Being 'green' is only natural to Mo Hunsen
In the world of dedicated scientist and professor Mo Hunsen, chemistry and life interact on a daily basis. He often uses his six-year-old son Alula's old cotton T-shirts to supply his research group of undergraduates with cellulose, one of the most abundant organic substances on earth. And the students in his organic chemistry classes use supermarket products, such as the hydrogen peroxide in mouthwash, to oxidize cyclohexene and ultimately turn it into nylon.
Hunsen's affinity for the natural world informs his passion for green chemistry. His research focuses on using naturally renewable substances such as carbohydrates and proteins as starting points for the development of new materials that are less toxic and more environmentally friendly. "Most chemicals are petroleum-based, and we're running out of petroleum reserves," explains the recipient of the 2005 Robert J. Tomsich Award for outstanding achievement in research and science. "It makes sense to use naturally renewable substances instead, moving towards a biobased economy."
Hunsen's current research focuses on inventing and developing new chemical reactions that employ these abundant materials for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. By using "green" chemical reactions, for example, his research group converted the cellulose from Alula's outgrown T-shirts into CELLO, a versatile new polymer that is suitable for drug-delivery and sensor applications. The research team, whose article will be published soon, named as well as created CELLO.
For Hunsen, it's only natural (as he puts it) that his work filters into his teaching. He's always looking for ways to make the traditional organic chemistry curriculum "green." The classic lab experiment, in which students synthesize nylon, is an opportunity to have students go back and use green oxidation. The result is an intermediate step in which students, using mouthwash, create adipic acid, a biodegradable substance that becomes the basis for nylon.
"I always like to give students the opportunity to make products that are commonly used, like nylon, with green chemistry."
Sophomores in Hunsen's classes are required to use the template of the Journal of Organic Letters to write their lab reports, as well as literature reviews, and must make a PowerPoint presentation on their topic of study. "This is the same template that I use when submitting an article for publication, so the finished product looks like a published report," Hunsen explains. "In fact, last year one student said we were submitting to the 'Kenyon Journal of Organic Chemistry.'"
Such careful scholarship has served Hunsen's students well. Many have won multiple awards, including two prestigious Goldwater Scholarships. They regularly present their research work at regional and national meetings and, according to Hunsen, "the amount of research work they accomplish and their grasp of their work are simply unbelievable." In fact, at the recent national meeting of the American Chemical Society, one of Hunsen's students was mistaken for a third-year graduate student, and another was offered a post-graduate job. "That for me is an indication of their level of confidence in their work and makes me prouder than ever," Hunsen says.
Hunsen is no less proud of his wife, Elizabeth Yohannes, who works at the Case Western Reserve University Proteomics Center in Cleveland, or his son, whose curiosity and enthusiasm continually find their way into Hunsen's classroom. It was Alula, for example, who introduced his father to Peter Pan.
"Naturally I asked my son, 'What makes him fly?' waiting for a scientific explanation," Hunsen recalls. "When he told me it was his imagination, I used that as an example to encourage my students. Anyone can fly, if they just use their imagination."
--Kathryn Levy Feldman