Scientist Profiles: Professor Robin D. Rogers

Editor’s Note: Dr. Rogers will be speaking at the International Symposium on Green Chemistry 2015 in La Rochelle, France on May 4th, 2015. This symposium brings together scientists from around the world to talk about the past, present, and future of green chemistry. This year’s symposium will feature nine different subfields of green chemistry and promises to be a very educational event! Registration is open here.

Robin RogersDr. Robin D. Rogers is one of the pioneers of the use of ionic liquids in green chemistry. He ranks in the top 1% most-cited chemistry researchers and has published over 750 papers on diverse topics. Currently the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals at McGill University, Dr. Rogers is also Founding Editor-in-Chief of Crystal Growth and Design, an editorial board member at three journals, an advisory board member of three others, a fellow of numerous scientific societies, and an entrepreneur who has started his own company, 525 Solutions. Dr. Rogers spoke with us about his many responsibilities, how to pursue green chemistry, and his excitement for the 2015 International Symposium on Green Chemistry.

How do you balance the responsibilities of your many roles? Which takes up the most time?

To me, everything is one—I’m one person; I have all these things to do and they get done. I don’t like to segment and work one hour on this, and one hour on that. Everything has to be done, and you have to do it 24/7. I try to stay organized and prioritize by the day. I listened to one of those motivational type seminars, where the analogy was the ringing telephone. No matter what you have to do, the telephone will ring and you have to answer it. Today, that’s the incoming e-mail that takes time out of your day for urgent tasks, but everything else still has to get done. To me, it’s all one and I make time to do all the things I’ve chosen to do. The other trick is that if there’s something that’s easy to do, I just do it right away.

Which role takes up the most time? That’s something I don’t ever really think about. Answering email is the one task that takes up the most time. What I like to do in terms of writing papers requires true concentration and shutting off everything else, so drafting papers takes up the largest chunks of time.

Your publishing record is formidable, with 21 patents and over 750 papers and 31,000 citations. Do you have any advice for chemists who want to pursue an influential research career?
In terms of a research career, you have to love it. That’s number one. I don’t think you can consider it to be work. Even today, after 30-some years of being a professor, I talk about going to school, not work. Number two is that success in any field requires dedication and hard work. That fits into the first one—if you love it, you don’t feel like it’s work. A lot of people would spend all their time on their hobbies if they could, because they enjoy them. I enjoy what I do, so if I’m working on weekends, at night, or during holidays, it doesn’t feel like work. You also have to set goals for the future—say next year, what do I want to have accomplished? Where will I be?

If you are an academic, you should be writing the paper from the moment you begin working in the lab—that’s how you design your experiment. The background that led you to the question is the introduction, the lab procedures are the experimental section, and so on. If you write your paper as you do the experiments, your paper is done when the work is done.

What inspired you to found your journal, Crystal Growth & Design? Can you tell us more about that process?

I don’t want to take full credit for founding it; it was an ACS effort and I was selected to be the founding editor. They developed the concept. I got into the editorial arena early as an associate editor of three or four journals over eight to ten years; then I created a concept for a journal called Crystal Engineering. Mike Zaworotko (University of Limerick) and I pitched that concept to Elsevier and they ran that journal for several years. During that time, ACS asked me to be the founding editor of CG&D, and it was a natural progression to me. Service is another part of the research profession; giving back to the community is important.

I had to select an editorial board, topic editors, decide on procedures for how to review papers, solicit authors. It was a lot of work, but it was fun. It was about a year from the time that I was asked until the first publication. We’re continually trying to improve the journal and get more people involved.

Have you noticed any differences in the research climate in Canada as opposed to the U.S.? How would you compare the status of green chemistry between the countries?

I think there are differences. My impression of Canada is that it’s a more traditional academic culture, while most of the U.S. universities have taken on more of a business culture. In the U.S. business culture, you have to get money—you’re always trying to promote your work and bring money in. Universities appreciate research funding because it helps keep the university running. At McGill, I found a highly intellectual academic home; it feels good to me. The academic endeavor for knowledge is valued a lot.

