Meet the ACS Division of Environmental Chemistry

ENVR at meeting
American Chemical Society Division of Environmental Chemistry (ENVR)

By age 10, Sherine Obare knew how to filter the water in her family’s home. She was living in Oman in the late 1980s. Water was scarce and what water was available wasn’t safe to drink until she poured it through the long tube of a purification system. As the child of a diplomat, Obare valued the cultural experiences she gained living abroad in Oman, as well as Tanzania, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and Egypt. But she couldn’t help but notice the severe environmental degradation in many of the places she called home. She remembers thinking, “Oh my gosh, we gotta do better.”

Today, Obare tackles environmental challenges as dean of the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a collaboration between the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her work focuses on developing nanomaterials that can sense, extract, or break down pollutants. She has designed, for example, metallic nanoparticles that reflect different colors when in contact with different pesticides.

Image of Sherine Obare
Sherine Obare, chair of the American Chemical Society Division of Environmental Chemistry (ENVR)

Obare is also chair of the American Chemical Society Division of Environmental Chemistry (ENVR), a community of chemists researching ways to right environmental wrongs like the pollution she experienced as a child. From water quality to climate change, ENVR chemists are on the front lines of many of the most pressing environmental issues of the day. 

“We definitely need more people who are interested in doing work related to environmental science or environmental engineering,” says Obare.

You may still be trying to figure out what path in chemistry you want to take. But if you are interested in research that generates creative solutions to environmental problems, you might want to get to know ENVR! 

Learning and building networks

Although there are many occupations within the environmental chemistry field, ENVR members are typically researchers in academia, government, or industry tackling everything from how to make vehicles more fuel efficient to how to manufacture personal care products more sustainably. The work of ENVR members is united by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set forth by the United Nations in 2015, says Obare. “[Releasing these goals] really helped push individuals to think more critically about how we think together to solve these particular problems.”   

Students at ENVR poster session during an ACS meeting
Students learning and networking during an ACS ENVR poster session.

A great place to start to learn more about the many environmental chemistry research areas is by checking out ENVR symposia at ACS technical meetings. Chemistry professor and ENVR member Mark Benvenuto of the University of Detroit Mercy says that attending meetings and connecting with other ENVR members raises his “depth and breadth of environmental awareness.” He’s been amazed over the years by the creative innovations he learns about through ENVR, and it inspires him to push the limits in his own work developing long, waxy molecules as inexpensive tools for extracting pollutant ions from water.

ENVR symposia can be your window into the latest breakthroughs in the field too. But remember that some of the best learning happens during breaks between sessions when you network with other attendees. “Building your network in your field is critical to your professional success as it allows you to build projects together and to contribute to innovations,” says Obare. 

You might find yourself sitting next to someone whose earlier talk truly inspired you or standing beside a graduate student while waiting for coffee whose name tag lists a school you may like to attend someday. Say hello and share your interest. A friendly interaction could lead to valuable information now and lead to career opportunities later.

But you don’t need to wait for chance encounters. Alec Kramer, a rising fourth-year student at Baylor University in Waco, TX, is majoring in science research and plans to pursue a master’s in public health followed by a PhD or medical degree. He’s looking forward to attending the ACS Fall 2022 meeting in Chicago, IL, to connect with ENVR members whose labs he may be interested in joining. Once the meeting program is posted, he’ll plan out which sessions to attend and which researchers he’d like to meet. “It’s a great opportunity to see what other labs are like before I start applying to those schools,” he says.

At ACS technical meetings, you can also attend the ENVR social, which is often held at a local restaurant and attracts close to 100 members, including students, and professional chemists across government, academia, and industry. “Members get to network while enjoying a nice meal,” says Obare.

Image of Alec Kramer
Alec Kramer, a rising fourth-year student majoring in science research at Baylor University in Waco, TX

Becoming an environmental chemist now

Joining ENVR can help you expand your skills as an environmental chemist before you enter the workforce. Connect with ENVR members at ACS meetings or even your own university to discover research opportunities or internships that could jump-start your career. Before graduating with a biochemistry degree from the University of Detroit Mercy in 2019, Tiffany Tieu Ngo developed her X-ray fluorescence skills conducting research with Benvenuto. “It gives you this self-confidence that you can do this as a scientist,” says Tieu Ngo, now a senior analytical chemist at IsleChem LLC in Grand Island, NY.

If you’re considering industry internships, keep an open mind and explore options even beyond companies you may think of as “green,” says Benvenuto. “Ford, Chrysler, and GM—people don’t think of them as chemist companies. But there are certainly a lot of chemists in them. All of those [companies] have people that have to look at the environmental aspects of what they are doing.”

