Confessions of a chemistry professor…

By Mana Sassanpour
Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to interview many
distinguished chemistry professors who are also leaders in their
fields of research. What I have found is that many of these reknowned
researchers see the need for the uses of the tenants of green
chemistry in their research, yet are hesitant to apply those tenants
and practices when they teach in the university setting to the future
chemists of our nation. How and why is this?
Example one:  A professor sat down and explained three different
research projects that his group was involved in. For each one of
them, he was suggesting using the principles of green chemistry:
lower temperatures, catalysts, renewable resources, and the list goes
on. He realizes the need to reduce waste and energy consumption as we
face a population boom and growing dependence on foreign oil. The
professor stated that he sees problems with how we currently run
reactions, and wants to address these issues and improve them through
green chemistry – like most successful green chemists.
So why do such established researchers who realize the need for green
chemistry, refuse to teach it to their students – our future problem
solvers?
The answer I got was “we are here only to teach techniques; the
students can apply those techniques to green chemistry if they want.”
Well, most students do not make that connection. If they learn a
technique and procedure in lab that leads to a product of 0% yield
with the use of toxic solvents, they are not going to imagine a
greener way of doing the lab. Instead, they are going to assume those
techniques and solvents are the norm and standard way of doing things,
and carry that into their future professions as our nation’s chemists.
If we took the time to teach the tenants of green chemistry and
incorporate them into our lab protocols, the students would learn from
example and practice, and not have to rely on “figuring out” green
chemistry later when having to go back and reteach themselves how to
do chemistry the more efficient and environmentally friendly way.
While the professor may have a point in only teaching the
‘techniques,’ green chemistry should be the technique taught. If every
student was equipped with a green chemistry mindset from their
undergraduate education, there would not be as much struggle to
understand how to make reactions and procedures more efficient; we
could save time and money.