How did you get into this field?

My basic area of research is polymer chemistry, which intersects in many important ways with green chemistry. The challenge is to find clean substitutions for more toxic chemical processes that cost the same or less. The ideal situation is replacing something toxic with something environmentally friendly — such as replacing a toxic metal in a catalytic compound with a vitamin that biodegrades.

What research problems do you work on?

We focus on three areas: working towards cleaner, more effective catalysts; creating degradable materials by controlling macromolecular structures; and working at the interface of biochemistry and materials science to create smart polymers that safely deliver agents to specific sites.

Do green projects have enough funding?

Funding support is important, but more important is the balance between how much something costs and how important it is. Sometimes, if you want to make something more environmentally friendly, it is more expensive.

How important has a mentor been to you?

Always, you rely on mentors. Years ago in Poland I started working with a professor who impressed on me the need to approach a problem in a systematic manner, but never to close your mind to possibly important avenues that could be hidden in the details.

How did you get from Poland to Pittsburgh?

I was a postdoc in 1978–79 at the University of Florida. I returned to Poland expecting change when [the trade union movement] Solidarity happened. But that hope was not realized. I spent a year in Paris. A professor leaving Carnegie Mellon told me I should apply for his position, as it had good funding and support in a nice city. Pittsburgh is a very good example of the green spirit. It was one of the most polluted US cities; now it is one of the cleanest.

What's your approach to advising students?

Even though I generally have 10–15 graduate students and 5 postdocs, I try to interact with each on a one-to-one basis. We also have group meetings weekly and meet twice a year with our industry consortium members. Sometimes even a first-year graduate student can teach someone from industry how to do something better.

What's the importance of exposing graduate students to industry?

Maybe half will go to industry. So I hold regular group meetings, like in industry, to discuss progress on longer-term objectives. I also teach them to consider more than one part of the problem: not just synthesis but also characterization and the search for potential applications.