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Essay - Why I Chose Chemistry

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Mar. 28th, 2011 | 10:24 pm

Why I Chose Chemistry
Or: Three times I almost changed my major, and why it never happened.

A lot of people in the chemistry department know me. My name is Rebecca Ou. I am a chemistry major in Sixth College, with an expected graduation date of June 2012. I am also an officer of the American Chemical Society Student Affiliates here at UC San Diego, and I have been for years already. Since I've become an officer, I've worked on promoting chemistry on campus and off. I've worked with the Chemistry Undergraduate Advising Department during Admit Day since my freshman year. I've participated in outreach events, and even organized them. I've attended the Spring Conference of National ACS. Since my freshman year at UCSD, I've worked to promote chemistry to science majors and non-science majors alike.

But when I first entered UCSD, I just wanted to finish a year of Chemistry so I could go home and tell my mother that I had upheld my end of the bargain, and I was going to be a Writing major now.

It was primarily arrogance that led me to sign up for the honors general chemistry sequence. Arrogance and my older brother's brief comment of: “I heard that it was fun,” led me to sign up for the honors sequence. I didn't particularly want to remain a chemistry major, but I had applied as one, and I didn't want to change my major before I had even arrived at school. My mother had also made it clear that I had to at least try the major out for a year before changing my mind. At 8 in the morning, chemistry was even less appealing. My sleeping classmates seemed to agree with me.

During winter break, I informed my mother that I would fulfill two more quarters, and then I was done.

That was when Winter quarter started. Dr. Weare walked in to the front of York 2622, faced us, and said, smiling, “You all know partial derivatives right? Good. Let's review Thermodynamics.” I turned to my friends sitting next to me and mouthed: “I thought partial derivatives weren't a pre-req.”

My friends gave me the same shell-shocked look back.

It was the most intense quarter of my life. To this day, I don't know why I had responded to Dr. Weare's expectations the way I did. What I did know was that his enthusiasm for the subject was contagious, and there was a sense of delight in watching Dr. Weare hem and haw into the microphone at the bottom of the stage before deriving a thermodynamic equation. We passed out the worksheets, spent our lunches crammed into booths at Plaza trying to answer his “challenge” questions, and lived and breathed thermodynamics and quantum physics for ten weeks.

I think it was his faith in us. When we exchanged incredulous looks in the middle of lecture, his response would be to say that we could do this. At his last office hour of the quarter, he told all of us that we were brilliant, and he knew that all of us were capable of earning a Nobel prize.

We laughed when he told us that we were brilliant. We didn't feel brilliant; we felt crushed. It was our second quarter of university, and as a group, we were used to being brilliant. We chose the honors sequence because we were used to cruising through our classes, and this was the first class where we had truly been expected to learn more than we had ever imagined. We turned to each other and laughed and said, “He's completely crazy.” And then we organized study groups and studied for hours in a row. We took over study rooms in the library, signing up for rooms in separate groups to circumvent the rules that stated that we were only allowed to have a study room for 2 hours at a time. Every two hours, we negotiated with other groups who stopped by to take over the room, offering other rooms in exchange for keeping the same room, and packing up our bags if that failed. It was the best quarter of my life, and it was all because of the honors sequence. I was in a class full of people who were determined to be the best, and we had decided that the lot of us were going to do it together.

At the end of the quarter, I had run for an officer position at ACSSA, gotten said officer position, and couldn't even dream of changing my major.

But even though I had fallen in love with chemistry once, it was easy for me to fall out of love again. General Chemistry laboratory was frustrating, and it was a shock to suddenly be in York 2722, a nameless, faceless creature among hundreds. Compared to the small comforting honors classes I had grown accustomed to, where professors expected us to think quicker, to work harder, and pushed us accordingly, the general chemistry laboratory was painful in their expectations of grunt work. It didn't matter if I was capable of more, all that mattered was writing out an analysis until my hand cramped.

Where was the joy in that?

I was terrified that this was what chemistry truly meant. Everybody had told me that chemistry was defined by lab, and my first laboratory class was arguably the worst experience of my university life. As the quarter ended, I was ready to cry in frustration, because I was spending six hours a week in a lab classroom, duly following instructions, and independent thought wasn't to be rewarded.

But I still had Honors Chemistry. Every time I sat down for CHEM 6CH, I was waiting for that same joy. I sat down with a group so different from my benchmates in lab class—they only wanted to pass the class, they loathed chemistry, they wanted to simply be done—and we delved into toxins, researching bee venom for our first poster presentation. Book research, but research nonetheless.

