Many wonder why I decided to pursue “Chemistry” as my major. This era was supposedly the era of computer science and healthcare. Where does chemistry fit in?
Simple enough, the reason I studied chemistry in college is: at that stage, I did not know what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life. Luckily, I was sure that… “I love my high school chemistry classes, I know chemistry is the central discipline in the understanding of natural events, and I like synthesizing materials (mixing colorful stuff in the lab looks pretty cool). Yea, this should be good for now and I’ll figure out what I want to do with it later.”
Chemistry at Illinois
At the time I applied to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC), the undergraduate chemistry program was ranked 2nd in the nation (check U.S. News for the most updated list). After my freshman admission, I was asked to take math/quantitative and chemistry tests online to determine which curriculum matches my need best. Depending on your test scores, your academic adviser will suggest you which curriculum to take. You are not required to follow what s/he suggested but it is nice to have a guideline on where you are heading to. The undergraduate chemistry program at UIUC offers several curricula/options: Specialized Curriculum in Chemistry, Science and Letters Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry option, and Chemistry Teacher Training program. Specialized Curriculum in Chemistry is the professional program endorsed by the American Chemical Society and is aimed for students who wish to become professional chemists upon graduation or go to graduate school in science. This rigid program drills the students through a large amount of lab courses and requires them to start taking technical classes since freshman; otherwise, it may be difficult to complete this program in four years. Students will also receive a certification from American Chemical Society if they manage to take more advanced chemistry and biochemistry courses. The Science and Letters Chemistry program is more lenient than the previous program. It offers flexibility to those who want to explore classes from other schools, such as business, law, and pre-med. Students only need to take slightly less than half technical classes that students from Specialized Curriculum are required to. For those who are interested to work as environment chemists in the public or private sector, Environmental Chemistry option is what you should pursue. Students who take this option will be certified in Environmental Chemistry by the American Chemical Society . UIUC also offers Chemistry Teaching Training program for those who want to be high school chemistry teachers (not professors, one will at least need a doctorate degree for this).
What I learned in college
The truth is, chemistry offers more than what I expected. I decided to pursue on Specialized Curriculum in Chemistry due to my fondness to lab courses. Having an undergraduate degree in chemistry exposed me to various fields, from molecular biology to quantum mechanics, and helped me dig deeper through the ones I was more interested at. This program also helped me to have closer interactions with the faculty (only 8 people in my class were pursuing this option as freshman and only 3 managed to finish it on time; the rest either switched to Science and Letters Chemistry or postponed their graduation). Imagine watching “Chemist of the Year” in the U.S. doing lab work in a four-person class, this is what you’ll get in Specialized Curriculum in Chemistry. The intimacy between faculty and students and the accessibility to professors are two of the reasons that make Illinois a great place to study chemistry. We also have classes with 200+ students where we are given the chance to work with students with different backgrounds.
I later found most of my lab classes very practical in both day-to-day life and work. During my first week of internship as a process engineer, I remember being complimented by my senior about my speed weighing reagents on a balance. Measuring weight of reagents to decimal precision may not be a tough skill to learn but it requires months of practice. Later I found out that I was given the most challenging project among other interns partly because of this reason.
To graduate, I was required to write an undergraduate thesis. Thanks to my program, I was able to work as an undergraduate researcher at very early stage (2nd semester). Starting early in research allowed me to explore several research topics and moved from one research group to another before deciding which topic to write for my thesis. Working as an undergraduate researcher in school gave me a better perspective on what the research environment was like in academia and opportunities to attend national conferences as well as writing papers for publication.
Lastly, aside from the technical knowledge, the most important skill I learned from my undergrad is: analytical skill. It always amazes me how this seemingly dull expertise has helped us, chemists, move from one stage to another.
Careers in chemistry
Most of us think of chemists as individuals appearing in front of fume hoods, holding bubbling liquids, synthesizing explosive materials. This image of chemists is true to some extent but most of the chemists are in fact holding tubes of colorless boring liquids, and they are nowhere close to explosives or poisons. Chemists work with anything from medicine, gas, to foldable LCDs.
I am a chemist but I don’t work for a chemical company. As surprising as it can be, chemists can be fashion designers, working on the next season fabric colors. Chemists can be astronomers, studying the abundance and reactions of chemicals in space. Chemists can be doctors, testing drugs for the next medical implants. Chemists can be chefs, practicing unconventional chemical transformations of food ingredients (there is a whole new subject focusing this: molecular gastronomy). Chemists can be perfumers (one of my classmates is, in fact, pursuing this track), developing the next generation of Chanel No5 fragrance. Chemists can also be forensic experts, giving impartial explanation to the jury in the courtroom. Chemists can even be writing codes to simulate properties of novel molecules. Other chemists end up in investment banks working as analysts. More careers on chemistry, check this website: http://goo.gl/25AK8
Couple of last words…
Where does chemistry fit in? Chemistry has always been around us ever since human civilization existed. Why chemistry has not been noticeable to the rest of the world is similar to why the backstage crew in the entire film industry is out of the audience’s radar. Most of the chemists’ work is subtly pervasive that many of us take it for granted but their work has never been inessential. So, why NOT chemistry?