For my third and final interview in the Virginia Tech series, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Felicia Etzkorn (pictured left), pioneer of the green chemistry course at Virginia Tech. The green chemistry course was her idea back in 2003. She and her colleague, Dr. Tim Long, decided to team-teach it just for fun. A couple of years later Dr. Etzkorn decided she was going to approach it more seriously. As a result, she had to write a course proposal for Virginia Tech’s course catalogue. The course was approved by three different curriculum committee levels. Afterwards, she developed course material and lectures, and taught the class for three years, from 2007 – 2009. She is excited to be teaching it again this Spring 2012.
Dr. Etzkorn also applies her passion for green chemistry to the local Blacksburg community. She designed a green science experiment for middle school students. Under the program, she brings the students into one of the labs at Virginia Tech to let them make their own polymer of lactic acid. The procedure allows them to make polylactic acid derived from soybeans, similar to a process used for biodegradable plastic containers for salads.
The students got a chance to come to Tech and get to do the experiment using solvent free polymerization and a non-toxic catalyst. First they had to stir and heat the mixture to get the polymer following lab procedures. Then the students made small toys by pouring polymer into clay molds they made in art class (pictured right – the brown items: shells, lips et.c are the PLA polymer, the grey figures are clay molds.). Since it does biodegrade the students were even encouraged to compost it. They were really enthusiastic about green chemistry.
Dr. Etzkorn also studies neural tube defects in mice with Dr. Hrubec, her collaborator. In the experiments, the control mice start getting neural tube disorder at a shocking rate of 20%, leading to many control experiments to see what was causing it. One suspect turned out to be from our every day tap water: epilepsy and bipolar disorder medication Cardamazepine. Dr. Etzkorn explains: “We cannot get any water that doesn’t have it to some extent and the mice are very sensitive to these agents.” The second suspect is a quaternary ammonium compound used to sanitize the lab. More experiments have yet to be conducted to determine the culprit.
AGC congratulates the diverse work that Dr. Etzkorn does with green chemistry and environmental health sciences and wishes her success in the future.