From the Classroom to the Lab: It’s Not the Same!

My goal with this post is to share my experience with organic chemistry class and organic chemistry instructional lab, and how those experiences completely differed when I got to do organic chemistry in a research lab.

There are prerequisite class series that you must take to move on with your major. For me, one of them was organic chemistry. Taking organic chemistry was not the most exciting part of my second year. I didn’t have anything against the subject– I actually thought it was quite interesting– but amidst the other classes I was taking, extracurriculars, and my personal life it became mostly a chore of a class. I breezed through the series with not much thought about it, thinking I’d never be doing organic chemistry again.

Instructional lab was a little different but had the same result. It was a lot more interesting than the class for sure. You get the opportunity to apply some of the theory and see it happen in real life. I really enjoyed many of the labs that employed making stuff from everyday life. However, what I didn’t like was the time commitment required to do well in the class. Consecutive prelabs and lab reports would pile up and combine with midterms and homework from other classes and would all lead to long nights on days before lab.

Overall, both lab and class were stressful experiences that left a small sour taste for organic chemistry; by the end of the series, I was relieved I’d never have to see the subject again. But because this is life and nothing ever goes the way you think, here I am this summer doing research that involves lots of organic synthesis. the plot twist is that I’m thoroughly enjoying it. How did this happen? The answer lies in the all-time cliché, “Research is not the same as class!”. I’d heard this phrase countless times at student panels, at professional development workshops, and at talks by many faculty but I’d never paid much attention to it. The truth is that it doesn’t have much meaning until you experience it yourself.

Over the summer, my project is to synthesize six different sequences of a protein-like polymer that could be used to prevent biomineralization in the body. When I started the project, my mentor gave me an overview of the reactions I’d be working with. As she explained the reaction mechanisms and the reasoning for the reagents and the conditions, it all made sense! I was able to follow and understand, and even question why some things would be one way and not the other. As the summer progressed, things got even better. I saw myself writing “prelabs” for the experiments I would do. I started writing the motivation for my reactions, the background from the literature, the goals for my experiments, the reaction mechanisms, the general steps, even the table of reagents (complete with drawn structures!). And instead of it being a chore, it was something I enjoyed.

All in all, the things that caused so many restless nights of work and study now have meaning. So this is my take-away message: Do not get discouraged by how well you do in a class or by how much you dislike the instruction, instead, allow yourself to learn as best as you can and remember that the world of research is full of surprises, and you may find yourself enjoying a subject that you thought you “hated”.

Proof that I really do enjoy what I’m doing!