Prof Lynne Pilcher honoured with international sustainability award

Posted on February 23, 2024

Prof Lynne Pilcher from the University of Pretoria’s Department of Chemistry was recently honoured with a 2024-2025 award by the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Committee for Environment and Sustainability (CES).

This award recognises those who have made exemplary contributions to modernising the chemistry curriculum to include sustainable development, circularity, green chemistry, and life cycle thinking.

“It is an honour to be recognised internationally, as it affirms that our work at UP is globally relevant. The award validates my decision to change from being a locally recognised organic chemistry researcher to a new field on the belief that I could have an immediate impact,” Prof Pilcher said when asked what such a prestigious award means to her.

She added that the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS) has long embraced discipline-based tertiary education research, and this award recognises the benefit of including education research in this Faculty. “This research aligns with the University's strategic vision for research-informed teaching, aimed at fostering student success and cultivating graduates equipped to address societal challenges, particularly in sustainability.”

Having received a C2 rating from the NRF in organic chemistry in 2019, Prof Pilcher, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, shifted her research focus to Chemistry Education. The convergence of calls from the International body governing the discipline (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) to introduce ‘Systems Thinking’ in chemistry education coupled with overseeing a challenging PhD project in physical-organic chemistry highlighted the deficit of fully reductionist chemistry education and the need to introduce systems thinking in undergraduate teaching.

Thus, her recent research, the subject of two MSc projects in tertiary chemistry education, has centred on designing, implementing and evaluating systems thinking interventions for first-year chemistry students.

The first project, conducted with MSc student Micke Reynders and Prof Marietjie Potgieter as co-supervisor, delved into the chemical system of surfactants found in common laundry detergents. It applied chemistry course content to explore the properties of the surfactant in the laundry tub and the environment, looking at its impact on the economy and benefits and hazards for society and the environment. The topic was useful for highlighting the idea that chemicals benefit humanity but have hazards that must be managed. The intervention emphasised the role of chemistry in working towards a more sustainable future. This project was chosen to represent UP in the International Visualize Your Thesis competition in 2022. A refined iteration of this project, implemented in 2022 and 2023, has garnered recognition with the ACS award. The second project, a more recent endeavour, involved developing an intervention for first-year engineering students in collaboration with Dr Dorine Dikobe, focusing on utilising green chemistry metrics and life cycle assessments to examine aspirin production through a systems-thinking lens for sustainability.

Prof Pilcher emphasised that “Achieving Sustainable Development Goals, such as zero hunger, good health, clean water, and affordable and clean energy, requires an understanding of chemical substances, their transformations and their interactions within the earth system. Furthermore, the planetary boundaries framework underscores nine critical processes regulating Earth's stability and resilience (1.) These processes are directly linked to chemistry through the measurement of substances or the management of chemical transformations. While chemistry has enhanced countless aspects of human life through medicines, fertilisers, plastics, etc., overlooking environmental implications has led to significant harm. Integrating sustainability into chemistry education lays a foundation for chemistry's constructive role in sustainable development.

  1. Steffen W, Richardson K, Rockstrom J. and Cornell SE, Fetzer I, Bennett EM, Biggs R, Carpenter SR, de Vries W, de Wit CA, Folke C, Gerten D, Heinke J, Mace GM, Persson LM, Ramanathan V, Reyers B, Sorlin SS. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science. 2015, 347, 6223, 1-10.
- Author Martie Meyer

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