Why I Became a Chemist (?)

July 19th, 2007

I’m still writing that introspective post, so enjoy this one instead.

When I think back on why I became a chemist, I always point to my 10th-grade chemistry class. Our teacher, Dr. Liebermann, was absolutely fabulous. He developed an engaging, rigorous two-year AP Chemistry course with great lecture notes and a detailed laboratory component. The focus was on really understanding the general principles at play, and the massive lab reports and essay questions on tests forced us to understand what was going on. A month into his class, I was certain that I would become a chemist.

But that decision probably had deeper roots. I knew that I wanted to go into math or science in 7th grade, when I had the legendary Vern Williams for math. Before that, in elementary school, I religiously watched Mr. Wizard’s World and would mess around with those experiments in our kitchen. Finally, this periodic table has dominated the landscape of my (old) bedroom since 3rd or 4th grade:


With pictures and small blurbs about each of the elements, it’s still the best periodic table poster I’ve come across. My father brought it back from a trip to England, and I think the Royal Society still sells it. The yellowed pieces of packing tape are a testiment to the sentimental value I hold for the poster. I had to piece it back together after my sister ripped it in a violent rage circa 1992.

Whenever I go back home to Virginia and see the poster, I always chuckle at how funny it is that the periodic table was the last thing I saw at night for nine straight years, and sure enough, now I’m a chemist.

Previous Comments

  1. Liberal Chemist Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 8:35 am Well done, I “became” a chemist after my second year undergraduate as I realized that biochemistry at my university was the bastard offspring of the biology and chemistry departments and not a “real” department in its own right. That and the fact that at my university biochemistry = premed and I did not want to go to med school. In fact, I have always considered myself a scientist not specifically a chemist. It is just that in-depth knowledge of chemistry allows one to understand more general science than any other discipline.

    By the way, I maintain a large collection of periodic tables on the walls of my office and the hallway near our first year chemistry lab and the one table that always gets the most comments is the RSC table that you highlighted.

  2. PG Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 9:40 am The RSC still sells the table, for £8.95:
  3. excimer Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 9:47 am Ohhhh I love that poster. My high school chem teacher also had one. I particularly like how astatine is a notebook page. Though Theodore Gray has made a pretty stunning poster with his element collection as well.

    I really got into chemistry only after I took organic chemistry in college and realized 1. engineering sucks and 2. engineering sucks so hard and 3. Even though I had always liked chemistry, I didn’t really LOVE it until o-chem.

  4. Ms. Buckyball Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 9:52 am In college, I’d encountered Chemistry by accident. But, it’s a great one.
  5. excimer Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 9:57 am Also, your AP chem teacher had a PhD? Sheesh. We were lucky if our science teachers had BS’s in the fields they were teaching (fortunately, my good AP chemistry teacher had a master’s). Inequality in the American public school system whut whut? And people wonder why American kids are so dumb. (actually, I blame the parents first, then the schools, but still, the schools help with the dumb thing too.)
  6. Paul Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 10:06 am Well, it was a science magnet school. At one point, our lab had five people from my high school in it at the same time. That was pretty ridiculous.
  7. Matt J. Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 10:21 am I like how it stops around Californium. Seriously old skool. Your sister should be punished all over again for ripping such a fine piece of childhood nostalgia.

    Most disturbing, however, is the Redskins bumper sticker above the poster…

  8. Paul Ganssle Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 10:57 am We totally have that same poster in my lab. I really like it, though I think some of the factoids have factual inaccuracies. Can’t remember which ones, offhand.
  9. eugene Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 12:14 pm Well, if you had my chemistry teacher, you’d never want to enter chemistry if you had any say in the matter in college. They guy was a right bastard and I remember skipping the last two months of class back in high school to hang out with my girlfriend and make some money at that painting job. Got a C for that. Of course I went into something else right away in college.

    When I went back to visit, I found out that he teaches lab right now at the university where I was visiting the department. I avoided him like the plague.

