Monday, November 4, 2013

Introducing you to the bad boyfriend...

There was a lovely little piece by Barbara Moran in the New York Times over the weekend about what it's like to study organic chemistry. It gets so much exactly right about how students experience the course and why it's worth taking, even if you never "use" the material again. I give a speech on the first day of every Orgo I class about that includes a bit about why medical schools might require the course. Here's that speech, from a different point of view:

But the rules have many, many exceptions, which students find maddening. The same molecule will behave differently in acid or base, in dark or sunlight, in heat or cold, or if you sprinkle magic orgo dust on it and turn around three times. You can’t memorize all the possible answers — you have to rely on intuition, generalizing from specific examples. This skill, far more than the details of every reaction, may actually be useful for medicine.
“It seems a lot like diagnosis,” said Logan McCarty, Harvard’s director of physical sciences education, who taught the second semester. “That cognitive skill — inductive generalization from specific cases to something you’ve never seen before — that’s something you learn in orgo.”
Moran also does a great job of describing the sheer amount of time and constant practice learning organic chemistry takes.

This takes a huge amount of time, for me 20 to 30 hours a week. The class turned me into a bore, a sleep-deprived, orgo-obsessed grind who saw the shapes of molecules in every sidewalk crack and snack cracker. My study partners and I called orgo the “bad boyfriend,” because it stole so much time from our personal lives. As in, “I just blew off Thanksgiving dinner to hang out with the bad boyfriend.” Once, my 3-year-old clung to my leg as I tried to leave for class. “Mama, don’t go!” he cried. “No more chemistry!” Sorry, little buddy. Bad boyfriend’s calling.

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About Me

I'm a biochemist at a small college.