Common sense chemist

Laura Reyes
September/October 2016

U of T PhD candidate Laura Reyes is committed to communicating the virtues­ of green chemistry. 

Innovation in alternative and sustainable energy sources, as well as pollution reduction and greenhouse gas mitigation, are areas of research that commonly fall under the umbrella of green chemistry. Dramatic changes in climate around the world emphasize the need to accelerate such research and one of the key ways of doing this is through data sharing. 

Such information dissemination is one of the main goals of graduate student Laura Reyes, who embarked upon an ambitious green chemistry outreach project one year after beginning her PhD studies at the University of Toronto in 2011. Aided by fellow grad students Laura Hoch and Melanie Mastronardi, Reyes was one of 12 U of T students who created an organization that would help them and other scientists better implement green chemistry principles into their research. “We aimed to fill in our own educational gaps — something we felt was missing from our training and education as chemists,” says Reyes. Thus was born the Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI).

Since its creation, Reyes has acted as GCI co-chair, social media coordinator and secretary, shouldering an array of key communication responsibilities, including internal and external communications and marketing strategies, as well as writing content for GCI’s website and social media platforms. Reyes also helped create a YouTube video series illustrating the 12 principles of green chemistry. 

Reyes has been instrumental in helping organize at least six seminar series a year featuring a variety of speakers. But the biggest and most popular outreach initiative — drawing up to 100 attendees — is an annual symposium involving chemical sector speakers that includes industry representatives all the way to “hard-core” green chemistry academics, Reyes says. “Green chemistry is actually not a discipline; it should just be called common sense chemistry. It’s a set of resources and guidelines that you can apply to your own research as you are able to.” 

Reyes’s interest in green chemistry grew out of her general worldview, rather than her fundamental chemistry bachelor studies, which focused on electrochemistry properties of transition metal complexes with non-innocent ligands.  In her personal life, she was — and continues to be — committed to recycling, buying local and eating ethically sourced meats. She sometimes felt that such things were “separate from chemistry; almost at times like an opposing interest. I had no idea there was a way to tie these interests together,” says Reyes, who is communications officer for the Chemical Institute of Canada Toronto Section as well as an executive-at-large of Women in Chemistry Toronto.

Reyes’s current PhD studies are oriented more towards green chemistry; she is investigating the surface interactions of carbon dioxide and hydrogen on metal oxide nanomaterials for applications in photocatalytic CO2 reduction. (Her supervisor is U of T’s Geoffrey Ozin, considered one of the fathers of nanochemistry.) Reyes’s work involves chemists, chemical engineers and computational chemists and she finds her well-honed communication skills come in handy, making “sure everyone is on the same page and that we all fill in the gaps in our own capabilities.” 

This close amalgamation of research with communications means there is little likelihood that Reyes will end up sequestered in a chemistry lab following graduation. Rather, she sees a future influencing public perceptions and policy and teaching both the science community as well as non-scientists about green chemistry. “It would be great if we built up good habits about what to do in the chemistry labs, even if it’s something like undergrad labs or high school labs teaching proper waste disposal, or just not washing something with a ton of solvent,” Reyes says. “As much as I love chemistry research,” she adds, “during my PhD I learned that my extracurricular interests are really where I want to build a career.”