ACS Summer School – Green Chemistry, Sustainable Energy and Imaginary Mountain Lions

Last month (July 22-29), coffeemug was at the 2013 ACS Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy Summer School at the Colorado School of Mines (Golden, CO), along with 59 other graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from the United States, Latin America and Canada.  The ACS summer school is a great opportunity for learning about cutting edge research on topics intimately tied to sustainability. It is also the perfect platform to  present your research (and get feedback) and network with other graduate students, faculty, researchers from government laboratories and the industry. If you are a graduate student in the Americas, doing research on sustainability-related topics, I urge you to apply.

We had a great mix of lectures and discussions on various topics, e.g., nanocatalysis, scientific writing (Dr. Ryan Richards), greening fossil energy, ionic liquids, (Dr. Joan Brennecke), green solvents (including switchable solvents with tunable properties (see this and this), life cycle assessment (Dr. Tamer Andrea), grant writing Dr. Nancy Jensen (from the ACS Office of Research Grants), entrepreneurship vis-a-vis green products (Dr. Eric Beckman), green chemistry design approaches (Dr. David Constable, the director of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute), biofuels (Dr. Mark Nimlos from NREL) and fuel cells  (Dr. Bryan Pivovar from NREL).

Speaking of fuel cells, check out Dr. Pivovar’s fuel cell powered car:


I met several folks from the ACS GC&E Conference, including Dr. Joe Sostaric (Emma’s daddy!).  Joe leads the ACS Office of Graduate and  Postdoctoral Scholars, which has many valuable resources for, well,  graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Dr. Corrie Kuniyoshi discussed several such resources and how we could avail them. I highly recommend checking out their website, LinkedIn page and newsletter.

We also had poster sessions which highlighted the variety of green chemistry and engineering research being pursued today. While presenting his poster, coffeemug got some very important feedback and suggestions from Dr. Beckman about taking his research on life cycle assessment of nanotechnology forward. (Thank you.)

It was school. There were lectures. As Mary clearly said ”Attendance is mandatory!”. And we had homework (!). We had plenty of (non-academic) fun too – soccer, line dancing, a tour to the Coors brewery, regular trips to downtown Golden (especially the Mountain Toad), (And there was plenty of free Belgian beer at the opening barbecue, poster sessions and the closing dinner). There was the Buffalo Bill Day parade over the weekend. Some folks went hiking too.


 The story of my short hike:

Early in the morning, on the last day at Mines, I jauntily set out for solo hike to the top of this:

The ‘table-mountain’ as seen from the campus and the bottom of the trail

At the bottom of the trail, I was greeted by this sign:


Now, I had been reading up on mountain lions all week (bad idea), ever since Dr. Richards mentioned seeing one. Mountain lions are supposed to be shy, and Wikipedia says they hunt at night. But what about an insomniac mountain lion, one that could be tossing and turning in bed perhaps…. I don’t know….  at 6:30 in the morning? I spent a minute debating with myself. (I lost.)

Me: “Is the view from the top worth it?”

Voice in my head:  Of course!

Me: “Would my lab-mates miss me?”

VIMH: Nah.

Me: “What about my research?”

VIMH: Nobody cares.

Me: So…

VIMH: Look, mountain lions are an endangered species. You would serve better by becoming a late night snack for one. Have a heart. Feed a mountain lion, won’t you?

Now, that seemed like a noble cause. So I set forth.

The trail now looked like this:


After about 45 minutes of brisk (read: hurried and jittery) walking I was at the top and was feasting my eyes on this:


And this:


Worth it? Absolutely.

With my spirits buoyed, and my mind free of mountain lions, I started walking back leisurely. And then I saw some fresh animal droppings on the trail. (I have photographic evidence that I am keeping to myself.) The… (how do I put it delicately)… amount and size of the droppings suggested that it was not a small animal.

Me: (Gulp) Er.. Those…. those weren’t here on the way up, right?

VIMH: (Gleefully chanting)  Mountain lion! Mountain lion! Mountain lion!

(Bill Bryson’s words about bears came to mind, “Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do.” Surely, that applies to mountain lions too? Funny how your brain sometimes tells you exactly what you do not need to hear. Of course, the trail now looked like this:

 trail2_editArmed with a water bottle and a granola bar, I was ready to strike fear into any mountain lion that would  cross my path. Fortunately (for the mountain lion), our paths never crossed as I ran-jogged-slipped-jogged-ran down the rest of the way. At the bottom of the trail, I re-read the sign about mountain lions. It said: “Do not run or jog in this area. Running may stimulate a lion’s instinct to chase and attack.”

I went straight to Slate Cafe and downed a full glass of apple juice before getting breakfast.

Our bus left the Mines campus a few hours later. Summer school was over.

ACS Summer School (2013) group photo


I came away with

i) a deeper understanding of green chemistry

ii) a greater appreciation of its range of applications and the challenges

ii) a more acute awareness of the urgency we need to show when tackling wicked problems of sustainability.

From booking our flights, arranging accommodations, to our arrival at the Mines campus and throughout our stay – things could not have been any smoother. Who puts together this awesome summer school every year? Two of the nicest people you could meet are behind this: Tina and Mary.


Tina calls the summer school “her baby” and is incredibly passionate about it. (Tina also tried to get me to try line dancing. I bravely chickened out). On the other hand, after a lecture, a student asked Mary what line dancing was. And Mary explained by busting out some dance moves right there in the auditorium. I say the world’s energy problems can be solved within seconds if we could only harness Mary’s energy.

(Tina, Mary: It was such a pleasure meeting you both. Thanks for the awesome summer school experience. And the folks at the Colorado School of Mines: Thank you so much for your hospitality.)



[Another version of this blog post was published on the Nexus blog]

Image courtesy:
Dr. Mary Kirchoff,,,,

3 thoughts on “ACS Summer School – Green Chemistry, Sustainable Energy and Imaginary Mountain Lions

  1. Param,

    It was good seeing you again! Quite a nice blog post regarding the summer school. I must say that I can related to your mountain climbing experience. I’m glad you got a chance to go up there, and that you did not have to fight for your life with one granola bar and a bottle of water!

    Best regards,

  2. Great post, Param!
    This summer school sounds excellent. I wish I had had the chance to go to something like this before.
    Thank you for suggesting the Seager paper on wicked problems. I really like referring to environmental and interdisciplinary issues as “wicked problems”, so this will be a fun read for me and also a good source to cite!

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