Beyond Green: Amy Cannon '97

Amy Cannon is revolutionizing the way chemistry is taught. As executive director and co-founder of Beyond Benign, a non-profit in Wilmington, Mass., Cannon is working to make the world a "greener" place by teaching students and educators about green chemistry.

Amy Cannon '97Green chemistry—the design of products and processes that reduce the use and generation of hazardous substances—is Cannon’s life work. “Chemists are traditionally taught how to work safely in the lab, but not if what they’re working on, or with, is safe,” says Cannon. “Green chemistry is a proactive approach instead of a reactive approach to cleaning things up—as designers of mate- rials and products we can create the building blocks for everything being sustainable.”

Beyond Benign equips educators with the tools to learn, teach, and practice green chemistry in K-12 and higher education. “We want to inspire future scientists,” she says. “We realize not everyone will become chemists, but they will be making decisions and we want to inspire them to make better decisions.”

At Saint Anselm, Cannon studied chemistry but she also had a passion for environmental sciences. The two merged when she was introduced to green chemistry while earning her master’s in chemistry at UMass Boston. “It was when I started to learn how chemistry could be part of the solution, not the problem.” Cannon started to look for Ph.D. programs in green chemistry, but quickly learned there was nowhere for her to go; no higher education institutions offered such a program.

“My advisor, John Warner, suggested we create a Ph.D. program at UMass Boston,” she says. The idea led to Cannon receiving the world’s first doctorate in green chemistry.

Ph.D. in hand, Cannon began work as an assistant professor of green chemistry and director of community outreach and community education at the Center for Green Chemistry at UMass Lowell until 2007, when she and Warner (her former advisor and now husband) saw an opportunity to start a company. The opportunity grew into two companies: Beyond Benign run by Cannon and the Warner Babcock Institute, run by Warner to focus on green chemistry research.

The name Beyond Benign comes from the belief that it’s not enough for green products to simply be benign to be successful. “We can’t compromise on performance, and it has to be a comparable economic option—and that’s what makes this so challenging, and exciting,” she says.