Dylan Stiles takes a trip down memory lane

Dylan Stiles takes a trip down memory lane

I was doing a little spring cleaning the other day, when I came across a cardboard box labeled FRESHMAN YEAR. It was a veritable time capsule, chock full of class notes from 1998. I found myself leafing through notebooks from chemistry classes like old photo albums, reminiscing about the wonder years of undergraduate education. Was it really ten years ago? 

Those were simpler times. Benzene was still just a circle inscribed in a hexagon, not the reaction solvent I know today. A nucleophilic addition was nothing more than a curly arrow reaching from one structure to another. I found an exam with comically-bad mistakes. Minus five points for drawing a carbon atom that severely overextended its valency - how na?ve, I thought. 

In 1998 my entire understanding of chemistry was an abstract set of symbols that had no basis in reality. My preconceptions of what it all meant were devoid of the visceral sensations that I have today: the choking fumes of elemental bromine, or what it feels like to shake a big separatory funnel. Critical analysis was impossible without the years of advanced classes that would follow. 

The apprentice 

Back then I certainly would not have called myself a scientist, let alone a researcher. Only recently have I reached a point where I feel comfortable with those labels. What has changed between then and now, and why did it take so long?  

I was struck by how long it takes for the concepts we’re taught as undergraduates to become useful in the real world. Starting from freshman chemistry 101, I’d argue that it takes at least five years before an average chemistry student can actually form a hypothesis and test it in a laboratory. Even the most gifted stars of the field don’t emerge until their mid-twenties.  

Compare chemistry with computer science. I have friends who were tinkering with computers as infants, and could type before they could write. Kids can teach themselves to program in the comfort of their bedrooms and start companies as teenagers. Some of the most revolutionary changes in the high-tech world were brought about by people not old enough to drive. 

But professional chemists need years of laboratory training before they can be set loose. Speaking as a product of the higher education system, I can see why disciplines that offer quick access to lucrative careers might be more appealing than chemistry or physics. 

A thorough Birching 

I was pondering this while I turned to a notebook from my sophomore year. By 1999, my hexagon scribbles were at least taking on a more regular shape. But electrons were still nothing more than dots on the page. Not until years later, when I finally performed a Birch reduction with my own hands, did I realise the significance of these dots. A dark-blue solution of lithium metal in liquid ammonia is an image that stays with you. 

These lab experiments, which translate concept to reality, seem like rites of passage. Only the most disciplined students that stay on the long, arduous trail up the academic mountain can emerge with a deep understanding. The attrition suffered by the world army of chemists is not unlike Napoleon’s doomed march into Russia - scores are lost at every turn.  

I make no claims for lofty inspiration that has kept me on the trail, nor do I look down on those pursuing other career opportunities. But, while it may sound elitist, maybe the nature of the process helps to explain the camaraderie shared by PhD-toting scientists? 

Dylan Stiles is a PhD student based in California, US.