Scientist Profiles: Dr. Martin Mulvihill

BCGC - Marty MulvihillDr. Martin Mulvihill received his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in 2009. From 2009 to 2010, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where his work under Taleb Mokari and Jiamin Wan focused on predicting the stability and mobility of nanomaterials after their release into soils and groundwater. He joined the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry in 2010 and in 2011 he became the Executive Director.

Before your career as a scientist, how did you become passionate about chemistry?

Growing up, I loved the natural world. I went on many outdoor trips with my father, and he introduced me to geology and taught me to observe the world around us. I was always curious, doing things like pricking my finger just to look at blood under a microscope. This curiosity and love for nature initially got me interested in biology as an undergraduate student at Reed College. Along the way, I became captivated by the problem solving aspect of organic chemistry classes. It was enjoyable to the point where I thought that it would be more fun if crosswords in newspapers were replaced with organic chemistry problems, though that’s probably not a popular opinion [laughs]. Anyway, from that point forward I pursued chemistry.

During college I had an opportunity to work at IBM, where my research focused on building microchips. This experience made me realize that I really enjoyed the connection between making materials and using them. I was interested in the applied side of science: not only to make something that has never been made before, but to also use it to do something useful. This motivated many of my research projects afterwards. As an example, one of my projects as a graduate student was using nanoparticles as sensors for arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

How did you transition into green chemistry?

I actually never knew much about green chemistry until around my 3rd year of graduate school. It was never part of any curricula throughout my science education. On a friend’s recommendation, I read Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by Michael Braungart. It really made me realize how chemistry and materials science can have a positive influence on sustainability and the environment. After all, I got into science because of my love for the outdoors, but as a chemical researcher I felt separated from any environmental impact. Reading that book really made me fall in love with chemistry a second time, which is pretty useful during your 3rd or 4th year of graduate school [laughs].

What led up to your involvement with the Berkeley Center of Green Chemistry?

As a graduate student, I formed a group called Chemists for Peace. It was mostly me and my friends in the department, and our focus was discussing the interface between science and society. It was a good group in principle, but our goals were very broad and ultimately we weren’t able to accomplish much. After reading Cradle to Cradle, I really started thinking about how chemists have something very concrete to contribute to society. So, I got some funding to start a green chemistry seminar series in UC Berkeley. The series invited people not just from the chemistry world, but also toxicologists, businessmen, engineers, and many other disciplines. This collaborative program was one of the inspirations for the original founding of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry.

Can you describe the initial activities of the BCGC?

The first one or two years were mainly focused on curriculum development in the undergraduate introductory laboratory and the creation of a graduate research program. We wanted to create something interdisciplinary, and the biggest challenge with that was understanding how chemistry interfaces with other subjects. Developing trust and understanding between people from completely different fields was something we knew we had to work on. So with that in mind, the first graduate class we were able to organize for green chemistry had 7 different co-instructors! It was a great opportunity to get to know what everyone else did and how it made an impact. Teaching a class together really built the trust and understanding between us and opened the doors to future collaborations. Once we could find good overlap between our research interests, then we could really talk on the same page and work together.

What have been your greatest successes with this program?

The curricula we developed have definitely been our largest successes thus far. We also actively participated in remodeling undergraduate labs. By introducing green chemistry principles into those labs, we’re really able to affect a lot of the students going through the Berkeley chemistry education. The most exciting things that we’re starting to see are new graduate student-led projects and collaborations. We’re still in the early days of these projects, but the students are already doing work that couldn’t possibly be done by one person in a single discipline. This wouldn’t have been possible without the interdisciplinary foundation and connections that we’re providing to students. In the next few years, we’re hoping to see more such collaborations and expand our partnership beyond campus walls, to other institutes and even startups. That’s more of a 5 year plan, though.

What advice to you have for other scientists seeking to start an organization?

Start small and demonstrate early success. Don’t worry about doing everything perfectly and laying out sweeping, ambitious goals right from the start. Don’t worry about expanding too quickly either; a lot of my student work never had more than 4-6 dedicated people helping out, so a small focused group of people can definitely be really powerful. My other piece of advice would be to take risks and work outside of your comfort zone. The reality of making a difference in society is that we need to get better at interfacing with people who think differently than we do. Learn to communicate and share your results in many different forms. Take what makes you excited and share it with the outside world!

Thank you so much for your time, Marty!

Contributed by Michael Nechayev 

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