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ACS Student Chapter, Department Leaders Make Campus Green

By Bradi Zapata

Each day, the Cal State San Marcos community adapts their behaviors and makes conscientious decisions to reverse human impacts on climate change, the carbon cycle and their ecological footprint. One of these efforts has been slow to gain momentum among higher education institutions but is actually integral to each campus’ longevity.  

Green chemistry is the design or creation of chemical products and processes that reduce and eliminate the generation of waste and/or use of hazardous substances. This responsible approach to chemistry reduces the chemical footprint by utilizing methods that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly.  

“We have something that's going to save us, but if the production of this material will harm us, then it actually doesn't do an overall good for the environment,” said Robert Iafe, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “We have a choice to not use carcinogens in a synthetic method; we have a choice not to make compounds that could be released downstream; we have a choice to not release something into the environment that could later cause harm.” 

While green chemistry principles can substantially help the environment, they’re not widely known or accepted because they’re frequently thought of as a side discipline. The American Chemical Society (ACS) Student Chapter at CSUSM, however, is changing this narrative.  

During the fall 2022 semester, members of the ACS Student Chapter had their minds set on increasing green chemistry recognition and practices. In January, they were recognized by Beyond Benign’s program for minority serving higher-education institutions’ (MSI) ACS Student Chapters.  

Beyond Benign is a public charity organization that equips MSIs with the “tools, training and support to make green chemistry an integral part of chemistry education” with the intent to ensure the next generation of chemists and scientists are prepared to address sustainability globally. 

“I think this is really the direction where chemistry should be heading in the future because green chemistry addresses several major issues, like pollution, environmental racism and sustainability,” said Gabby Martinez, a senior chemistry major and president of the institution’s ACS Student Chapter.  

“Chemistry is beautiful in terms of how powerful its applications are because the knowledge of science can help people better their lives. Students are the catalysts for change on campus, and that’s really empowering.” 

ACS has already started making changes, bringing Beyond Benign representatives to campus to share insight with students. In the future, ACS plans to host a green chemistry summit, with hopes of having John Warner, one of the founders of the field, as the host. This summit will hopefully bring together campus leaders, students, CSUSM deans, and even local colleges to discuss what green chemistry is, what efforts will help fulfill goals, and which changes are urgently needed. Their efforts last year also led the organization to being recognized as an Outstanding Student Chapter nationally. 

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is also continuing to explore approaches to green chemistry within the curriculum. Leaders within the department are frequently making innovative efforts to replace reagents to be more “green” while still producing the same result. This is especially true in CHEM 150, CHEM 201 and the biochemistry laboratories. 

Students are encouraged to participate in problem solving, where they find solutions to large issues, such as their need to use plastic within labs. But the solution, switching to reusable containers, raises another problem: Reusable containers must be frequently washed, and the overuse of water is a large concern with California in a drought. 

“I see potential to use (concerns within the classroom) as a way to teach students how to think about the problems of the world and how to use chemistry to solve them,” said Sajith Jayasinghe, department chair of chemistry and biochemistry. “This generation (of students) really cares about (using innovation to tackle) these big issues.”

These mindsets and practices align with Beyond Benign’s Green Chemistry Commitment, which states that the university agrees with the Green Chemistry Student Learning Objectives. CSUSM was the first California State University school to sign the agreement

In the future, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry plans to continue fulfilling this agreement by soon adding a green chemistry or environmental chemistry minor, which would include courses in toxicology and green chemistry. Such an addition would make graduates highly marketable, as few local programs offer these specializations, particularly in green chemistry.  

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