June 12, 2021

ACS Column: Doxsee Gives 15th Annual Green Chemistry Lecture

Dr. Kenneth Doxsee speaks at the Annual Green Chem lecture.

By Anna Kjellson ’20

On Monday, September 25th, Gordon College hosted Dr. Kenneth Doxsee of the University of Oregon as the 15th Annual Distinguished Green Chemistry Lecturer. Green chemistry is that which strives to create chemicals and processes that are safer for human health and the environment.

Dr. Doxsee has been involved in the world of green chemistry for over twenty years. He holds many honors in the field, including the American Chemical Society’s award for Outstanding Contributions to the Incorporation of Sustainability into Chemical Education.

In a talk entitled “Decision Making for Sustainability,” Doxsee spoke to more than just the chemistry majors in the room. His main focus was how to make sustainable choices, which he defined as those that meet current needs without compromising the future.

Doxsee acknowledged the difficulty that comes with decision-making in a world with less and less “black-and-white, binary decisions.” When it comes to sustainability, the energy costs have to be weighed against the environmental costs. “It’s complicated,” Doxsee said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not solvable.”

Decision-making for sustainability is present in many disciplines, continued Doxsee, especially his own. In the chemical industry there are a lot of environmental controls put in place for hazardous materials. These controls exist to avoid contact with dangerous substances and they require protective equipment, expensive lab facilities, and unreasonable exposure to dangerous chemicals. “What other choice could we make?” asked Doxsee.  

He offered a solution at the heart of green chemistry: intrinsically safer chemicals. “Why not teach chemists to consider safer alternatives?”

This responsibility, according to Doxsee, rests upon the shoulders of chemistry educators. “Students choose their field of study,” said Doxsee, “but professors choose lecture material and lab exposure.” Teaching green chemistry is safer, cheaper, and more accessible. It allows students to experience modern chemistry and practice proper technique without the fear of making mistakes or exposing themselves to danger.

One of the main arguments against green chemistry education is that its safety does not properly prepare students for the “real world” of chemical industry, but Doxsee responded to this with a simple question. “Everyone says, ‘[students] have to learn to work with dangerous chemicals’…but do they really?”

Doxsee then discussed his newest challenge: bringing experimental science and science education to people in developing countries, specifically Madagascar. Instead of being discouraged by obstacles, Doxsee learned to recognize limitations, exploit resources and locally relevant materials, and engage local teachers. He admitted that he was stumped at first, wondering how to teach science to people with “nothing.”

However, Doxsee soon realized that “nothing” actually looks like fruits, seeds, and plant extracts that can be used as dyes. “Nothing” looks like toothpick holders, coffee cups, or bottle caps that could be used to hold and mix chemical solutions. “Nothing” looks like custom glassware and metal work created by the local skilled craftsmen. Doxsee has worked with over fifteen developing countries to foster science education in unlikely places; he summed up his experience with one sentence: “It doesn’t have to be in an Erlenmeyer flask to be chemistry.”

Doxsee returned to the idea of decision-making in his closing remarks. He stressed the importance of choices, who they will impact, and the role education plays in sustainability.  

“We’re not just educating the chemists,” said Doxsee. “We’re educating the people who will live in a chemically-influenced world.”

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