Dr. Warner told us, was the birth of green chemistry. “It started with the two of us, wondering why there is such a lack of conversation around this important issue,” he said. The initial conversation in an EPA office in Washington, DC, sparked a worldwide revolution, the publication of a book, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, and a new field of research and development in chemistry. Now, Warner says, green chemistry is projected to be a $100 billion industry by the year 2020.

What is most important for the success of green chemistry, we are likely to wonder after hearing these impressive projections. The answer is, of all things, education. “We need to teach scientists who to identify possible toxins, carcinogens and harmful compounds. If we can teach them how to see these possibilities, and create safe alternatives, we will go a long way in the right direction.”

And students at Gordon College are at the forefront of green chemistry education, Warner told the audience yesterday afternoon. Professor Irv Levy, professor of chemistry at Gordon, has been instrumental in the promotion of green chemistry both nationally and internationally. He is a leader in educating chemistry students about safety, sustainability and much more. Ultimately, Warner said, it is the education of our future chemists in environmental toxicology, law and policy, and sustainability that will be the way to solve future problems. In a world bombarded by news of toxic and harmful molecules, we need chemists who know how to create benign and even environmentally beneficial substances.

Over the past ten years since the beginning of the Green Chemistry Lecture series, Gordon has been extremely active in green chemistry education and scholarship. Students have helped with the Boston Museum of Science's Green Chemistry Day, and have completed independent research and presented their work at national American Chemical Society meetings. This year, students will travel to New Orleans, Louisiana, in December to present posters about their research. 

Warner led a round of applause during his talk, thanking Gordon College for being a “pioneer in the education of green chemists.” Looking sincerely at each audience member, Dr. Warner said he hoped that sitting among us were the innovative, creative chemists who will become the problem solvers of the future.

Photo: Gordon chemistry students demonstrate green chemistry techniques prior to the annual Green Chemistry Lecture this past Monday, November 12.

Hilary Sherratt ’12 is a grant writer in the Office of the Provost at Gordon College and a guest blogger for Notes Along the Way.

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