James Girard’s first “office” went up in flames.
“I was always doing science or engineering projects out in the garage or the back yard as a kid,” says the American University chemistry professor. “I think I was 10 or 11 when my mom finally banned me from using my alcohol lamp in the house when I caught the kitchen floor on fire. I had to work on concrete only.”
Girard has come a long way from those days in suburban Chicago, where he grew up — and almost burned his house down. As a Franklin Fellow this year, his office is in the U.S. State Department.
He pursued the prestigious government-sponsored position, which runs a full academic year, in order to broaden the focus for his students when he returns to the classroom next fall.
“I would like them to understand not only what we do in America, but what other countries’ positions are on some of these scientific issues,” he said. “My goal is to try to introduce into my writings and into my classes the issues of sustainability so that AU students will be on the front end of the curve and be well prepared to go on to graduate school or professional careers. They will have learned the issues before they become front page news and be well poised to take advantage of it.”
Girard’s role in the fellowship program is to coordinate the U.S. report to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.
“In 1992, in Rio, the countries of the U.N. came together and agreed that we are living in a world in which we’re not living in a sustainable way,” Girard said. “[They wanted] to start to educate the peoples and governments of the world on more sustainable lifestyles and consumption.”
Every two years, a different aspect of sustainability is studied. When the commission meets in May in New York, the focus will be on transportation, chemicals, mining, and waste.
Coordinating the report, which will involve as many as 15 government agencies, is just the sort of hands-on work that Girard has always loved. He entered college — the first in his family to go — as an engineering major, but an organic chemistry course he took as a sophomore opened his eyes to the wonders to chemistry.
“My interest in electronics and machinery kind of played out in the sense that I’m an analytical chemist,” he said. “What I do is use instruments and analytical tools to make chemical measurements. It was the perfect combination of skills I had.”
In the mid-70s, Girard worked for General Electric doing a lot of reverse engineering of competitor’s products.
“The lab had every last thing anybody could ever want,” he said. “It allowed me to use my skills to really investigate stuff. I was presented with a problem where I didn’t have any information.
“At that point GE had silicones, plastics, I worked on aircraft engines to solve problems. It was amazing. I actually think I learned more about chemistry working for GE than I did as a PhD student, because I was thrust into all types of problem solving and the application of chemistry in the industrial world.”
But Girard missed academia, specifically working with students. So in 1979, he came to AU.
“It was a perfect balance of teaching and research,” Girard said of AU, where he’s received more than $3 million in grants and trained more than 35 PhD students. “My time at General Electric taught me how to collaborate with a lot of different people. I learned that in Washington there are lots of scientists, and lots of government labs that are seeking collaboration. They want to have interactions with the university, so I forged all kinds of very successful collaborations with different government organizations. I’d like to think that everybody won in the sense that good work was done, we used their facilities and big-time instruments, they were able to solve the problems they wanted to solve. Students learned how to use the best equipment and labs. It was the best of all possible worlds.”
Today Girard is hoping to help guide the world down a path of more sustainability. But just what does that word, so often bandied about these days, mean?
“When you hear sustainable, you mostly hear it in terms of agriculture or ecosystem,” he said. “It turns out that there is no metal on the periodic table that is recycled at a rate of more than 50 percent. If you think about this in terms of sustainability — we have mines, concentrated sources of these metals. We dig them up, we process it, we use it, and then all of a sudden we disperse it. What we should be doing is closing the loop. Metals don’t cease to exist.”
Nor does Girard’s thirst for scientific knowledge.
“Hopefully as I go through this yearlong process, I’ll be able to have a new perspective,” he said. “One of the things that was music to my ears was when I was at the U.N. meeting in Geneva two weeks ago, one of the keynote speakers said that in terms of sustainable consumption and production, the most fundamental thing we have to do is educate, educate, educate. I said ‘perfect.’”