The whole field of green chemistry is more valued in Canada than in the U.S., even though you’re pretty much in the home of green chemistry there in Boston. John Warner, Paul Anastas, and Amy Cannon are all doing great work. However, if you look across the U.S., green chemistry is not well-funded. Medicinal chemistry, organic chemistry, and other traditional fields have established funding sources, but there is no huge funding effort in green chemistry, partially because it is a difficult field to define. Many people in the beginning thought it was more of a philosophical leaning than a hard science, and I think some of that still lingers on. Look at the fields our National Academy of Science members are working in and name me the people who identify themselves with green chemistry. If you go outside of the U.S., there are NAS-level people who are working on green chemistry, because it is a national priority. In Australia, China, and Europe, green chemists are supported by their governments because of the importance of their work to the future of society.

In Canada, to me, McGill is the world leader in green chemistry. I think Canada has done more than any other country in trying to develop this as a research field. At McGill, they not only have the research grants for green chemistry, but they have similar sustainability initiatives in finance and other fields. McGill has consistently made progress in this field—their students, for example, voted to tax themselves to fund sustainability initiatives across the campus. I think that says a lot for what green chemistry means to people in Canada.

Are there any undergraduate or graduate programs that excel at preparing someone for a career in green chemistry?

The state of green chemistry in the U.S. right now is that you have a few people like Terry Collins who are very passionate about the subject, but a few people are not enough. Unless a professor is interested in introducing those concepts in traditional lecture courses, students are not exposed to green chemistry. Almost no schools teach toxicology in a chemistry degree; it’s typically segregated into a different discipline. I look to the ACS to change the standards for accrediting chemistry degrees and then the level of awareness will change.

As for programs that excel at green chemistry education, there’s McGill, of course. University of Oregon has always stood out at the undergraduate level. Berkeley has a center for green chemistry. At the graduate level, you have to look on a professor-by-professor basis. Worldwide, you could consider Monash University, Buxing Han in Beijing, or Walter Leitner at Aachen. UMass Boston has a Ph.D. program in green chemistry now, but the build-up to more widespread adoption will be slow until the elite institutions join in.

Do you think the early-career path to go into industry/entrepreneurship is the same as academia—that is, bachelor’s followed by Ph.D.—or would you recommend something different?

The entrepreneurial route is one of the great ones today, if you want to develop a new technology or start a company. I believe it’s harder to introduce green chemistry at a large company. If you work at Dupont and present an idea, they won’t be interested unless you can guarantee $18 million in profits in one year, but when starting a business, even half a million might be good.

Starting a business doesn’t always require a degree, but if you are developing the sort of technologies that I’m talking about, I would want the person to be technically competent and get the Ph.D. Getting the experience and learning the language and learning how to think and design is important. If you bring your own creativity to that, you will be prepared to do a variety of things after getting a Ph.D. I’ve had Ph.D. students who have gone into law, or gotten MBAs and started their own companies.

A Ph.D. also has more of a ring to it than a master’s when getting venture capital. There’s a lot of funding (the NIH SBIR and STTR grants, for example) for small startups to develop their concepts, and academics refereeing these programs are going to look for degrees. CV, reputation, and education are important there. Once you get one of those grants, VCs will also take you more seriously. I started a small company in Alabama and we got several SBIRs to develop our technology. It was not funded as a green chemistry project, but as a tech that could be useful and could be turned into a business. If you’re going to do green chemistry and want to apply it to society, it’s likely going to be because it does something useful and it’s better than current methods. We don’t define ourselves by green chemistry; we let it guide us.

What will you be talking about at the ISGC 2015?

That’s going to be an interesting meeting. I understand green chemistry in France has really blossomed over the last few years. My talk is about alternative solvent systems and whether they’re green or not. I work with ionic liquids and they’ve been taken to the extreme in both directions—some people say they’re green, some say they’re not. At the ISGC, I’m trying to cover the debate on both sides without assumptions, just looking at the facts. I will try to look at what ionic liquids can do that nothing else can do, and then make a decision about whether it’s worth it or not, based on whether it’s green or sustainable.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, and we look forward to seeing you at the ISGC 2015!

Recommended Reading

Whitesides, G.M. Whitesides’ Group: Writing a Paper, Adv. Mater. 2004, 16, No. 15, 1375-137

contributed by Anna Ivanova