For now, that would have to be enough.

I thought it would get better when I entered my sophomore year, but it didn't. Crammed into a lecture hall with at least two-hundred other people, I stared listlessly at a powerpoint as it flashed various organic molecules. What was the point of taking notes if the notes would be online? What was the point of even attending lecture, when all the material was taken directly out of the textbook? Where was the drive, the love for the subject?

And that same quarter I sat in my first writing class, and the teacher faced us, book in hand, and taught us about how much she loved writing. It was like seeing Dr. Weare again, chalk in hand, asking us if we knew how to do triple integrals and saying, “I'm sure you all understand it,” while we turned to the few people in the class who had taken the math already and asked them when they were free to study together.

I was a sophomore, starting my second chemistry sequence, and I hated it.

When I went home that winter break, I told my mother that I was done with chemistry. That I hated it. That I never wanted to think about it again, and that it was stupid and I just wanted to write. My mom told me that our deal had been one year, and she wouldn't stop me if that was what I truly wanted. “But you told me,” she said to me as I was ready to rip apart all my organic chemistry notes, “you told me that you loved chemistry.”

“You're wrong,” I shouted back, but I didn't drop the honors classes I had already signed up for. Instead I told myself that I'd at least go to the first week. One more quarter of science couldn't hurt me. It was an honors sequence, after all. It would be better.

It was more than better.

Dr. Weizman believed in us. The first thing he told us was that he believed we could all get an A. That he believed that we could all get an A, even without a curve. And the entire class laughed and laughed. Our grades had always depended on a curve; that was how we succeeded, and he expected us to be able to ace a class without a curve? That had to be a joke.

“I'm not joking,” Dr. Weizman told us. And then we got started.

Dr. Weizman's belief was like Dr. Weare's, yet completely unlike at the same time. He held us to the same exacting standard that Dr. Weare did, expecting us to push ourselves beyond our limits. Instead of merely giving us a mechanism, he had us work through it. He told us frankly that we were brilliant, and therefore we could handle the material he was going to show us.

But Dr. Weizman was different from Dr. Weare, or perhaps it was us that were different. When we asked what was going on, Dr. Weizman stopped and explained the material. Or maybe he didn't, and he asked us, “what do you think?” We stared at each other and muttered “resonance,” under our breaths in hope that it was the right answer, because several weeks of experience had told us that the answer was almost always resonance (except for when it wasn't, and then we got a tongue lashing on how to think instead of merely respond by rote).

We still laughed. We still thought that Dr. Weizman was delusional. And we went to class and Dr. Weizman would peek over our shoulders and watch us write out mechanisms before going back to the blackboard and explain why electrons were pushed, and not positive charges. Then we would file into our extra problem solving session, which we called “Mechanism Club.” There, Dr. Weizman would peek over our shoulders again and inform us just why exactly it was wrong. It was terrifying. It was traumatic. It was amazing.

I loved it.

Here was a professor who loved his subject. Here was a professor who loved teaching. Here was a professor who loved chemistry. I couldn't help but fall in love with chemistry again and again. I wanted to love chemistry. How could I not? It was like being a freshman, lost and confused and terrified in Dr. Weare's class, except I was no longer a freshman; I was a sophomore and so close to walking away from chemistry forever. Except now I was being told just what was wrong, just why I was so upset at the subject. Four days of the week: Discussion on Mondays, lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Mechanism Club on Friday; I was facing organic chemistry head-on, and I didn't want to run away anymore.

In week eight, my mother called me and asked if I had changed my major yet. I blinked in confusion and said, “Oh. I said that before didn't I? I changed my mind.”

Because I really did. I loved chemistry again, and this time I knew that even if I fell out of love again, I just needed to fall back in love. Because there were people in this world who loved chemistry so very much, and if they loved it that much, then surely I could love it, just a little bit more, as well.

How many of us are there? How many of us are out there, hating what we do, waiting for somebody to tell us why we're in the field we're in?

Perhaps I'm simply a coward. Perhaps I remained a chemistry major because I was too scared to see what would happen if I truly did graduate with a writing degree. But it wasn't cowardice that made me sign up for Honors General Chemistry in my freshman year. And it wasn't cowardice that made me choose the Honors Organic Chemistry sequence in my sophomore year. It was a desperate attempt to fall in love with the major that had chosen me. The first time it was arrogance, and a small hope that I could have fun for a year before I went down the path I truly wanted to take. But the second time? The third time?

I just wanted to fall in love again.

(And I did.)

cross-posted from starriheavens

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