Institute Prompts Interdisciplinary Collaboration on Green Chemistry

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By bringing together faculty and students from multiple disciplines, the Berkeley Institute of the Environment creates an atmosphere for research and education in emerging fields such as green chemistry.

The Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry-which was formally established in fall 2009 and is currently seeking funding to establish a green chemistry curriculum at UC Berkeley-evolved from one of the institute's efforts to address environmental issues through interdisciplinary discussions known as "roundtables."

"The (institute) exists to provide the platform and the resources to bring the faculty together," said Daniel McGrath, executive director of the institute. "We exist as a structure that can help them advance their idea."

A broad interest in green chemistry from the state government, campus faculty and students prompted the institute to establish the roundtable in fall 2008, according to center officials. The study of green chemistry seeks in part to produce environmentally safe chemicals from renewable sources.

Michael Wilson, a research scientist in the campus School of Public Health and acting executive director for the center, said the center is currently negotiating with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for two grants of about $250,000 each.

One grant, which the state has already committed to the center, would provide funding for green chemistry curriculum development, he said. The other would go toward research of alternative types of plastics.

The center brings together faculty from the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry, Goldman School of Public Policy, School of Public Health, College of Natural Resources and Boalt Hall School of Law.

"The right people kind of got together, and the ideas gelled well with a lot of people," said John Arnold, professor of chemistry and faculty director of the center said. "There's certainly a case to be made that the center is long overdue, and the (institute) and the roundtables really helped focus people's attention on what we needed to do."

McGrath said the roundtables were part of the original operational vision of the institute, which was founded in 2004. Interdisciplinary teams of about four to eight faculty members would apply for funding from the institute and be selected via a competitive process, he said.

He said that although the campus's budget shortfall has threatened the roundtable program, some major donors have stepped in to allow the program to continue operating.

One of the roundtables currently operating within the institute is focused on diversified farming systems and their implications, according to the institute's Web site.

The Diversified Farming Systems Roundtable, which held its first session in September, seeks to gather knowledge about the successful design of multifunctional agricultural landscapes, said Albie Miles, a graduate student in the department of environmental policy and management and coordinator of the roundtable, in an e-mail.

Some organizers of the series on diversified farming have suggested turning the roundtable into a "Center for Multifunctional Agriculture," Miles said in an e-mail. The possibility will be discussed this spring.

For roundtables to grow into larger projects, it is important for faculty from different backgrounds to first develop a common language about issues nobody else is examining, said Inez Fung, co-director of the institute.

"There are some (faculty) from the social sciences and some from the natural sciences, but for each (roundtable), we insist that they not just talk to their comrades," she said. "No environment problem can be solved with just one group of people."

Jeffrey Koseff, co-director of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, said Stanford pays attention to what its peer institutions like UC Berkeley are doing in energy and sustainability.

Koseff said the Woods Institute also uses its resources to bring people together to work in a multidisciplinary manner.

"This is not an academic enterprise in the traditional sense," Koseff said. "(We) solve problems that are in the environmental and sustainability realm and make a difference in people's lives."


Cristian Macavei covers research and ideas. Contact him at [email protected]

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