Changemakers: The Green Chemist, Dr. Heather Buckley.

University of Victoria green chemist and civil engineer Dr. Heather Buckley successfully led a team to find safe alternatives to environmentally damaging preservatives that exist in many cosmetic and cleaning products.

Dr. Heather Buckley. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

The ingredients in many cosmetic and cleaning products have been called into question in recent years, but even the greenest of companies has had to rely on environmentally damaging preservatives like parabens and methylisothiazolinone to keep their products fresh. 

Now a U.S.–Canada team of scientists led by University of Victoria green chemist and assistant professor of engineering Dr. Heather Buckley is set to change that. With an eye on consumer and ecological health, Buckley and her team have created an eco-friendly preservative as a sustainable, viable alternative to parabens. Their creation won first prize and $35,000 from the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) in Massachusetts. UVic’s portion of the prize will be used to fund a graduate student to explore a secondary use for the preservative in preventing bio-fouling in water treatment systems.

“One of the things we really are trying to do is create a situation where you don’t need to have a PhD in chemistry to choose what soap you want to take home and use on your kids,” says Buckley. “It should be that all of the choices on the shelf are safe.”

Buckley started working on the preservative as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Berkeley Centre for Green Chemistry. As her research and development gained traction, she and her team started working with eco-product giants like Method, Seventh Generation and Beauty Counter to improve their lines of home and personal care products.

“I’m really driven by the fact that I believe we can do better, and I believe that as we have more information and better understanding, there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between safety and efficacy,” she says. “That dichotomy is kind of a false one that’s been constructed in many areas in our world.”

What’s  the first thing you do each day (to set the tone for productivity)?

I cycle to work year round and see lots of other folks doing the same on their way to make a difference in our city and the world.

When you stall on an idea or problem, how do you work through it?

I get back into the lab. Doing background experiments often helps reframe a problem and remind me of what is possible.

Who inspires you? 

My research team. My students bring diverse backgrounds and incredible energy to cracking some of the toughest, most important problems of our era.

How do you decompress?

I windsurf! Being on the ocean in big swell reminds me of how small we are, and how much nature has to offer us.

This article is from the December/January 2019 issue of Douglas.