Scientist Profiles: Dr. Amy Cannon

Editor’s Note: NESSE member Roberto Federico-Perez interviews Dr. Amy Cannon. Amy is the Executive Director of the Beyond Benign, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable science through education for the next generation of scientists. She holds the worlds’ first PhD in green chemistry from the University of Massachusetts. She was awarded the Kenneth G. Hancock Memorial Award in Green Chemistry in 2004 for her work on titanium dioxide semiconductors and their application in dye-sensitized solar cells. Her interests are in green chemistry education and research around safer green chemistry alternative technologies.

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How did you first become interested in the field of green chemistry and sustainability in general?

It probably was in the 8th grade. My school had an Earth Day fair and students were invited to put together an information booth. I decided to talk about ozone depletion. It was the first time that I started to learn about environmental issues and the challenges that we faced in terms of sustainability. It really opened my eyes and from that day on I knew ‘I wanted to save the world’, although I had no idea what that meant at the time.

I was always interested in environmental issues and science, but when I went to college I chose chemistry. There was no environmental science major in my college at that time. Looking back, I’m glad it was not available. Being a chemistry major was a pivotal point. Had I not gone in that direction I would have probably not come to green chemistry, from which I learned about only until I got into graduate school. Because of my background, I was looking what I could do with chemistry in the environmental field and I got into a program at UMass Boston. I was assigned to Dr. John Warner as an advisor and that was the first time I heard about green chemistry. Once I learned about this new field I remember being so inspired and thinking ‘this is what I was looking for’. I was excited about the opportunities and the thought of chemistry being the solution and not the problem. It shifted my focus and made me think that I could use my skills to create something that would solve these problems.

You were the first person to complete a green chemistry PhD at UMass Boston. This is a unique program in the country in terms of having a track focused on this field. How has it grown since you have graduated?

When I first got into the program they only had a Master’s available. Once I learned about what green chemistry was I quickly changed my major to chemistry. Most of the students at the time were working professionals who dedicated evenings to getting their degree. We saw that as an opportunity to have a PhD program at the chemistry department, since the Master’s existed only in collaboration with other departments. I was the first one to graduate with a PhD in green chemistry, and since I helped to originally integrate the program for the first time, it took a couple more years for more graduates to get through it. Now I believe there have been about 20 to 30 people that have completed it. A couple of them actually work here at the Warner-Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry.

What is the work that Beyond Benign does to promote green chemistry?

Our mission is to transform chemistry education to better support scientists and citizens. We intend to transition education towards green chemistry so that students who come out of these academic institutions are better prepared to design greener alternatives. We know that not everybody will become a chemist. However, they will all become consumers and we also want them to be prepared to make better choices. We do this from K-12 through higher education, and we have different programming depending on the educational level.

What kind of strategies do you implement specifically for K-12 education?

K-12 involves three different levels: elementary, middle, and high school. The bulk of our work throughout the history of our organization has been at the high school level. The high school stage is particularly relevant because we have to tie our activities to state and national standards. We have available in our portfolio three different kinds of curriculum for high school teachers. What teachers are most interested in are the drop-in replacement labs, which give some context about green chemistry, but can also remove some of the current hazards that you can find in teaching labs. They are convenient because they adapt into the existing curriculum: you can still show the same concepts and be subject to the same standards, but you can drop them right in. Teachers really like them because they can easily fit them into their program.

The statistics show that if students do not have a positive view about science before the 8th grade, they will not pursue it in college. This is why we regard earlier years as critical too. Middle school level is exciting for us because it has more opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. Therefore, it allows us to provide more context. At the elementary level, much of the focus is on reading, writing, and math. We actually just received news that we are getting funding to develop elementary level curriculum. Our development will include those disciplines, and we also want to integrate other elements such as art as a platform for communicating science.

Have you faced any challenges regarding teachers’ willingness to incorporate this approach into their instruction?

