Chemistry Is Hard

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Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek

 

Chemistry Is Hard

The urge to air out old memories often reaches a level high enough to prompt another self-punishing chronicle by the Footloose ForesterThis one might belong in the Confessions category of stories, but baring his own soul from time to time has always been cathartic for a Footloose Forester who prefers things to be out in the open, rather than being obscured by misperception or misunderstanding. Worse yet, having things that needlessly stay hidden in secrecy or shame. This chronicle contains a bit of clarification about his academic record that was full of ups and downs, achievements and failures; but was always tenuously buoyed by aspirations in the face of his own mediocrity. It is self-examination of the Footloose Forester’s relationship with chemistry.

Chemistry was required in the forestry curriculum at the College of Agriculture, Rutgers University.  We Aggies had to pass both General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry in order to earn a Bachelor’s Degree.  In addition, those who declared a major in agricultural research had to take both Qualitative Analysis and Quantitative Analysis in order to earn their degree.  Theirs was a very difficult major because Chemistry is hard. During those undergraduate years the Footloose Forester was spared from a heavy dose of Chemistry, and thankfully so.  He failed the second semester of General Chemistry and struggled to earn a C in Organic Chemistry and only with the tutored help of his brilliant roommate, Bruce A. Hamilton. 

In truth, the Footloose Forester liked chemistry and knew that he would have to understand it well enough if he intended to prosper in the agricultural sciences.  He knew that modern science was going to throw concepts and principles at him, and he needed to earn his way into being accepted as a professional.  More chemistry was on the way.  No doubt about it.

There is a difference between being enrolled in a chemistry course and excelling in that course.  Real chemistry majors normally excelled because they usually had the requisite advanced math and computational skills that went along with the challenges in the field of chemistry.  There was no way to fake it.  If the ingredients were not right, the results were not right.  If the calculations were not right, the presumptive inputs did not and would not lead to the envisioned success.  Real chemistry majors seemed to know what to expect; but the Footloose Forester was always guessing at what the results might be.

 

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Graduate courses in the agricultural sciences necessarily required the infusion of chemistry, both theoretical and applied.  For the Footloose Forester who bit the bullet when he decided to seek an advanced degree, he knew that his limited intellect would be tested in various chemistry and computational courses.  Not only was it a case of sink or swim, he knew that he had to be a strong swimmer in order to not drown in Graduate School.  Perhaps other students secretly harbored self-doubt, but the Footloose Forester knew that he had only an average intelligence in his toolbox, so made no pretense about his qualifications. It would be a long, hard fight because chemistry is hard.  As he told his mother, he would accept being the last in his class, as long as he got through.

As a Graduate Student in Agronomy & Soil Science, there were many quantitative and qualitative core courses: Soil Chemistry, Biochemistry, Soil Physics, Qualitative Analysis, College Algebra, Calculus, Statistics, Experimental Design, Plant Physiology, Crop Physiology, Soil Fertility, Advanced Soil Fertility, and Advanced Techniques in Laboratory Procedures. And there were others, as well.

Sometimes hands-on math and chemistry skills were foundational in understanding and applying the principles of soil chemistry and soil physics; and sometimes the concepts in wet chemistry, physical chemistry, geochemistry, and biochemistry were merely implied.  Chemistry is hard, but it is so fundamental to science that without it (and physics) we would not know how to invent new things.  You don’t really know where you are going until you know where you are, and where you have come from.  

If it were not for the fact that other Graduate Students worried aloud about their struggles in math and chemistry courses, the Footloose Forester might have despaired.  After all, he perceived that everyone in his class was smarter than he was.  But he was a self-identified grinder and was determined to grind away with the only identity he could claim.  One of his personal heroes also reminded him that she also struggled in Graduate School at Princeton. She was there earning a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry, but admitted that she struggled with Calculus. Nonetheless, the Footloose Forester had wagered that she would be in the top half of her class; and it was a pleasure to reward her with a $50 bill that he carried in his wallet, specifically for that luncheon in Princeton when he inquired about her standing at the end of the semester.  Fond memory!  But Chemistry is still hard. 

Earning his credentials was one of the reasons that he took more than a year to conduct his own analysis of soils and their properties in both chemistry and physics laboratories.  In the end, he was proud to have understood what he discovered when he analyzed for Potassium, Sodium, Magnesium, Calcium, Manganese, Aluminum, Iron, soil pH, Phosphorous, Nitrogen, the cation exchange capacity of various soils, and their base saturation percentages. The chemistry was hard, but it was satisfying to find answers to explain how and why soil is so dynamic in the environment.

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