  10. Chemgeek Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 12:32 pm I had biology, chemistry and physics from the same HS teacher. He was great. I learned so much from him, and it wasn’t just facts and trivia. He forced us to use basic principles and think through problems. He’s not “why” I became a chemist, he “why I was able” to become a chemist. [That and I had a great math teacher also].

    One of the most useful things he required us to memorize were the common polyatomic ions. I thought it was lame at the time, but oh man!! did that come in useful in college and beyond.

  11. W Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 2:47 pm Because I wanted to know, or already knew what things were really alike, and wanted to share my eternal knowledge with other people.

    That’s it, and it still works.

  12. Shrug Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 5:05 pm How about our department’s lucite money-suck, eh Paul? Clearly that belongs on any list of the greatest periodic tables…
  13. Darksyde Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 5:13 pm Having been to that “other magnet school” in Northern Virginia, you will be amazed to know that I also knew that I was going to be a chemist in 10th grade (I’ve known I wanted to be a scientist, as my neighbor was a physicist — ironically all of my high school teachers thought I was going to be a physicist). In any case, he was young (two years out of college), had unkempt hair, a beard, organized ultimate frisbee leagues with his students. But he was also damned good at explaining chemistry.

    I knew I wanted to be a peptide chemist in high school. After a few years in the wilderness in college, I’ve come around full circle. However, I no longer have a periodic table in my room. The last thing that I see before I sleep is Roche’s Biomolecular Pathways.

  14. Ψ*Ψ Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 5:43 pm Hated science until high school chemistry. After two years of classes under probably one of the best HS chem teachers out there, well, there was no turning back.
  15. Hap Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 6:08 pm My chemistry teachers in middle and high school were probably the difference. My physics teacher wanted me to go into physics, but I liked chemistry before then, and once I got to play with inorganics I liked it too much. When I finally took chemistry senior year, the new teacher was a PhD from Princeton and knew lots of organic chemistry, so I got to like organic chem and that was it.

    Biomolecular pathways before sleep – that sounds like a recipe for nightmares…

  16. fng Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 6:11 pm I knew I wanted to study chemistry through my recreational use of drugs, LSD in particular. I didn’t spend much time in high school. I had a great organic chemistry prof. in COMMUNITY COLLEGE. worked hard, transfered to UF, found out i was pretty good with my hands through a few years of research, a few pubs, and a good austrian mentor. its unfortunate some of the credit goes to many of acid trips. nevertheless, we all have our own paths. i’m now a chemist in the beautiful northeast and still get the same satisfaction from hearing my wife say, “you smell like the lab” as i did the first time she said it.
  17. Darksyde Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 6:52 pm The nightmare part of the biomolecular pathways is the smaller “biology” side. There’s so many mistakes it’s egregious. However, the prostaglandin pathway is on that side so I couldn’t chuck it.
  18. Klug Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 7:30 pm I was deciding between biology and chemistry as a major; I had chosen biology initially. One day, in biology class, I looked at the overhead screen, looked at my classmates and promptly decided that biology was not for me. I have not looked back.

    W nails it. Chemists know what the world is made of; that’s a useful skill no matter what.

    Darksyde, I’ve had two oral examinations (of sorts) in one week. FOClNBrSCH is now firmly stuck in my head.

  19. Taitauwai Says:
    July 19th, 2007 at 8:59 pm I have a great HS Chem Teacher. A pretty young lady. Very upfront, lecture very LOUDLY and you never feel bored. Always thought I will major in Math though… Did very well back in high school, got some classy awards too. But when I come to uni, rows and rows of lab-bench, shinny glasswares and smelly chemicals bring back fond memories… I decided that my first true love is still CHEMISTRY. ;P
  20. Darksyde Says:
    July 20th, 2007 at 3:23 am Klug: Glad to be of help (or torment) as it may be.