What we actually see is a lot of interest from teachers, derived mainly from three different reasons. The first one is the fact that they are able to remove hazards from the classroom. Second, it is a low-budget approach that does not require special equipment. Three is the ability to provide context. We are always developing new experiments and we collaborate with partners to do so. A recent example of this is the development of three different modules based on greener technology by Steelcase, an office furniture manufacturer that we collaborated with. This gives us a chance to talk about the cutting-edge technology in sustainability that is coming out from industry, and that can go back to the classroom to illustrate an abstract concept for students.

We actually just launched this summer a program called Lead Teachers. We are bringing ten teachers a year that will work with us on a three-year basis. The idea is that they will be our voices on the ground and lead the green chemistry classroom experience in their regions. Our first cohort consists of teachers from the Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, and Toronto areas. We are now focusing on these areas, but our goal is to bring in teachers from all regions in the United States and even beyond.

You mentioned expansion to other countries as an opportunity for the program. Has Beyond Benign done any worked involving other countries and educational systems? If so, what are some of the differences when compared to the approach taken in the US?

We have done some work in the past. Early on we had funding from Pfizer to make adaptations to our curriculum. We have a version in Spanish and also an Australian version. Even though the latter is also in English, it does require revisions due to the different cultural nuances between countries. We have also done teacher trainings in Germany, the UK, Australia, and Puerto Rico. We have worked in India, and some of the differences between our educational systems were reflected in this case. For instance, in the US, teachers have more flexibility to apply different techniques in the classroom as long as concepts comply with standards. In the case of India, the infrastructure is set up in a top-down approach, where changes come down to teachers through the system. Therefore, the challenge in this case has involved working with both educators and administrators, and getting to the right people.

At the higher education level, Beyond Benign is one of the partners of the Green Chemistry Commitment, which brings together efforts of colleges and universities towards sustainability in this area. How did this idea start and what are its goals?

We had this idea that originated when I was at a conference with Anthony Cortese, who helped create the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. He was in a panel with me and talked about that program. I looked at it and thought that it was great in the sense that it was a non-regulatory, volunteering approach that was driven by the community. I thought whether we could do something similar with green chemistry. We did not want to have the approach of saying ‘this is what you must teach’, but rather to have a way of facilitating change at a departmental level in higher education. There has been so much work done in green chemistry at the individual level since I started in the field. The purpose of the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC) is to shift that work from the individual to the institutional level so that we can create lasting and systemic change. We know that it is not an easy task and we recognize that it is easier to work with individuals. We definitely celebrate those efforts because that is where change starts. But ultimately, the goal is to help a department look at their programs and help modify it across the whole curriculum, so that legacy is left behind. We started with 13 institutions and we are at 33 now. We have experienced at the moment more interest, so we are expecting a larger growth soon with several institutions coming on board. We actually have hired a program manager to help with the GCC.

What do you believe is an area of opportunity in the traditional college curriculum for improvement towards green chemistry?

There has been some wonderful work in the space of organic chemistry labs to implement greener practices. But I think where the field is moving towards is integrating toxicology concepts into chemistry programs and courses. I believe that is a great opportunity because what it provides a chemist with the language to know what questions to ask for. It gives us the skills and knowledge to understand toxicological endpoints and how to use them in our portfolio as molecular designers to reduce hazards for humans and the environment. We have a working toxicology group within the Green Chemistry Commitment program that consists of faculty members and industry professionals. We have been developing workshops and symposia at conferences to talk about this and share different models from people that have incorporated toxicology into their programs. Many times as chemists we do not have the tools to address toxicology due to our training, so there are all kinds of questions that professors might have to incorporate those concepts into the already packed curriculum. We are trying to help address those questions and show faculty where they can start dropping these concepts in.  

I believe it is very empowering as a chemist to be able to look at a structure and draw conclusions about whether it would persist in the environment, or whether it has potential to be a carcinogen. So it is important to know what to look out for when we are designing materials and products. This definitely represents a platform for innovation.