This is monumental, sacred almost, a holy moment of convergence. Years of waiting, years of believing that I would one day become a scientist merge into this moment. I stand before an NMR machine. This is a thing that has been relegated to textbooks, to exams, to hypothetical situations of scientists and lab coats and latex gloves that were so unlike my experiences up until this moment. The machine is some seven feet tall, a massive metallic cylinder, crisp and new like it had landed in this room mere moments ago.
NMR is a qualitative assessment used to determine the identity of an unknown compound; its incredibly common in organic chemistry research. The machine takes a minuscule amount of compound and spits out a squiggly readout, not unlike an EKG of an erratic heartbeat. Each spike in the readout correlates to protons in the compound; a skilled reader can determine what compound they’re working with from the NMR test. I knew of NMR from textbooks, I had answered questions correctly on exams about these spectra, clinging to the hope that one day my life would be filled with organic chemistry, real organic chemistry in a laboratory filled with beakers and acids and whirring machines. My hope to be a chemist has long inspired me to take science classes, but my love for science was always a distant thing, like a language I was in love with but couldn’t speak. I read about chemistry but I never touched the compounds I spent so long learning about; I knew the six strong acids and I memorized mechanisms for countless reactions, but everything remained distant, theoretical.
I spent my junior year of high school studying the basics of organic chemistry and my love for the subject carried me to this very moment, where this tenacious love transformed into something real. My professor and I are running NMR on a compound we made together from hours of reactions and planning. It is a trivial thing in research to run this spectra, a pitstop to make sure a reaction has progressed well. But still, something like relief washes over me as we wait for the readout to show up on my professor’s computer. I am just as in love with this as I always thought I would be; I am just as obsessed with this science when it correlates to a day spent in a laboratory instead of hours pouring over a textbook.
At the beginning of this semester I approached an organic chemistry professor at Baylor and practically begged to be let into his lab. I didn’t have any laboratory experience, I hadn’t yet taken organic chemistry in college, and I was barely clinging onto an A in my general chemistry course. But still I asked. And after a moment of hesitation and a skeptical glance at my nose ring and messy ponytail, he agreed to work with me. And so, twice a week, chemistry became real. My love for science blossomed into beakers and pipettes and acetone. It is a difficult transition to have only known organic molecules as geometric drawings on a piece of paper. In real life they are mostly orange and yellow liquids, sometimes they are white powders. Hexane is no longer only a string of six squiggled lines in my notebook; it is a clear liquid that cleans beakers incredibly well. Yet, I love hexane all the same.
And so, standing before the NMR machine washes me with excitement for my future. This is it. This is what I’ve always wanted. For me, science has finally become more than theoretical knowledge, as the NMR machine seems to lift it from the pages of the textbook, transform it into a tangible and practical thing.
The semester is almost over now and I have spent many hours in the lab with my professor. We’ve completed frustrating experiments and failed experiments, but I have learned much and I have fallen in love with the quiet moments in a lab, the distinct smell of organic compounds, and the promise of a future in a white coat. What I have always wanted to love has become what I truly do love: the laboratory, protective glasses, and the orange tint of organic molecules swirling in a beaker.