    I almost left Chemistry. Except there was a beautiful Serbian TA named P who stayed back and helped me through some tough problems, gave me some advice and basically told me to not freak out and “stick to it”. Also my (to be) advisor taught a quarter of chemistry which rescued me. Happened to also be Serbian-American.

    In short, if not for the Serbians, I would not be a chemist.

    As a footnote, P ran off and got married to some economist and last I heard was living in Brazil, she didn’t finish her PhD. On the off chance that she’s reading this, well, I’m in debt to her.

  21. Darksyde Says:
    July 20th, 2007 at 3:30 am Incidentally, P wasn’t actually even my TA, she was my roommate’s TA, and my roommate told me that “I *had* to attend her session since she was so attractive that I’d learn chemistry”. I resisted his cajoling (since I have a high standard of moral turpitude), but eventually I wound up having to go due to some sort of scheduling conflict. So I also owe it to my ex-roommate. Who wound up leaving biology after all and got an econ degree and is probably making at least 600% my salary.

    Speaking of motivationally beautiful TAs, If my ex-gf were my TA, I would probably have gone into math. As it was, being that she’s three days younger than me (and not three years older) she and I TAed a class *together*, and instead of studying math, I dated her.

  22. Wavefunction Says:
    July 20th, 2007 at 10:51 am Ripped open bathroom tiles with HCl, breathed NO2 by dissolving mom’s safety pins in HNO3, blew out a window with the I2-NH3 thingie, created a mess with the glycerine-KMnO4 rxn. I have to say that books that got me interested in science were Giants of Science, Conquest of Disease, and of course the (mandatory) Paul De Kruif Microbe Hunters. I almost switched to physics as a major, but I sucked at math so backed off. Finally realised that Chem and Bio are really childhood loves. Cannot really point out a science teacher who was particularly inspiring.
  23. Ron Says:
    July 21st, 2007 at 4:48 am My first foray into the world of chemistry began in a community college course I took my freshman year in high school. I was so enamored with the subject that I devoured the textbook for the class in a matter of days and wanted more and more until the conclusion of that course. I also drew a periodic table and colored it by hand on a huge poster board that I kept in my room until I lost it when my family moved to a new house that year. In addition, when reading the Wrinkle of Time, I saw that the main character had memorized the elements of the periodic table, so I proceeded to do the same … until I got bored of doing it (I stopped at zirconium).

    I didn’t come back to chemistry until I was a sophomore in college and interested in an engineering degree of some sort. The general prerequisite for any engineering degree is one year of freshman chemistry, so I enrolled in the honors track of freshman chemistry. When it came time for me to decide my major at the end of spring quarter of my sophomore year, I decided that I wanted to do something engineer-y and I also liked chemistry … so why not chemical engineering? The best of both worlds (or so I thought)!

    I fell out of love pretty quickly with the engineering part of chemical engineering (which, in fact, has pretty nothing to do with chemistry – and you would not believe how much chemical engineering majors will whine about how much chemistry they are required to take). Instead, I elected to saturate my electives with as many chemistry classes as possible. I was two classes short of graduating with a BS in chemistry, but I had already applied to graduate school by then and am currently in my third (and soon to be fourth) year.

    I, unfortunately, was deprived of fun with chemistry kits as a kid – my science projects were overwhelmingly focused on thermodynamic experiments that I saw on TV shows like Beakman’s World, back in the day. I know that, if I have children, I will do my damndest to make chemistry come alive for them, if they so desire …

  24. Anonymous Says:
    July 22nd, 2007 at 4:28 pm Any truth to the Jacobsen moving from Harvard rumors?
  25. eugene Says:
    July 22nd, 2007 at 6:12 pm I became a chemist for all the gossip. And all I got was a lousy ACS T-shirt.

    Ron, you should get The Golden Book of Bad Ideas, I mean the Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments for your future hypothetical children. It’s a little on the pricey side, but you can get it for free electronically. The little loves need to learn how to make chlorine gas from HCl at home if they ever want to become useful chemists.