Image of Tieu Ngo and Mark Benvenuto
ENVR members Tieu Ngo and Mark Benvenuto at graduation

When you do your own research, be sure to present your results with other ENVR members at ACS meetings. At the upcoming Fall ACS meeting, Kramer will give a poster presentation on his research on how pesticides like the active ingredient in Roundup can induce inflammation in the brain and how this inflammation impacts neuronal cells. “It’s something I’m really passionate about, and I’ve put in a lot of work so I’m excited to go and share that with people,” says Kramer.

At the 2019 Spring ACS meeting in Orlando, FL, Amir Ross-Obare, who has followed in the footsteps of his mother Sherine Obare to be a scientist, recalls beginning the poster session feeling like his body was frozen and everything else was still moving. But once he started talking with others about his work using nanoparticles to detect pharmaceuticals, his nerves quickly calmed. “When I snapped out of that frozen moment, it was really fun,” says Ross-Obare, now a rising third-year student majoring in kinesiology and minoring in chemistry at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The experience helped strengthen his public speaking skills and made him more comfortable meeting new people. To encourage students to share their work, ENVR offers a certificate of merit that is only awarded to first-time ENVR presenters.

Technical programming at ACS meetings is organized entirely by division members, so you can also take an active role in planning ENVR symposia. Pranaw Kunal, a postdoctoral research associate at the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, is organizing an ENVR symposium on sustainable catalysts for the upcoming national ACS meeting. “Being the symposium organizer, I get to play a role in defining the session,” he says. “It increases my knowledge of the field.”

Kunal also strengthened his communication and organizational skills through the process of developing the symposium topic, getting it approved by division program managers, publicizing it, and communicating with participants. “I get to make connections too,” adds Kunal, who envisions one day applying for a collaborative research grant with friends and colleagues he met through planning the symposium.

Amir Ross-Obare
Amir Ross-Obare, a rising third-year student majoring in kinesiology and minoring in chemistry at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

Connecting with community—near and far

ENVR can also help you develop professionally on a global stage. Each year, ACS student members can apply to attend the international climate change talks known as the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is held in a different country each year. About 10 students are selected for each COP, and ENVR helps to defray the cost of the trip.

The program begins with an ACS-led virtual training program prior to the COP where students learn a wide range of communication skills—from how to write an engaging blog to how to speak to ambassadors from other countries. They learn, for example, “just to be respectful and be aware of where you are,” says Tieu Ngo, who attended COP24 in Katowice, Poland, in 2018.

At the COP, students talk about how climate science can translate into climate policy with scientists, policymakers, and leaders from across the globe. “One of the common refrains from the students that have participated is that it’s been life changing,” says ENVR member and chemistry professor Gregory Foy of York College of Pennsylvania, who has been a co-supervisor of the program for more than a decade.

Tieu Ngo was inspired by hearing so many people’s ideas for how to combat climate change. “You meet all sorts of people there,” says Tieu Ngo, “not only people working in industry and environmental sciences but other students as well.” She still maintains connections with many of the students she met at COP through LinkedIn and other social media.

Image of Gregory Foy
Gregory Foy, ENVR member and chemistry professor at York College of Pennsylvania

Participants also further develop their communication skills by blogging about what they’ve learned and presenting at the national ACS meeting following the COP.

ENVR also offers volunteer opportunities that could help you expand your communication skills locally—no passport required. As an undergraduate Tieu Ngo helped Benvenuto, the division archivist, document the lives and careers of seasoned environmental chemists through a series of recorded interviews. Learning about all of the twists and turns in their career paths was really enlightening, says Tieu Ngo.

Experiences like this one “widen [students’] views and get them to connect with more people than they normally would,” says Benvenuto. “It takes them outside of their comfort zone.”

Ross-Obare volunteered in 2019 as a judge and co-organizer for the inaugural Environmental Film Competition, sponsored jointly by ENVR and the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement. The goal of the competition was to challenge chemists and filmmakers to work together to create compelling short films addressing the theme of water. ENVR chemists at all stages, including students, made films or helped judge them. “It was really hard to pick a few that I liked because they were all really good,” recalls Ross-Obare. (At the time, Ross-Obare was still in high school, but his interest in environmental chemistry was already strong, in no small part because his mother, Obare, had inspired him.) The competition was put on hold during the pandemic, but Obare hopes to hold it again in future years. “I think it’s really good environmental stewardship,” she says.  

Obare encourages students to take advantage of any professional development or volunteer opportunities that help them express their science to the public. Living abroad as a child, she learned to speak with—and carefully listen to—people from many different backgrounds. She now considers this skill invaluable to her work as an environmental chemist. You need to understand who your work is impacting—from farmers to policymakers in Washington—so that you can develop technologies and solutions that benefit them, Obare says. “Communication is so critical.”