Background in Sustainable Science or Engineering: Not a Prerequisite

Editor’s Note: Here’s NESSE’s Co-Executive Director, Natalie O’Neil to share with us her NESSE story. With upcoming elections she wants to be clear that passion and a desire to make a change in the system is all you need to be a NESSE member and effective board member.

I became a science major to “change the world”—as Bill Nye once said. I am now an Inorganic Chemistry Ph.D. candidate at the University at Albany. However, it wasn’t until 2015, far into my graduate studies, that I realized (naive of me, I know) that something was missing from my science education and research experience. I had come to the realization that the methods of my research were inherently not environmentally friendly (as is consistently the case) and that I had no knowledge on how to change that (which most students don’t as toxicology and environmental chemistry are not currently required for a chemistry degree by most universities). I realized that I had no idea of the environmental impacts my research could be making and to me not knowing seemed unacceptable. I have always been an environmentally-conscious person; however, it did not strike me that I wasn’t including this aspect into my research or future career plans. Struggling with the amounts of harmful chemicals my research consumed – and the inevitable waste it produced – I set out to find a connection between chemistry and sustainability.

I began researching sustainable science and discovered green chemistry through Beyond Benign, who recommended I check out the Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists & Engineers (NESSE). Wanting to engage more I applied for NESSE’s mentorship program. I learned that anyone can become a green chemist. That green chemistry isn’t a new field, it is chemistry done with the forethought of sustainability (considering social, economic and environmental impacts). My mentor, Cliff Coss, recommended I read Green Chemistry Theory and Practice by Paul T. Anastas and John Warner. I have never read a book in one sitting or had a book speak to me so much, and wondered why all chemists were not working within this book’s mindframe.

“It is no more excusable for a fireman not to know that a fire burns, or a chef not to know a knife cuts, than for a chemists not to know the character of the tools of their trade.” – John Warner & Paul Anastas

After reading about the 12 principles of green chemistry developed by Anastas and Warner I made an effort to make changes in my research practices—as well as the practices of my other peers. The Office of Environmental Sustainability at the University at Albany, had an Innovation Grant program that allowed me to attend a Green Chemistry Symposium at the University of Toronto (UofT), organized by the Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI), a NESSE sustainable science group. At UofT I learned a lot about green chemistry and how it is used in industry. I walked away inspired by the work of the graduate students of the GCI and was determined to follow suit in some way!

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Photo from the GCI 2016 Symposium Innovations in Chemistry Towards Sustainable Urban Living.

The NESSE elections opened that June (2015) and I ran for the Director of Marketing and Communications role. At the time I didn’t have experience in social media, tweeting to me was sound a bird made and WordPress (huh?) I had never used. But I was committed to sharing the great information and resources that NESSE had to offer me with as many early career scientists and engineers. I met the board of directors in Rhode Island for a three day strategic planning retreat and the optimism of the directors fueled my drive even more. With the help of the director that was stepping down, I learned my role and where there is a will there is a way!

Picture1Photos from NESSE’s first strategic planning retreat in 2015.Left- Plans for the year written on the widow with a view, many of these plans materialized or are now in action! Right-The current (Jennie, Norman and I) and now past (Laura and Anna) directors who attended the planning retreat!

Two years later and a ton of experience under my belt, I stand as the co-executive director of an organization that has given me so many experiences and exposed me to opportunities I would have never had without getting involved in NESSE. Just a few examples are the ACS Green Chemistry Summer School in 2016, traveling to Paris to be a part of the Future Earth working group of the Early Career Researchers Network of Networks (ECR NoN) and London for the Science for Sustainable Development: Early Career Leaders Day in Fall 2017. At all of these events I met amazing early career scientists and learned that our generation is really setting a new path for the future.

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Photos from all events mentioned above! Top left- ACS summer school class. Top right- Future Earth working group of the ECR NoN. Middle left-photos of the fun had at the ACS summer school! Middle right-Getting to meet the directors in London! Bottom row- photos from the Early Career Leaders Day at the Burlington house in London.

The knowledge I have gained from working with the board is invaluable, ranging from science communication (blog posts, social media crowdfunding campaign) to organizational structure (international organization procedures, 501 c3 status) and much more. NESSE is truly an organization run for its members by its members and is always open to finding, running and promoting any sort of initiative its members want to help undertake. This grassroots friendly approach is what I love about NESSE.

I share my NESSE story in the hopes that you, the reader, will see that no experience is needed when it comes to adding sustainability to whatever field you are in. What it takes is the passion to make a difference, in your career, in your field and finding the resources you need, which are out there (you are not alone, trust me) it just might take some digging! NESSE’s aim is to be the facilitator of this process, it was for me and it can be for you! If we as early career individuals ban together across all fields (social, physical and life science) than we can tackle the global environmental and energy challenges facing us. We need a multifaceted approach for the myriad of challenges which means we need all backgrounds to come to the table to find viable solutions for a sustainable future for all.

I urge you to engage with the network, consider a volunteer opportunity or even run for one of our open director positions for the upcoming 2017 election you never know where it might take you or what doors it will open that you never knew were possible! If you have questions about getting involved with NESSE or about one of the director positions please contact me at natalie.oneil@sustainablescientists.org.