Thursday, September 8, 2011

All About Chemistry

(^^^That's my workspace in the lab that I work in^^^ I always have SEVERAL things going on at once...multitasking is an essential skill to have as an organic chemist!).

"Why did you choose to be a chemist?" is something people ask me all of the time. I know I touched briefly on the subject in terms of chemistry as a career path in an earlier post HERE. However, since I get asked this ALL the time when people ask me what I do for a living, I thought I'd write a post about it... Basically, anytime I meet someone new and they ask what I do and I tell them I'm an organic chemist, I get one of two general reactions: 1) "Wow, good for you, you must be smart, I did horribly in that class," or 2) "Ugh, I *HATED* chemistry in school" as they make a disgusted face. Most people do think it's interesting when I explain in layman's terms what I work on, although they all invariably say "it sounds like you're speaking a different language!" (which I totally understand). So I figured I'd write here about what I do, how I got here, and why I chose the path I did. Yep, it's another self-indulgent post, but as I've said before, it's my blog, so it's my right :-)

When I was finishing high school, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to study in college. I was pretty adamant I wanted to go to medical school after college, inspired by my father, who is a doctor. I used to go to work with him during my school vacations or on weekends and watch him work and learn about what he was doing. I knew I wanted to do something in the sciences, as I'd always been a science buff growing up and loved learning about the world around us, how things work, and why they worked. That being said, I had *NO* idea what I wanted to study when I went to U. of New Hampshire orientation in June 1997. My parents dropped me off at the area for undeclared major students and said they'd be back later in the afternoon to pick me up. So there I was, sitting amongst a bunch of fellow incoming freshman who looked like they were more interested in putting off the real world for 4 more years on Mommy and Daddy's dime than actually getting an education as the person from the university advising center went around the room asking each of us what we thought we'd probably want to major in. When it came to me, on the spur of the moment I blurted out "I actually know my major, I don't know why I'm here!" When she asked me what I was going to major in, I said "chemistry." They sent me on my way to the registrar's office to change my paperwork to chemistry and then told me I could make the rest of the orientation for incoming chemistry majors after lunch. I went ahead with the rest of the day and when my parents picked me up and asked me what, if anything, I decided to major in, I told them it was chemistry. They were surprised to say the least, but pleased as well.

The little bit of backstory here is that my dad had gone to UNH for college in the early 1970s and got his degree in chemistry. He'd go visit the department every once and a while when I was growing up and I tagged along a few times, so I was somewhat familiar with the building, his old professors, and the science itself. I hadn't particularly liked chemistry in high school, but I put that down 100% to having lousy teachers who were as ineffective teaching the information as they were generating excitement among the students. Anyway, I picked chemistry and began classes that fall. I hit a few speed bumps along the way that first year and wasn't sure I really wanted to continue with it, but once I took organic chemistry as a sophomore, I was *HOOKED* on it. Part of the reason was that I had a phenomenal professor who ended up being my BS and PhD advisor (and I will add here that EVERYprof at UNH was top-notch as a teacher...I mean that, I can't think of a lousy one at all). The other part that got to me was the science itself. I'd always loved building and tinkering with things as a kid...models, electronics, my chemistry set (yes, I had one), so to learn that I could do this with MOLECULES was just incredible to me. I really hit my stride that year and ended up beginning to do lab research in said professor's laboratory starting that summer and for the next 2 years, culminating with my BS thesis. I found that I absolutely loved being in the lab, learning and using different techniques to do directed research (as opposed to the more rudimentary lab courses we were required to take alongside our classes). Not only was I learning new stuff from my advisor and his graduate students, I was learning how to use instrumentation and interpret the data, how to give presentations at group meetings, and how to think scientifically to approach issues along the synthetic way. I even published 2 papers as an undergrad and presented my research at conferences! As a bonus, I was so far beyond what we were learning in the lab courses that those became that much easier for me.  

(One interjection here...something I have heard ad nauseum over the last 15 years is how chemistry, and organic in particular, is "all about memorization", it's not. It's about learning basic concepts and yes, memorizing many general things, and then applying those lines of thinking to new problems to build off of them. Once I made this connection in my own mind after my freshman year, I had a major breakthrough. It was the proverbial lightbulb going off or the tumblers in a lock all falling into place at once).

My senior year, in 2000-01, presented me with a tough decision...what to do after I graduated? I had always assumed med school, but I was loving chemistry so much that I was considering going for a PhD in organic chemistry. I decided to go with what my heart was telling me and go for the PhD. Not only did I learn that chemistry grad schools waive tuition and pay you a stipend (as opposed to paying ~$40,000+/yr for med school and being in debt until you're 50, not to mention 3-15 years of training AFTER school before finally practicing on your own) so that I'd come out of school with no debt, but I'd seen the kind of life and stress my dad had (and still has) as a doctor...crazy hours, stress, etc. While I respect him to this day for doing what he does at such a high level of quality and helping to save people's lives for going on 30 years now, I wasn't sure I wanted to do that. Plus I was newly engaged to my wife and we were getting married the following year, so I had to think about what kind of life we'd have as newlyweds over the next few years when I was in school, no matter which path I took.

I decided to go to grad school and worked toward my PhD with my same advisor. Again, I hit a few bumps here and there but ended up finishing my PhD and secured a postdoctoral fellowship with a world renowned professor at Clemson University. Not only did I learn even more in terms of technique, instrumentation, and approaches to thinking about chemistry in my 2 years there, I was promoted a couple of months into my fellowship to a research faculty position and given the responsibility of running the day-to-day operations of the group for my advisor as he had a very prestigious and important high-profile position with a government agency concurrently with his position at the university. In addition to my research, which I loved, it gave me experience as a manager, mentor, and valuable experience writing journal publications, funding proposals, keeping budgets, and dealing with other issues I would never have been exposed to as a "regular" postdoc. I was also a co-author on over a dozen high quality journal publications, writing many of them myself and editing, formatting, and contributing something to all of them. It was a priceless experience that I count myself blessed to have gotten to this day. And the best part of grad school and postdoc, besides growing as a scientist and getting my degrees, is that I have made great friends with my advisors and keep in touch with them to this day.

After Clemson, I got a job at my current company, where I've been for 3 years now, working on a few different major project that I've been working on for over a year (and counting) is going really well and is absolutely fascinating, not only because of the chemistry I'm doing, but because of what I'm learning about the engineering and physics components from our collaborators, who are experts in those areas. I also was given some managerial duties after my first year, which have been challenging but interesting so far. And maybe that's been the best thing about this whole journey...being able to constantly learn something new every day, either in chemistry or a field that's related. I know I'll be able to continue this learning for the rest of my career (and beyond), and along the way I've made an amazing number of great friends and contacts, both personal and professional.

Is chemistry hard? Absolutely. Is organic chemistry dangerous? Yes, but as long as you work safely and carefully, it's (relatively) safe. Do I have some aptitude for it that may have helped me out? Definitely. Is it for everyone? No way. But it's definitely been the right choice of study and career for me and I look forward to many more years of learning and doing.

So maybe next time someone asks me what I do and I tell them, they'll mention how interesting it sounds instead of how much they hate it or how badly they did in the class in school. Hey, I can dream, right?

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