Sustainable Chemistry Program a First in Canada

McMaster University has announced a new honours sustainable chemistry program that the university says is the first of its kind in Canada.

The program, which starts in the fall, expands on the university’s pre-existing minor in sustainability and will examine traditional chemistry through the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

Michael Brook, the Faculty of Science chair in sustainable silicone polymers at McMaster, said he was inspired to create the program after listening to a lecture in 2017 by American chemist John Warner, a founder of the field of green chemistry who codified the 12 principles.

“Warner basically laid out for chemists what Rachel Carson laid out in Silent Spring where if we pollute the earth all of a sudden, in spring, there will be no more sounds of birds and insects because they’re all going to be dead,” Brook said. 

“It’s one of those examples where when you listen to someone who’s making such sense, and has thought about [green chemistry] so clearly, you go, ‘What the hell are we doing?’” Brook said.

Paul Harrison, an associate professor and chair in the department of chemistry, said the program responds to concerns raised by McMaster faculty members about the negative perception of chemistry.

“Chemistry doesn’t have the image that it should have. It really has that image of pollution, nasty toxic streams running off into otherwise pristine lakes and clouds of stuff being chucked out of chimneys,” Harrison said. “You’re not going to be able to fix these problems unless you apply at least, in part, [green] chemistry principles.”

The program will emphasize an inquiry-based and experiential approach to learning and researching chemistry. Students interested in experimental work will also have access to McMaster’s laboratories. 

Brook said the program will have group elements, with students being challenged to brainstorm and design products together that are sustainable and satisfy specific needs, such as eco-friendly bread tags.

“It’s a single-use plastic that has no merit whatsoever,“ Brook said. “What single-use plastic could we replace with a multi-use or a self-degrading polymer for the same price?”

While the demand for sustainable chemists is limited because of the program’s novelty, Brook and Harrison agreed the job market for students with sustainable science backgrounds will expand as more companies are pushed by governments to create sustainable products.

“I think there’s going to be lots of opportunities for people with a chemistry skill set to get hired in a variety of different companies that are going to want or be deemed to have sustainability as part of their core objectives—to either survive or to make money or both,” Brook said.

According to Harrison, the program offers flexibility by requiring fewer mandatory courses than a traditional chemistry program. Alongside their chemistry courses, Harrison said students can select courses on sustainability or environmental science.

“For example, if you don’t like chemistry labs or didn’t want to take some subdiscipline of chemistry, you wouldn’t have to. That’s the built-in design of the program,” Harrison said.

Harrison also said the program’s flexibility can serve as a foundation for students looking to pursue graduate studies instead of employment.

“We designed this program to prepare [students] for the job market after graduation with a bachelor’s degree,” Harrison said. “But what we also know, in terms of career opportunities, is that this is still a quality program that can lead to professional schools. If you wanted to go into a graduate program in chemistry, there would be nothing stopping you.” 

Because of online learning, Brook said advertising the program has been challenging as it would typically involve attending first-year classes and discussing the program with students in-person. However, Brook said he still expects a first cohort of 15 to 20 students, which he said will allow the program to develop and grow.

Celina Fu, a first-year life sciences student at McMaster, recently applied to the new program after researching programs focused on sustainability. Fu said the ethical considerations of green chemistry are significant. 

“I think it is important to learn [green chemistry] because you don’t have any other choice. You only have so many resources, right?” Fu said. “You have to be aware that you don’t exist in a silo, you exist on the planet with everyone else. So you have to care.”
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McMaster University - Faculty of Science | Chemistry & Chemical Biology