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Chemistry for a Cause

Posted on April 25, 2018
Dr. John Warner directs the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in Wilmington, Massachusetts, where researchers create sustainable chemical products. Credit: Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry

Twenty years ago, John Warner (PAESMEM 2004), chief executive of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry (WBI), left Polaroid Corporation to shake up chemistry education. He wanted to enlist chemistry educators to adopt the principles of green chemistry -- the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. Today, Warner’s journey in advancing green chemistry education serves as a blueprint for attracting and retaining more students in that field of work, including those from groups underrepresented in science and engineering.

“I left corporate America because I was passionate about changing the way we teach chemistry. Students want to do something meaningful -- if not the big, save the world stuff, at least work they can explain to mom and dad and their friends that what they’re doing can have a positive impact,” says Warner. 

Increasing Green Chemists

Warner began teaching green chemistry after reuniting with a childhood friend, Paul Anastas, then a chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency. Warner and Anastas co-authored the book, Principles of Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, published in 1998. It became a seminal work, fueling a worldwide green chemistry movement and providing Warner a textbook to embark on an academic career to help nurture more chemists to adopt green principles. 

Warner infused his lectures at the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMass Boston) and later at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell (UMass Lowell) with ideas related to green chemistry. And, he says, he took a student-centered approach to chemistry laboratory research. Warner recalls that, “Usually, students will work on a professor’s research in lab, but I asked all my students beforehand what they were passionate about. Instead of them fitting into my world, I entered theirs. It made them a lot more motivated about the projects, particularly when it involved contributing to the social good.” During his years at UMass Boston, his students researched and spoke at American Chemical Society (ACS) conferences about a broad range of topics such as antimicrobials, mesoscale assemblies, solar energy, water purification, DNA polymer mimics and cosmetics.

Warner says college chemistry is sometimes regarded as the subject that contributes to a high attrition rate among pre-medical and other undergraduate science majors. But rather than intimidating students about the rigor of chemistry study, Warner found ways to help retain them. While teaching at UMass Boston in the late 1990s, he made use of the early internet era, by posting slides and making recordings of his lectures so that students could get extra help in understanding concepts.

“The first year I did this at UMass, I had 100 percent attendance in my lectures. I also got rid of the increased first-year chemistry attrition ‘bump’ you often see in student retention graphs,” he remembers. Warner says his students told him they listened to his recorded lectures several times.

Warner’s academic techniques and work in green chemistry also found followers beyond his own laboratory as other chemistry professors began to incorporate his methods in their instruction and research laboratories. The spread of Warner’s message was evident when he met Bridgewater State University biology major and fellow green chemistry advocate Justin Whitfield at a poster presentation during a regional meeting of the ACS.

Warner told Whitfield that it was the first time Warner had seen a poster presentation about green chemistry outside of the research in his own lab. “That was a ‘moment’ for me and the beginning of a long relationship,” says Whitfield. Whitfield’s encounter with Warner, along with green chemistry’s potential to help prevent diseases like cancer, motivated him to add a minor in chemistry during his undergraduate studies.

Ultimately, Whitfield became one of the first students to enroll in the Ph.D. program in Green Chemistry that Warner and his wife, Amy Cannon, created at UMass Lowell.

For more than a decade, Warner mentored about 120 students in green chemistry, which led to his receiving the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) in 2004. 

Warner used his academic platform to influence his peers in chemistry and encourage chemistry majors to evangelize green chemistry by speaking to elementary school students in the community. “We created a network of green chemistry mentors and role models in the Boston area,” he enthusiastically notes. 

Sustaining the Movement  

With his green chemistry education movement gaining traction, Warner returned to the private sector in 2007 and formed a partnership with investor Jim Babcock to create WBI, a research laboratory in Wilmington, Massachusetts. WBI develops sustainable products sought by inventors and industry, such as a non-toxic, ammonia-free hair color restoration technology, and a bio-based asphalt rejuvenator that produces no toxins in the process. Warner says the institute provided an opportunity for his green chemistry movement to be self-sustaining. Warner’s wife and Whitfield joined in the new endeavor.

“It gave us the chance to advance John’s work and give him more flexibility to partner with academia, industry and entrepreneurs,” says Cannon, executive director of Beyond Benign, a green chemistry non-profit organization. Cannon says the name of the non-profit speaks to its goal of not only teaching the philosophy of green chemistry but also spreading its adoption and practice in academia and industry.

“Our non-profit allows us to partner with colleges, universities and industry and to continue our lead teacher training as well as our green chemistry curriculum pledge campaign for colleges and universities,” says Cannon. Beyond Benign also sustains Warner’s work in providing science, technology, engineering and mathematics mentoring in communities through hands-on field trips and visits to K-12 classrooms to introduce “green chemistry” concepts to students. Cannon says more than 40 colleges and universities have signed Beyond Benign’s pledge to teach green chemistry principles. Warner adds that new colleges and universities often adopt the pledge after hearing one of his presentations about the green chemistry movement. 

“After more than 20 years, we still have those who debate whether chemistry should be taught with a specific purpose rather than just teaching pure chemistry in a vacuum. We are, however, seeing progress in getting academia to make the change to green chemistry,” Warner remarks. Certainly, more work must be done, he says, and “at WBI, we are showing the world that you can invent products and processes that are safe, sustainable and market-savvy, and you can do it with a moral and ethical compass.” 

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Other PAESMEM honorees making a difference in chemistry include:

Dr. Richard Zare, PAESMEM 2008

Dr. Richard N. Zare is the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford University. He is Chair of the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor. Zare had a national impact as a role model for effective mentoring of women and minorities in science. He has mentored 49 postdoctoral and graduate students who are women or minorities. Of these, 17 became faculty in chemistry or physics.

Dr. Saundra Y. McGuire, PAESMEM 2006

Dr. Saundra Y. McGuire, associate dean for the University College at Louisiana State University, has been mentoring students since she was a teaching assistant (TA) in her first year of graduate school. As a TA for an introductory chemistry course, she helped her students develop a conceptual framework for the material. Since then, her 35-year academic career has been focused on mentoring as well as teaching mentoring skills to others. McGuire has authored at least five publications on mentoring minority students in science, and has presented those papers at a variety of Chemical and Physics society conferences.

Dr. Jesse Nicholson, PAESMEM 1998

During his 32-year tenure at Howard University, Dr. Jesse Nicholson served as advisor to 14 doctoral students, nine master's degree students and countless undergraduates. Under Nicholson's stewardship there was a 100 percent increase in total enrollment in Howard's chemistry program and in the number of students pursuing doctoral degrees in chemistry. The program annually produces 20-25 percent of the nation's African American Ph.D.’s in chemistry. Nicholson also collaborates in a pre-college program that allows high school students to experience hands-on scientific research in Howard’s laboratories.