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Paul Anastas Ph.D. '89 delivers annual lecture

Senior Writer

Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 03:04

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Jon Edelstein

Anastas ’89 discussed his efforts in “green” chemistry during the Saul G. Cohen Memorial Lecture last Friday.

Last Friday, Paul Anastas Ph.D. ’89 delivered a presentation in Rapaporte Treasure Hall about innovations in green chemistry titled “Designing a Sustainable Tomorrow” in the third-annual Saul G. Cohen Memorial Lecture.

Anastas, a professor of chemistry at Yale University, has served as President Barack Obama’s assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development at the Environmental Protection Agency. He also worked with the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The yearly lecture honors Cohen, a Chemistry professor at Brandeis from 1950 to 1986, who passed away in 2010. According to the program for the event, “[t]he Cohen Lecture was established through the generosity of his family and friends, and reflects his wide variety of interests.”

The award was presented to Anastas by Cohen’s son, Jonathan Cohen. Other members of the Cohen family were also in attendance.

In an introduction to the event, University President Frederick Lawrence said that because of Cohen’s dedication to establishing Brandeis as both a research and a liberal arts university, “his work and his vision continue to work through everything we do.”

Prof. Irving Epstein (CHEM) introduced Anastas, stating that Cohen would have been “delighted” with the recipient for three reasons: that he is a Bostonian, that he is “acutely concerned with the effects of science on people” and that he is a Brandeisian, “one of our own.”

According to Epstein, Anastas coined the term “green chemistry,” or sustainable chemistry, in 1991 and has worked since then to bring it to realization.

Anastas quoted advice from his mother to begin his presentation: “Any award is only as valuable as the amount of respect you have for those bestowing the award,” noting that his respect for Brandeis and Cohen gave the award “immense value.”

Anastas added that his work in chemistry focuses on “the human side of the equation” and the impact of our actions on the future. In his discussion of unsustainable production practices, he said that he is a “strategic optimist,” meaning that his approach to sustainability and renewability is that “it’s not just that everything can be fine; it’s that it will be fine, if we do the right thing.”

Anastas discussed the issue of toxins—including endocrine disrupters, which impact reproductive health—that are unable to be broken down and that are present in everyday products. Examples of the impact of these toxins, he said, are that human breast milk cannot be sold on the open market because of its contamination and that pharmaceutical substances persist in water systems to the point of impacting human health.

“It’s one thing to pursue immortality,” said Anastas. “It’s not OK to impart that immortality on the materials that we create.”

Concerning the quest for a sustainable future, Anastas posed the question, “Is it possible to be doing the right things but doing them wrong?” He discussed the fallacy of thinking in terms of systems and separating elements of sustainability into categories such as water, energy, biodiversity and climate, when in fact these elements not only overlap but are the same. This philosophy may result in working to improve one sector while harming another, examples of which include producing solar energy while depleting rare earth metals and creating energy-saving light bulbs while using toxic mercury.

The definition of green chemistry, Anastas said, is the “design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.” He added that the concept is “not a noble wish about being good to the birds and the bunnies” but rather a rigorous set of principles that are taught in courses across the country, including in his own.

Researchers are applying these green chemistry principles to reassess current production methods, which generate waste even at 100-percent efficiency, and to assess how chemicals and toxins build up in the human body, Anastas said. He added that more companies have been integrating these principles into their products and that they have been applied to industries such as aerospace, cosmetics and agriculture, not only in theory but in practice.

Rather than making products and production “a little less bad, a little bit more efficient” in incremental improvements, Anastas proposed that a more effective solution is transformational innovation and “leapfrog technology.”

An example of such innovation, he said, is biomimicry, which creates products that mirror techniques found in nature, such as adhesive substances that imitate the feet of geckos.

In response to an audience question about maintaining strategic optimism in both chemistry and the political sphere, Anastas responded, “I do not think people are aware of the power and the potential of the possible, and I think that’s an essential transformation that has to happen.” 

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