The newly inaugurated Biden Administration has made it clear – combatting climate change and protecting the environment are among top priorities. Now, Prairie View A&M University’s (PVAMU) Department of Chemistry will also be a bit greener after signing on to the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC), a program spearheaded by sustainable-science consortium Beyond Benign. The pilot project aims to provide students with skills they will need to reduce environmental hazards and promote sustainability in a way that crosses scientific disciplines.
Beyond Benign defines green chemistry as “the design of chemical products and processes that generate the least amount of harm and waste possible while maintaining excellent quality.”
PVAMU joins the ranks of recent academic cosigners such as the University of Minnesota, University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Santa Barbara, and Michigan State University. However, PVAMU is the first historically black college/university (HBCU) to join the effort. Since GCC’s inception, the program has attracted 70 institutions, reaching more than 1,300 faculty members.
Building on Top of a PVAMU Foundation
“Before the Commitment, we already had people who were invested in doing green chemistry from the get-go,” said PVAMU Assistant Chemistry Professor Andrea Ashley-Oyewole,/ Ph.D. “Many of our faculty members were already doing sustainable chemistry-based types of research even before that,” she added. Ashley-Oyewole is leading the GCC effort as a university liaison with Beyond Benign.
“Now, becoming official partners with Beyond Benign helps us as a department to broadcast that we believe in and promote multidisciplinary areas of study.”
Ashley-Oyewole also sees the program as an opportunity to recruit students who might not otherwise be attracted to conventional chemistry majors.
“It makes them visualize chemistry in terms of tangible areas where their degrees can lead to jobs that will pay well,” she said. “I always like to tell them chemistry is the foundation of science – everything is central to [chemistry].”
She added that, as a graduate of PVAMU, she holds a special affinity for the program since she studied chemistry and worked on environmental science-based projects more than 20 years ago when there was no official environmental chemistry major in her field.
“Even though we didn’t have any [official program], I’ve always wanted to do this,” said Ashley-Oyewole, who graduated from PVAMU in 1993 and 1996 with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemistry.
The GCC launched through a partnership between Beyond Benign and Dow in early 2020. The corporation pledged to provide financial and volunteer support.
“Our chemistry department is a signer of the Green Chemistry Commitment,” a departmental statement noted. “This aligns with our partner Dow and their ‘Safe Materials for a Sustainable Planet’ goal and ensures the incoming workforce is prepared to design sustainable materials for the marketplace.”
PVAMU’s green commitment is part of a deeper outreach across departmental lines. The chemistry and chemical engineering departments at the university collaborate to promote green chemistry education and related coursework. Ashley-Oyewole has already created a pilot course, and she will work with Beyond Benign to develop a core curriculum.
“I want to create a curriculum that’s going to be applicable for our students and, at the same time, open doors to our department,” she said. “[Green chemistry] is basically capitalizing upon a foundation that we already had, but now it’s making that more visible.”
Under the program, PVAMU’s chemistry department will continue to drive a robust pursuit of research projects focused on green chemistry topics, as well as transitioning the name of the Chemistry Club to the Green Chemistry Club.
Plans are also in the works to develop new courses in cosmetic, environmental, and polymer chemistry. Established courses, such as general inorganic and organic chemistry, will incorporate other GCC green student learning objectives.
‘Off and Running’
Beyond Benign commended PVAMU’s chemistry department for implementing the program despite COVID-related obstacles:
“PVAMU joined the Commitment in June 2020, and despite the ever-changing and challenging times in higher education due to the ongoing pandemic, they are off and running with their Commitment to green chemistry education.”
Several PVAMU professors are already conducting research across an array of green topics, including:
- Anada Amarasekara, Ph.D., Conversion of Lignocellulosic Biomass to Renewable Fuels and Plastics
- Marco Giles, Ph.D., Redox-active and Bio-Reducible Dendrimers and Natural Products
- Yuemin Liu, Ph.D., Quantum Mechanical Calculations for Covid-19 Related Interactions between Monoclonal Antibodies and Spec-glycoproteins
- Matthew Minus, Ph.D., Addressing Plastic Pollution Crisis with Dynamic Covalent Plastics (DCPLs)
Ashley-Oyewole is looking into Trace Metal Remediation from Wastewater Using Spent Coffee Grounds.
“The work is exciting because it is interesting first and foremost,” Ashley-Oyewole said of her research. “Secondly, it has the potential to provide actual data and impact the lives of real people. Water scarcity is a significant problem for many communities worldwide. This research can make the difference between life and death for many of the world’s poor,” she added. “The additional benefit is that this project is perfectly aligned with our Green Chemistry transform here on campus. For the most part, green chemistry prevents harm to the environment and uses renewable feedstocks like spent coffee grounds that are widely available and degrade easily.”
Making the Connection
As the green chemistry program blossoms at PVAMU, Ashley-Oyewole sees the program bridging the gap between biology and chemistry while helping some students become more comfortable with the more daunting aspects of chemistry.
“By offering alternatives to just the ordinary chemistry degree, we show students that chemistry doesn’t have to be so frightening. Green chemistry allows them to feel that comfort and still persevere,” she said.