Majoring in Chemistry definitely isn’t for everyone.
With the latest international news of Duke Chemistry Professor Paul Modrich winning a Nobel Prize for research in “mismatch DNA repair,” I decided to reflect on being a chemistry major at Duke University. Majoring in chemistry at Duke is probably most known for enticing 300 people to enroll in Basic Chemistry only to be whittled down to 8 by the time you get to Physical Chemistry. Maybe it’s the 4-hour labs, the odd smell, or being surrounded by pipettes that deters many undergraduates. Here is the inner scoop on why many jumped ship over to major in sociology.
The “Gross Chemistry Building” was an austere concrete fort-like structure named after former Chairman Paul M. Gross. Like many chemistry buildings on undergraduate campuses, the building was sequestered far away from the beaten path of the beautiful Gothic architectural buildings where my friends had classes. I’m not sure if they were concerned it was going to blow up with all of us making various chemical reactions or if it was a test of dedication to our major. In order to get to the building you had to climb about 75 oddly spaced stairs clutching your lab notebook, which made for unneeded added stress if you were running late for class.
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While your friends were playing Frisbee on the quad, grabbing a beer at the campus bar, or enjoying a live music concert, we were hunched over our lab bench pipetting away and cleaning Erlenmeyer flasks for four hours. We would walk out of our marathon lab with an odd smell and green fingers.
What other university department had a “Shower/Eyewash Station” in the event that venomous chemicals spilled in your eyes and on your clothes? Each room had this eyewash and knowing that someone would actually have to use this prehistoric contraption could make you change majors. Why weren’t we all just wearing HazMat suits?
Despite all of that, somehow 8 (down from hundreds) of us did end up majoring in chemistry. We did get extra individual recognition during our graduation, a proud day for my father who also majored in chemistry. We were among the thinnest undergraduates due to the 75 oddly wide stairs that we would SPRINT up to make lecture at the inhumane college class time of 8:00 am. We can claim to be associated with new Nobel Laureate, Professor Paul Modrich. And we can laugh when we reflect on how inane those 4-hour labs are in our current professional careers.
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