The Interface of Rose Bowls and Priestly Medals

Few equate chemistry with (American) football.  You could imagine my surprise to see that this year’s chemistry SURP program featured a guest lecturer that would cover the symbiotic relationship between ethics and athletics.  My freshman year of college, I had a philosophy professor that taught Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics through a football analogy, but that’s the closest I’ve ever made a connection between scholarly aptitude and a rugged manly sport.  After getting “special permission” from the department to attend (I’m definitely not a SURP student), I got the rare opportunity to sit in the same room with a prominent sports figure—the head coach of our University’s football team.

Those who know me will probably know which coach I’m talking about, but for the sake of anonymity, I’ll simply refer to him as “Coach.”  Arriving a few minutes late, “Coach” darted through the door and up to the head of the classroom avoiding eye contact.  Truthfully, I saw no difference between his social manner and most other profs (no smiling, reasonably polite yet focused).  Rather than stand in a traditional lecturing position, Coach elected to sit at eye level with the 20 of us (some of whom were there to bombard him with football questions).  He started the discussion by saying, “I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to talk about, but this’ll be pretty informal.  I figure I’ll talk about ethics from my perspective then answer any questions you guys have, except about the football team.”  That was a pretty reasonable request because if I were hypothetically in a room with Terry Francona, he probably wouldn’t want me to ask why he hadn’t benched Manny Ramirez weeks ago.

The crux of Coach’s discussion was two-fold and actually quite simple: (a) goal setting is paramount to excellence and (b) you have to learn to overcome anything that gets in the way of preventing you from reaching your goals.  He offered up this story:

“I asked one of my wide receivers, ‘what’s your goal for the year.’  And, he says, ‘Coach, I want to catch 50 passes this season.’  That’s not a goal.  That’s an end result.  His goal should be to push himself to become a better player so that you are able to catch 50 passes…Now, if you mix distractions into the equation, you’ve introduced another hurdle to cross for you to reach your goal.”

At one point, Coach drew on King’s street sweeper quotation.  For those of you who are not familiar here it is:

“If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

Coach’s overall message?  Give it everything you have and you can sleep easy at night knowing you did your best.  “It” in his case is defined as hard work on the football field.

That night I tried to distill away the football and civil rights references to understand how I could apply Coach’s lessons to my job/education as a chemist.  I asked myself, “should I focus on making sure I have 25 papers before I leave grad school (I know, it’s a dream) or should I spend more time on developing my skills to be the best chemist I can be so that I can give my best at trying to get 25 papers before graduate school.”  Ultimately I arrived at the later option. 

I realize that while I do give an honest effort on most days, there’s always room for improvement.  I argue that the blogging, literature searching and even podcasts I listen to are making me become a smarter scientist.  But, do I really need to be listening to the new Tantric album while I’m trying to think my way through a reaction, for example?  Should I eliminate my distractions (including occasional, social interaction) and maintain focus at all times?  When do you call it a day?  8 hours?  13?  20?  When is the job truly done?  How do you correctly balance work and family/personal time?  Perhaps I don’t have a good objective answer to any of these questions.  But I’ll tell you that my lab bench and desk are now the cleanest and distraction-free they’ve been in a while.  Let’s see how long this lasts.


P.S.  I definitely plan on seeing the new X-Files movie this weekend (I own an “Asian Collectors Edition” of seasons 1-9).  It appears to have bad reviews, but I’m a diehard fan, so I’ll go see it anyway.  How about you?

By July 25, 2008 6 comments opinion

Pushing the Envelope

When I was taking organic chemistry as a sophomore, the lecturing professor encouraged students to ask questions in his class.  His reason?  “If you have a question about something, chances are that someone else in the class has the same question.”  Likewise, I believe in open communication, particularly in learning the rudiments of organic chemistry.  Anyone who has taken a class with me will instantly recognize my trademark closing inquiry: “does anyone have any questions, comments or concerns.”  I give students one last chance to bring up any issues before the lab begins.  Usually, 95% of the time you can clearly hear a pin dropping on cotton during this time. 

The problem I’ve encountered over the past couple of years is the lack of preparedness by the average student.  Granted, the procedures will deviate from what’s in the book on occasion, but these concerns are addressed either in the prelab lecture or in my final instructions right as the lab period begins; I also leave notes about these issues on the whiteboard.  Remember the old cliché, “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”?  Some students recidivistically abuse this rule to the point of criminality.  Here are a few conversations between students (S) and teaching assistants (TA) over the past few years of teaching organic chemistry.  I’m sure you can supply your own examples.


S:            “I spilled my product in the hood.  What should I do?”

TA:         “A celebratory dance?”


S:             “My book says to add…um…sodium…brine…when the color changes.  Do I add it?” 

TA:          “Did the color change?” 

S:             Pause.  Smile.  “Yeah.” 

TA:          “Congratulations!  You answered your own question.  You’re one step closer to being a synthetic organic chemist.”

S:             “No.  This is my last semester of chemistry.”

TA:          “Really?”


S:             “What’s the molecular weight of anisole?”

TA:          “What’s the chemical formula?”

S:             “C…9…8…7…H…”

TA:          “What does your book say?”

S:             “I didn’t bring it.”


S:            “Can I go to the bathroom?”

TA:         “You’re in college.  You can do whatever you want.”

S:            “So, I don’t have to do the lab if I don’t want to?”

TA:         “I don’t care.”

S:            “So you’ll gimme an A?”

TA:         “No, I don’t care if you do the lab or not.  But you have to do the lab to get an A.”

S:            “That’s not fair.”


S:             “The book says use ‘dichloromethane,’ but there isn’t any in the hood.”

TA:          “You’re better off using ‘methylene chloride.’  It’s better for the environment.”


S:             “Is NMR-chloroform a halogen?”

TA:          “What do you think?”

S:             “I think it’s halogenated…no, wait, it’s non-halogenated.”

TA:          “Why?”

S:             “Didn’t you say ‘H’ is replaced by a ‘D’ or something?”


S:             “I have a question.”

TA:          “Okay.”  

S:             The student holds up a flask with a boiling stick in it, waiting for an answer.  “What should I do?” 

TA:          “Yes.”  He walks away.  The TA makes his way around the room and returns to the student 20 minutes later.

S:             “Should I add the hydrochloric acid or the sodium stuff?”

TA:          “Yes.”

S:             Sigh.  “That’s not helping.”

TA:          “True?”

S:             Sigh.

TA:          “Oh, wait, you wanted me to say ‘no.’”

By July 14, 2008 18 comments opinion