Meet John De Backere, an Assistant Professor who is championing green chemistry education at the University of Toronto (a Green Chemistry Commitment signer) and in the greater green chemistry community.
John has been active in integrating green chemistry principles and practices into the Department of Chemistry’s inorganic chemistry courses and connected with Beyond Benign in 2020 through our Faculty Fellowship Program. He is now a peer reviewer and moderator in the Green Chemistry Teaching and Learning Community (GCTLC) — an online platform where the green chemistry community can connect and share resources.
We caught up with John to learn more about his green chemistry journey and get the latest updates on his work in green inorganic chemistry. In this conversation, John shares how he’s seen students engage with green chemistry, his hopes for the future of green chemistry education, and so much more.
Please share a little about your background and involvement with Beyond Benign and the broader green chemistry community.
Among my teaching responsibilities for the Department of Chemistry is coordinating the laboratory components of our second- and third-year inorganic chemistry courses, which is where I’ve primarily worked on incorporating green chemistry principles and practices. I first connected with Beyond Benign in 2020 through its Faculty Fellowship program, which aimed to develop greener laboratory exercises for undergraduate teaching labs. Through this and other opportunities, I’ve been privileged to connect and collaborate with many amazing members of the green chemistry community. I’m especially excited to continue to develop these relationships and interactions through the new online GCTLC, where I’ll be active as a learning object peer reviewer and forum/groups moderator!
Tell us more about your green chemistry journey — what led to your interest in the field?
My green chemistry journey largely began when I first joined the University of Toronto as a faculty member in 2019, where I attended a yearly green chemistry symposium organized and run by our passionate student-run organization, the Green Chemistry Initiative. The principles and practices that were discussed deeply resonated with me, coming from a research background working with extraordinarily hazardous and toxic reagents, and it acted as the catalyst for me to continue learning and integrating green chemistry into my teaching. I’m also extremely fortunate to be surrounded and supported by enthusiastic colleagues who are among the many champions of the green chemistry community and have helped further nurture my interests and efforts in this space.
What does your work in green inorganic chemistry involve? What makes it unique from green organic chemistry?
My work in the higher ed green chemistry space so far has largely focused on the curricular development of greener inorganic teaching experiments. This includes modifying our old experiments to align with and include green chemistry principles, replacing older labs with greener ones from the chemical education literature, and developing brand-new teaching experiments centered around green chemistry. Through my relationship with Beyond Benign, my work has grown from isolated efforts within my courses into international collaborations with faculty across North America (and hopefully beyond in the future). The unique aspect of incorporating green chemistry into the inorganic curricula is the state of infancy to its adoption relative to other areas like organic. This originally presented some challenges, such as difficulties finding resources or examples to use as someone new to green chemistry.
Since signing the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC) in 2016, how has the University of Toronto fostered green chemistry education?
Our faculty at the University of Toronto have formed a great partnership with Beyond Benign since signing the GCC in 2016. This has resulted in our contribution to a variety of international green chemistry education initiatives, including co-organizing conference symposia and workshops, leadership in the GCTLC and Green & Sustainable Chemistry Education Module Development projects, developing greener laboratory guides and resources for the Toxicology for Chemists Program, and much more. It’s atypical not to see at least one of my colleagues involved in a project that fosters green chemistry education!
What advice or resources would you share with faculty from other institutions who may be facing barriers or who lack institutional support?
If you’re facing challenges with integrating green chemistry into your teaching, there is an unbelievable amount of support available from the green chemistry community. It’s undoubtedly one of the most enthusiastic, passionate, and supportive groups of individuals I’ve encountered. Don’t be afraid to reach out to colleagues active in the space for support. This is now easier than ever with the recent launch of the GCTLC, where forums, groups, and profiles are available to connect and collaborate with others working in this area!
How have you seen your students actively engage in the discussion on green chemistry in your classes and beyond?
Our students are very engaged and excited about green chemistry. Out of all the inorganic teaching experiments, it’s evident that the “green-centric” labs in the curriculum are typically the students’ favorites. I think students are now very aware of the environmental and health challenges we face in the world, so equipping them with green chemistry as a professional tool to make a difference is very empowering. Beyond the classroom, I’ve had a few full circle moments when an undergraduate student I’ve taught green chemistry principles becomes active in the student-run Green Chemistry Initiative, since this organization originally introduced me to green chemistry to begin with!
What elements of the GCTLC are you most excited about? How do you think the GCTLC will support the advancement of green chemistry?
I truly believe the GCTLC is a game changer when it comes to connecting and sharing resources within the green chemistry community. When I first entered the green chemistry space, it was a challenge to find aligned resources with my area and hard to connect with individuals who shared similar interests or were working on related projects (beyond the traditional approaches of connecting at conferences or finding them from the literature). The GCTLC is a much more accessible and organized platform, and I’m excited about the ability to quickly search profiles of individuals, easily connect with people, and share content in a more informal and open-access way. I think these two aspects will really support collaboration, which in turn will advance green chemistry education in an impactful way.
Can you share a couple of resources you recommend in green inorganic chemistry?
Although we’re just at the beginning of broadly integrating green chemistry into the inorganic curricula, there are certainly some resources available — with much more to come! As a starting point, we’ve compiled a curated collection of a few “Greener Inorganic Labs” on the GCTLC. I expect this collection to grow exponentially in the coming months and years as this online community continues to expand.
Outside of your work, what are some of your favorite hobbies or activities?
I love escaping from the city to connect with nature; anything from taking my dog (he’s a black “Whoodle” which is a mix between a Wheaten Terrier and Poodle) on local hikes through forests up to more ambitious adventures in Yosemite National Park or back-country canoe camping in Algonquin Provincial Park. I also enjoy doing the majority of cooking in my household, which includes making a mean carbonara and delicious slow-cooked ribs (I have yet to tweet my culinary adventures on #ChemistsWhoCook).
What is your hope for the future of green chemistry education?
My hope for the future of chemistry education is a transformation where green chemistry becomes amalgamated as a best practice and foundational knowledge of all chemists. I think the future is quickly approaching thanks to efforts from organizations like Beyond Benign, with recent milestones like ACS-approved Bachelor’s degree programs requiring curriculum that provides students with a working knowledge of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.
Keep up with John and his work by connecting with him in the GCTLC!