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Switching To Green

UC Berkeley continuing education program helps professionals add green chemistry to their résumés

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
January 24, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 4

There’s no doubt green chemistry is making its way into academia, as universities shift gears to prepare their students for a world in which issues such as energy conservation, toxicology, waste reduction, and environmental preservation will share the spotlight with efficiency and cost-effectiveness, not just in the chemical industry but in all sectors.

For example, leaders in the field include the University of Oregon with its green chemistry programs; the University of Massachusetts, Boston, which was the first to offer a Ph.D. in green chemistry; and the University of California, Berkeley, which recently opened its Center for Green Chemistry, an academic institute.

But what about those professionals who already have educations and established careers? They could eventually learn some green chemistry principles on the job, but many want to take a more proactive approach, with educational augmentation that might allow them to expand or even switch careers to more green-oriented ones.

UC Berkeley Extension—the university’s continuing adult education department—hopes to fill that niche with a new certificate program, Essentials of Green Chemistry.

Barbara Peterson, program director for sciences and mathematics at UC Berkeley Extension, spearheaded development of the program, which began officially with last fall’s semester. It’s designed for professionals of all stripes, from materials scientists to environmental managers. “I think this certificate is broad enough to work for natural scientists and engineers,” Peterson says.

According to the extension program’s brochure, the rationale for the new program is that “growing public concern about product safety, along with new chemical policies in the U.S. and the European Union, poses an imperative for decision makers in business, government, and nongovernmental organizations to understand the business strategy and market drivers for green chemistry.”

Requirements include a series of core classes, all of which eventually will be available online, as well as a handful of electives. The courses are letter graded, and completion of the program results in a certificate.

“There are so many people out there, particularly chemists, who have not been trained in green topics as part of graduate or undergraduate education,” notes Mary M. Kirchhoff, former assistant director of green chemistry at the American Chemical Society and now director of ACS’s education division, who recently spoke at a symposium on green chemistry in higher education at UC Berkeley. The extension program “is a way of gaining expertise in an area that may not have been part of their education,” she says.

The students—fewer than a dozen—who have just completed the program’s first semester are a diverse lot. For example, Natalia Aurrecoechea is a medicinal chemist who was recently laid off and hopes to develop greener reactions at a future job; Madanodaya Sundhoro wants to bolster his applications to graduate school in chemistry; Saskia van Bergen is a research chemist who wants to shift her focus to environmental chemistry; and John Holbrook, an investment analyst with no background in chemistry, plans to switch to a career involving renewable energy.

Extension student Jesse Christensen, a former research coordinator at UC San Francisco, says he feels personally drawn to green philosophy. At his old job, he says, “I lost track of why I love research. I feel extremely motivated to create better products.”

Sheryl Mebane taught the program’s flagship course on the principles of green chemistry. “I like working with people who are this close to applying everything” covered in the course, she says. Mebane, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley and is a jazz musician, has just changed the course of her career: This month, she moved to the Environmental Protection Agency as technology transfer specialist in Cincinnati.

Her class resembled a Socratic dialogue: Students and instructor tossed ideas back and forth with the enthusiasm of an animated social gathering. During the last class, the students gave presentations on topics related to green chemistry. For example, Laxmi Gandhi, a government consultant, described her project, a study of pesticide use in cotton production, and Aurrecoechea discussed waste-reducing variants of the industrially important Wittig reaction.

The students recognize that they’re pioneers of what will likely be a sea change in the way science is done. Van Bergen notes that at first her colleagues “rolled their eyes, saying everything is overgreened.” But now, she says, they’re asking her questions.

Green chemistry will become as important as the energy field is now, Peterson predicts. Carbon emissions, toxicology, water conservation, social issues, and economic factors such as technology costs will be inextricably linked in a wide range of different fields. That’s a problem for people now—“how to take it all into account,” she says.

Peterson, who came from a background in neurobiology, also developed a biomedical sciences program for UC Berkeley Extension. She developed the green chemistry certificate program with the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, drawing on the expertise of Berkeley’s Center for Green Chemistry.

She sought input from industrial employers such as Dow and Chevron, as well as from EPA and nonprofit organizations. The program’s tuition is about $4,000, and “a lot of employers will reimburse employees for tuition,” Peterson notes.

UC Berkeley chemistry professor John Arnold, who heads the university’s Center for Green Chemistry, is on the advisory board for the extension program. “We have a lot of overlap in outlook in terms of courses,” he says. “Our clientele is probably different, but I think we share a lot of same goals when it comes to promoting green chemistry. The two efforts are very synergistic.”

Kirchhoff notes that training is the key to spurring the greening of both academia and industry. “If you look at job ads, you don’t see industry asking for expertise in green chemistry—it’s pretty rare. You’ve got to have students trained, and we have to have industry requesting this as a skill.”



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