What role does sustainable development play in chemistry?

A very important one. Chemistry enables us to create goods and technologically advanced materials provided to many economic sectors, for example the pharmaceutical industry, the automotive industry, the electronics industry, the textile industry, and the construction industry. Without sustainable chemistry, there is no sustainable development. Generally, sustainable chemistry involves the design and manufacture of chemical products and their use in goods and processes in order to generate large economic benefits while protecting the environment. Over the past few years a lot has changed, with producers accepting responsibility not only for the manufacturing process but also, to a greater extent, for the natural environment, which entails a proper management of production-related waste. It is also important to constantly improve product manufacturing technologies, to take advantage of new opportunities, to replace harmful materials with high-quality natural products, and to stop pollution as well as to use energy from renewable sources.  This is exactly a space for chemists who search for new solutions that are both economically viable and environmentally friendly. To illustrate that, let’s focus on the use of microplastics as abrasives and exfoliants in cosmetics, such as peelings or body cleaning products. However, they are not biodegradable in nature. The controversy over the use of microplastics has resulted in many cosmetic companies removing the ingredient from their products and replacing it with natural substances, such as: ground walnut shells, apricot kernels or coffee grounds. The society has increasingly become aware of the need to choose the right product, which is necessary for our longer-term enjoyment of a well-kept and non-toxic environment. There is no sustainable development without new investments in the chemical industry or innovative solutions in the area of safe and sustainable chemicals or digital transformation.

Chemists are able to notice things hardly noticeable to non-scientists. How can such information be communicated to consumers and average citizens?

Both the University of Gdańsk and university teachers from the Faculty of Chemistry have an important role to play in sharing knowledge and engaging in local and international outreach. Our actions aim at raising awareness of, and communicating knowledge about, issues related to multidimensional impacts on the environment and society. Reliable, science-based and comprehensible information is provided to children, young people, and adults with already established opinions. Researchers working at the Faculty of Chemistry have year-long experience in communicating science to the general public and holding numerous events, such as open lectures for schools, the Sustainable Development Day, workshops for secondary school students, Saturday Encounters with Science (experiments run by Dr. T. Pluciński), lectures given at science cafés and at the University of the Third Age etc. Many public science events are organized together with other faculties. In cooperation with the Faculty of Economics we run the project ‘Science Clubs at the University of Gdańsk – known and unknown faces of science’. One of its major goals is to promulgate the idea of sustainable development, particularly the Sustainable Development Goals, and social responsibility of science mainly through raising ecological awareness in society. During one event at the Faculty of Chemistry we had the pleasure to host Mr. Marek Kamiński, who talked about his round-the-world zero-carbon travel plans. Many young people found the meeting inspiring.

For years the University of Gdańsk has held public science events to disseminate information, and to promote scientific research findings regarding ecology and environmental protection. Of great value is the science café initiative, open to everyone interested in the research work done at the university. So is the Sustainable Development Day. Could you tell us a little bit more about the initiative?

For many years the Tri-City used to host the Baltic Science Festival launched by the Council of Rectors of the Pomerania Voivodeship. Right from the start the Faculty of Chemistry made a significant contribution to the festival through holding numerous events aimed at increasing interest in chemistry. We were engaged in local outreach activities by offering lectures, workshops and experiments for primary and secondary school students, and preschoolers (always on Fridays). However, families were welcomed on Saturdays. Since 2018, which marks the end of all activities related to the festival, the Faculty of Chemistry has been engaged in many public science events. Together with Professor Barbara Pawłowska, Dr Magdalena Markiewicz and Ms. Izabela Szlagowska, holding a master’s degree, we have been running the project ‘Science Clubs at the University of Gdańsk – known and unknown faces of science’ (2020-2022).  It has been co-financed by the Ministry of Education and Science under the Social Responsibility of Science program and includes scientific lectures, and the Sustainable Development Day.

However, the pandemic has got in the way of scheduling lectures within the framework of science cafés. We have had plans to hold every meeting at a different faculty, to demonstrate our university diversity, and to listen to public science lectures over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. The pandemic has slightly changed our plans in that we have switched into online lectures to be given by researchers representing all faculties at the University of Gdańsk. What is important is that they are delivered in plain language comprehensible to both younger and older people, which is a powerful way of communicating scientific knowledge. The Sustainable Development Day, on the other hand, aims at promoting and supporting the idea and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals through launching projects dedicated to the application of sustainable development principles in all areas of life and business operations. This is an all-European initiative aimed at making the University of Gdańsk part of a European network of action to promote sustainable development within the framework of the European Sustainable Development Week. Two events have been planned in the course of the project. The second one will be held at the Faculty of Chemistry, on June 3, 2022.

And finally I’d like to ask you about your research work and how it is related to sustainable development.

My research interests include materials engineering and chemical nanotechnology. They mainly focus on synthesizing new hybrid non-organic and organic-inorganic solid-state materials as well as    nanolayers doped with lanthanide ions and biologically active compounds. My research work also covers the synthesis of noble metal nanoparticles and core-shell structures, and their application in materials engineering and spectroscopy as well as cosmetic recipes.

My experience shows that particularly the topic of cosmetic chemistry resonates widely with older and younger people alike. This is a topic which can encourage children and young people to study chemistry by making various cosmetics in a laboratory while discussing the chemical compounds to be found in them. It is challenging to distinguish the truth from falsity. The content provided by celebrities is very often exaggerated and distorted, for example when it comes to preservatives and UV filters in cosmetic products. The information provided to society should be based on scientific facts. That’s why it is so important to share knowledge and to use solutions generated in research laboratories and widely discussed by scientists.

Interview with Professor Beata Grobelna about cosmetic myths: https://eu-es.facebook.com/NaukaEdukacja/videos/kosmetyczne-mity/856101301822983/

Interviewer: Professor Sylwia Mrozowska