Scientist Profiles: Professor Terry Collins

collins-2011-381Professor Terry Collins has been developing the interface of chemistry and sustainability since before green chemistry was a recognized discipline. Professor Collins earned his doctorate from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and conducted postdoctoral studies at Stanford University.  He taught first at Caltech and joined the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in 1987. He started teaching green chemistry in 1992, creating the first such course by many years. Recognized internationally for both his research on TAML activators and his green chemistry education and public speaking on the chemical dimension of sustainability, Professor Collins continues to champion the cause of sustainability. He sat down with us to discuss how he got to where he is today, and the need for young researchers to actively pursue green science.

How would you describe your role at Carnegie Mellon?

I direct the Institute for Green Science, which is relatively small, but a very potent institute. We work on education, thinking about the intersection between chemistry and sustainability. We perform research in chemistry that is aimed at improving the environment, all of which is based on my TAML® activators, the first small-molecule mimics of oxidizing enzymes which arguably outperform the large biomolecules that they mimic while being less than 1% the size. We’re able to use those to decompose pollutants and do other oxidation processes, which gives us an extremely rich project space.

The third thing I focus on is trying to understand how to create a great sustainable university. We don’t have a great one anywhere yet. When I looked around when I first got to Carnegie Mellon, I thought it would be a relatively easy thing to do, but it turns out it’s not that easy. Sustainability is about bridging disciplines, and there’s no good classical funding mechanism for doing this. We’ve had to get very creative in terms of funding the kinds of activities that I’m convinced are essential to a good future for humanity.

I work on the bigger picture with other people who want to work on it, and what that does is take you out of the drillholes of chemistry and brings you into close contact with people in other drillholes. I’ve shifted my peer space from chemistry to fields like environmental health and sciences, strategic sustainability leadership, water science writ large.

My vision is very expansive. We’re really just getting going, despite some considerable accomplishments to be pleased about. In short, my role is to do everything in my power to highlight to my generation and to the younger generation that things are going to have to change if we’re to have a sustainable society.

When you first came to CMU, did you intend to take up such a multi-faceted role? Did you start out working just on green chemical research?

I came here to build up CMU’s chemistry department, and spent many years working on that. The project I started on in 1980 and have pursued ever since was actually green chemistry, I just didn’t know it was called that because the field didn’t exist at the time. In 1991, the EPA put out what was maybe the first conscious call for proposals in green chemistry, and we fit into that field. We’ve gone on to build and expand that field.

I think there is a lot more to do in that sense. The current body of green R&D is almost exclusively concerned with what goes into reaction vessels, what goes on in reaction vessels, and what comes out of reaction vessels—i.e. the development of clean reaction processes. The world-saving spaces where chemicals are concerned are energy and toxics, so we need to come up to speed on those as quickly as possible. If we don’t solve those problems, it doesn’t matter what we do with cleaning up reactions.

How did you get into green chemistry initially? Was it endocrine disruptors that got you interested in water purification?

Endocrine disruptors weren’t publicly recognized until 1991. I actually started out trying to develop a technology to disinfect water that was not chlorine-based in 1980. The idea was that if you could cheaply and effectively kill microbes with an oxygen-based technology, you would change water treatment and have a really positive effect on human health. I needed a goal like that to sustain me in my career, because as much as I love chemistry, at the end of the day it’s all about digging down into the details.

I got into green chemistry because if one can work on problems of great significance, why not? Why work on problems that you can’t convince yourself are great problems? You can say “Well, maybe I’ll discover something,” but in my experience it helps to actually focus on things that you know are great challenges.

So you started out chasing what we now call TAML activators, and then transitioned from this focused, applied research to a big-picture view of sustainability?

TAML activators actually started out as a design protocol I invented, and you had to have faith that you could produce small-molecule mimics of very large oxidizing enzymes by following this protocol. We had to do that for 15 years to eventually get to what are very simple, but highly designed TAML-activators. I started teaching green chemistry in 1992 because it just made sense to try to do this. Once we had the prototype catalyst, then we had an almost infinite landscape to look into how they work and their potential applications.

That’s what my group does: design, mechanism, and applications. I initially wanted to model those catalysts for the purpose of disinfecting water. The way you would frame the problem in the 1980’s is that you wouldn’t talk about cleaning water; you would talk about how cool the catalyst would be, because “applied” research was frowned upon by the power structure of the day. But as it’s turned out, today we can do whatever we want, and everyone is happy.

You mentioned that building a sustainable university proved to be more difficult than you anticipated. In what way?

It takes more than a course or two in chemistry for young students to come out of university with their brains configured to push the world towards sustainability. It takes a general conceptual understanding of what has to be done in all disciplines. That’s the hard part: to penetrate existing structures and get past the drive for money to get people to pursue sustainability. Basically, academics are trained to chase money, and most money today is generated by unsustainable technologies. How can university leaders resist the political pressure to improve old products and processes that can never be sustainable, and focus on finding the funding required to create entirely new ones?

Change is painful, and getting to sustainability requires a lot of change. That requires great career risks. However, I am very optimistic. Every essay I grade in my Chemistry and Sustainability class shows me that the brilliant young people who come to Carnegie Mellon University are, on the doorsteps of of their careers, enormously good-willed and open-minded. They easily understand the need to move toward more sustainable products and processes, and it moves them profoundly, which is beautiful.

What advice do you have for aspiring sustainable scientists, particularly in academia? How does one begin a career in green chemistry?

There are only a few powerful scientific places in green chemistry at the moment. It’s hard for me to say “go here” or “go there” for a green education. Considerable changes in the classical funding system are needed for sustainability to be effectively taught and perfected in universities; the current system has enormous inertia, making it nearly impossible to get grant funding for disruptive technologies and points of view. Sustainability for chemists is a steel-reinforced test of character. You have to remember to do the right thing regardless of what classical peer groups think.

There are many more researchers interested in sustainability in the younger generation than there are in the incumbent generation. In many ways, the young people need to lead the older generation in the right direction.

Thanks for talking to us, Terry!

Suggested reading:

Collins, T. J. Towards sustainable chemistry, Science2001291, 48

Collins, T.J., Introducing Green Chemistry in Teaching and Research. J. Chem. Ed., 1995, 72, 965–966.

Collins, T.J., Green Chemistry, Macmillan Encyclopedia of Chemistry. Simon and Schuster, 1997, New York, pp. 691–697

Jonas, Hans. The imperative of responsibility: in search of an ethics for the technological age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.

Markowitz, Gerald E., and David Rosner. Deceit and denial: the deadly politics of industrial pollution. Berkeley, Calif. London: University of California Press, 2003. Print.

contributed by Anna Ivanova

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