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Confessions of a Chemistry Graduate

As an entering first year at the University of Virginia, the only major concern I had was academic. I wanted to do well in my pre-med requirements. First, I needed to get into intro-level chemistry and biology labs. Once that was settled after many long battles, I then needed the good grades. Only after I graduated and got my first job at Advancing Green Chemistry did it dawn on me how my educational experience was anything but green.

As incoming freshmen, all of us were scared on our first day of chemistry lab. The two-minute lecture on the importance of waste disposal was and still is a blur to most of us; in fact I do not remember it at all. No one in my class realized the impacts of pouring concentrated hydrochloric acid down the drain. I mean, it looks like water, right? Looking back and remembering the times my classmates threw strong acid or base down the drain makes me shudder. I too am guilty of this. We didn’t want to wait in the long waste disposal line – we wanted the extra credit for finishing early.

It’s not our fault, and it’s not the TA’s fault. What I have learned is that there needs to be more emphasis on waste disposal; perhaps a mandatory lecture that discusses toxicology and waste disposal, or a quiz on the first day of lab will help emphasize the impacts of improper disposal. The only recollection I have of toxicology from my four years at UVa is from my inorganic chemistry class where my professor made it a point to expose us to toxicology through class lecture and problem sets. From the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference I learned that most universities with a chemistry major do not require any form of toxicology to graduate, leading to chemists who inadvertently create or use hazardous compounds. Fortunately, chemists today are working to create a series of standards to combat this lack of education.

Then there was biology lab. My head still hurts when I think of spending hours in a room with all kinds of creatures immersed in formaldehyde. For a whole semester, we dissected all kinds of creepy crawlies and filled our nostrils with formaldehyde. I remember leaving lab with headaches with a desire to sleep for a very long time after those four-hour sessions. There must be a better and greener way to go about distributing and preserving these species. No one remembers all the dissections anyways – most of us want to be doctors, not starfish veterinarians. Speaker John Warner, co-founder of Green Chemistry, elaborated on this issue on Students Day at the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference when he discussed how we do not always know the impact of chemicals until it’s too late. As chemists, we did not learn the toxicology; so, how are we supposed to apply it?

My sophomore year was worse. I had organic chemistry lab – the most dreaded class for most undergraduate chemistry majors. We produced hydrochloric acid in gas form, made brominated compounds, synthesized polymers etc. Before many of our labs, we were told to not breathe in products or touch them because many of our compounds or reactants are thought to cause cancer. Most students would go into lab and be scared of touching or breathing the supplies after being told that some compounds could take ten years off our lives. No one can deny that there are ethical issues surrounding the aforementioned. In addition, from the Green Chemistry and Engineering conference we learned all about how many polymers do not have efficient yields; in fact, my consistent lab yield result of 0% on all polymer synthesis can confirm that. Should we really be teaching inefficient lab methods to future chemists?

Finally, there was biochemistry lab in my senior year. Most compounds were biodegradable and non-toxic. What was not green about this experience was the waste of material such as pipette tips, vials, and other plastic containers. The university does not recycle these plastics and requires us to simply throw them away – even if they have bacterial residue on them. Establishing a recycling method for these products is a simple and easy way to green up the biochemistry lab system. Professor Al Matlack from the University of Delaware stresses how we need to be thinking about recycling and reusing at the most basic levels to make a greater overall impact.

My University, along with most others, needs to shape up. More emphasis needs to be put on developing greener teaching methods and laboratory techniques. Once established, these greener methods will become a trend. Now we just need some trendsetters.