  26. Darksyde Says:
    July 22nd, 2007 at 9:50 pm Eugene: Did you by chance just come back from a salsa lesson? If so, you’re pretty good.
  27. eugene Says:
    July 23rd, 2007 at 10:49 am Darksyde, you’re really reaching… But good luck with that salsa thing. I hear dancing is a good way to connect with the opposite sex. At least that’s what I got from “The Learning Channel” before I got rid of the TV. In retrospect, maybe going out for dancing lessons was a better idea than drinking beer while watching “The Human Animal” or “Connections” on the idiot box.
  28. Ψ*Ψ Says:
    July 24th, 2007 at 3:04 am A friend of mine is a salsa dancer who also speaks several languages. If he can’t get laid, there is something seriously wrong with the world.
    Fortunately, women who don’t dance are immune to salsa seduction. :)
  29. Holey Moley Says:
    July 24th, 2007 at 3:20 pm Like you, my 10th grade chemistry teacher, Ms. Hilli, inspired me to go into chemistry. When I took AP chemistry my senior year, I knew that I wanted to major in chemistry; however, I initially declared biology my freshman year of college. It took me about a week of cell biology to realize that biology was A LOT of memorization. Chemistry was more problem-solving based and, at least to me, much more enjoyable. Second-semester I declared chemistry and never had any regrets, even though I did venture over to biology for a few classes. Research, lectures, and teaching experience with/for some of the best chemistry professors in the world (Dr. Kubasik, Dr. O’Connell, Dr. Sarneski, Dr. Weddle, Fr. Elder, and Dr. Steffen) inspired me to go to graduate school. So, here I am today, an (almost) 3rd year orgo grad student and enjoying every minute of it (while I’d rather not reveal my identity…I do work in a research group that is supportive and great to hang out with and my PI is an inspiration unto himself). Okay, that’s my little tribute to teachers/profs of past and present.

    With regards to the poster, you used to be able to download a screensaver from the RSC that was analogous to poster shown. It was my screen-saver my sophomore year of college. I don’t know if you can still download it, but I thought it was pretty cool at the time.

  30. anan……… Says:
    July 25th, 2007 at 11:05 pm Do not go to postdocing……..they are good at killing your interest for good……despite of your motivations and inspirations by your teachers/profs. Sincerely I Hope that one day the life for postdocs will imporve.
  31. Herman Blume Says:
    July 26th, 2007 at 6:43 pm Before making any rash decisions about enlisting for postdoctoral work, students should see ‘The Deer Hunter’. To help with interpretation/translation to a students life; working at the mill = graduate school, the war = postdoc, after = …
  32. Darksyde Says:
    July 27th, 2007 at 2:48 am Don’t listen to Herman Blume. He’s just a really old and bitter industrialist who didn’t get to schtupp the school teacher.
  33. anon Says:
    July 27th, 2007 at 11:42 am What is so bad about a postdoc? I really enjoyed mine. Probably one of the greatest times of my career. You have all the freedom to do as you wish without the responsibilities of grad school (thesis, quals, et cetera) and no worries of faculty life (tenure, funding, et cetera).
  34. anand Says:
    July 27th, 2007 at 3:42 pm You were lucky, I guess. Lucky one has to be to get the freedom to do what you want to……other wise it is nothing but exploitation …by all means avoid such torture.
  35. Herman Blume Says:
    July 27th, 2007 at 5:33 pm Rosemary and I are happily together, although she is still in love with a dead guy and that dead guy has more life and spark in his fingernail then I or Max do. She’s sweet, but she’s fucked-up. A little advice for Darksyde: You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn’t matter. You were born rich and your going to stay rich. But here’s my advice to the rest of you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it. Thank you.
  36. Shrug Says:
    July 27th, 2007 at 11:14 pm That was Bill Murray, no?

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