While chemistry in high school is typically a one-year course, in college, it is broken down into four or more years of individual disciplines: inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, and biochemistry. And as with science courses in high school, I learned that I didn’t like all fields of chemistry either.
My freshman year, as do all chemistry majors, I studied inorganic chemistry—the science of all chemical elements except for those containing carbon-hydrogen bonds. This course reconfirmed my interest in chemistry thus allowing me to avoid the typical freshman dilemma of having to change majors after just one year.
In my sophomore year, with organic chemistry—the study of all carbon-hydrogen containing compounds—I knew I really had selected the right field of study. I loved learning the different chemical reactions, and for me, balancing equations and drawing chemical structures were a fun exercise.
My “hiccup” year was my junior year when I had to take Physical Chemistry or what is known simply as P. Chem. On the first day of class, the professor said no one in his class would make an A, as you could never learn in just one semester what he knew about physical chemistry. Needless to say, I really struggled with this course and further confirmed my dislike for physics. A popular bumper sticker among chemists at the time was “Honk if you passed P. Chem” and there were times when I wondered if this course would end my pursuit of chemistry. I think my first exam grade was a 17, which actually turned out to be a D based on the curve. I had to make at least a C to get credit for the course and thankfully I eked out a C for the semester. Second semester was not as difficult as our professor went on sabbatical and another professor from a local university taught second semester. On his first day, he couldn’t believe how far we had made it into the textbook in just one semester. We couldn’t have agreed more!
My senior year, I took Biochemistry and Analytical chemistry, two courses I thoroughly enjoyed. With Biochemistry, I was amazed at how all of the chemical reactions that I had learned about in organic chemistry were going on inside the human body to maintain life. And analytical chemistry was right up my alley allowing me to work with my hands assembling and disassembling analytical instruments. So three out of my four years, I really enjoyed my major.
In my senior year in college, I had to decide if I was going to go to graduate school or try to get a chemistry job fresh out of school. From all the conversations I had at the time with both professors and chemistry graduates, I learned that I wouldn’t be able to do much with just a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry so I made the next big decision in my educational process to attend graduate school. The only question was where would I go and what would I study.
In looking back over my four years of chemistry, the two courses that stood out the most were organic chemistry and analytical chemistry. I seriously considered going into organic synthesis and considered applying to a master’s program in organic synthesis (my brother, also a chemistry major, did actually pursue a graduate degree in organic synthesis and following graduate school, got a job at a large pharmaceutical company producing new drug compounds). But it was my enjoyment of analytical chemistry that won me over to pursue a graduate degree in that. I had always liked working with my hands and machines and analytical chemistry with a specialty in instrumental analysis would allow me to pursue both loves.
At the time, one of my college professors also had an appointment as an adjunct faculty member of a local university. One of my fellow students had been accepted there to pursue a degree in forensic toxicology and both she and my professor encouraged me to attend there also. Although my final GPA did not meet the university’s entry requirement, my professor argued for my admittance and enabled me to be accepted.
Given that I had attended a very tough liberal arts college with an established reputation for chemistry majors, graduate school course work was actually easier than college. My only “hiccup” in graduate school was the university’s elimination of the toxicology program, which I had entered. My working plan had been to train in forensic toxicology and then work in a crime lab, just like the one where I was doing my graduate work, one where professional chemists receive human samples for drug analysis either from law enforcement officers or the medical examiner’s office. My course work and my thesis project was preparing me for a job in a toxicology laboratory even though my final degree would not be in toxicology (it would be in Experimental Pathology, which is a bit confusing as I only went to the morgue once and decided I never wanted to go back). While in graduate school, I did work part-time in clinical toxicology performing drug screens and analyses for local hospital patients.
Since I didn’t want to deal with post-mortem samples and the bodies from which they would be derived, I decided to pursue clinical toxicology, a similar field but one where the samples come from living human beings. I was fortunate to have on my graduate committee, a medical doctor from the local VA hospital. Through him, I found out about a job in their clinical toxicology lab. Before I finished my degree, I went to the VA and applied for that job. It was my first job application in my desired career and after having several interviews and taking several exams, I was hired.
This meant I would be switching from going to school full time and working part-time to working full time and finishing up my Master’s thesis part-time (I had already completed all of my required course work). This change also fit in nicely with my personal life as I had gotten married just the year before and the following year we would start our family.
For the first time in my life, I was working fulltime, and not just fulltime, but fulltime in my selected career. I still had to finish my Master’s thesis which meant working nights and weekends but I felt like I was beginning to do what I had spent all those years in school—high school, college and graduate school—preparing for. I was happy with what I was doing and where I was working.
To be continued…