chemistry

To Become A Scientist

By Allison.

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.

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Grams per Mole, And Other Things I’ve Learned

Allison here, your future chemist.

Every Friday in chemistry, my professor gives the class a quiz. The questions are often much more complicated than anything we’ve covered in class and most students walk away with discouragingly low grades. We complain collectively at the torture of Friday quizzes, fifteen evil questions standing between us and a promising Friday afternoon. I have taken to frantically studying on Thursday nights, trying to make sense of the messy handwritten notes we receive each week in lieu of a power point presentation or even references to chapters in our seemingly helpful textbook. (Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be capable of knowing how helpful the textbook actually is, as I haven’t be assigned any reading from it, nor do any of our chemistry lessons correspond to sections in the book. But it does seem like it’s glossy pages and colored diagrams could be of assistance.) So ultimately, I am on my own to make sense of what little I can. I cram as many equations into my frazzled mind as I can handle but, quite simply, the quizzes are always harder than anything I’m prepared to take.

Two weeks ago, I begrudgingly made my way to Friday’s chemistry class, knowing a quiz that I couldn’t possibly score an A on awaited me. However, as I made my way through each question, I found that I knew many of the answers. I left class pleasantly surprised at how well I felt I had done; I let myself feel a moment of joy, believing that my hard studying might finally be paying off. The next Monday I strode into class, searching for my name on one of the quiz papers that the professor had laid out on a desk. I pulled mine from the pile, the gleam of an A written in red pen across the top of my paper already forming in my mind. But a B was the only thing staring back at me.

I frantically scanned through the questions. How could I have gotten anything wrong? The first question was marked with red pen. I was startled. It was by far the easiest question on the quiz. The red pen, however, was not marked through my own writing, but the typed question on the page. The professor had written the units for a given number incorrectly in the question. The pen marked the units incorrect, striking a red line through his own mistake. My work was counted incorrect because I, too, had used those units.

I was indignant. I had done all the work correctly, I had simply copied the mistake the professor had printed.

I looked to the girl next to me, asking her if she had gotten the question wrong as well. She also has a red mark struck through the question itself, but the professor hadn’t take off points. I laugh and show her my paper; she shakes her head in frustration. Another day in chemistry. I approach my professor after class, expecting a reasonable answer for this absurdity. Surely randomly marking some of the students incorrect for his own work doesn’t make for a fair grading system.

He put a shaky hand on my shoulder and told me he expected that I would know the correct units for molar mass, even when it wasn’t written correctly on the test. I do not tell him that I, in fact, also expected him to know the correct units for molar mass, considering his PhD in chemistry and some fifty years of teaching experience. But instead I smile. Of course.

And he’s right, I do know the correct units for molar mass. And I suppose next time, I’ll write down the correct units, even when my test paper is littered with typos, and even when my professor tells me the units include Joules instead of moles.

College has been difficult, filled with challenging essays assigned with vague prompts and math problems that force me to take the 80th derivative of some obscure equation. I know, regardless of how difficult my assignments become or how impossible my workload seems, I can give my all and will continue to find success. But, of course, I will always have the absurdities of chemistry professors and their interesting grading choices to keep me humble.