Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sophomore Year - Part 8, Acing Organic Chemistry

I was astounded with my own progress through the self tutorials of organic chemistry’s second semester. By the end of March, I was taking the very last one. After I passed that one, I was eligible to take the final exam. I just couldn’t believe it. I could be entirely done with this 3 credit course more than two months in advance of the end of the semester! Plus I had taken a full course load and worked at my own pace. It was just that I had this inexplicable natural proclivity and aptitude for this subject that enabled me to learn extremely quickly. I requested that Dr. Silver give me the final immediately while the material was fresh in my brain.

So at the next class, while everyone was taking their quizzes, I sat with the final exam which had ten questions. I had two hours to complete it. I read through the exam quickly and found that I could not answer any of the ten questions. Panic time. I could not answer a single one. Not one. None. I was holding my breath. I looked around the class at my fellow students busily working their quizzes. I felt like a fake. I looked at the front of the class at the other smart kids that had stayed clear of me when I pulled ahead of them in the quizzes. It sure is lonely at the top. At my school, those kids were all trying to get into medical school and they were also competitive as hell. I was ruining the curve for them as well. They would just love it if I failed. And it seemed that what just what I was about to do if I could not answer even one of the questions on the final. I was in all out panic mode when the 1 hour class ended and Dr. Silver told me that we had to move to the lab room to finish the test. I quickly hid my test paper so that he would not see that I had not done anything yet and got up to move.

We walked across the quad to the lab building and the fresh air helped me snap out of my panic. I thought that there must be one question that I could answer on the whole exam, and I would look for that question as soon as I sat down. We made it into the lab; I sat down and looked for the question that I could answer. A short time later, I found it. So I answered that one, and then looked for another. After that I was able to do the test. Time was not really an issue once I got going. I had already gotten my panic out of the way. I learned that sometimes I just really needed that panic time and that if I allowed myself that I could move forward. I have used that strategy in life many times.

Dr. Silver came in and graded the test right in front of me. Talk about instant gratification. I had made a very small error in one of my syntheses and he gave me an A. I was elated to say the least. An A in organic chemistry was the stuff dreams were made of. He shared my joy.

He told me of a senior research project, that he would like for me to undertake next year. He was saving it for a gifted organic chemistry student who was also studying biology. He said that I would be perfect for it. It involved identifying the chemical components of the alarm pheromones from local amber ants called Acanthomyops claviger. We would use a gas chromatograph and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to do this. My eyes opened really wide. The project sounded so challenging. He assured me that he would be my adviser and that he had full confidence that I would be able to do it. Was I interested in the project? I told him it sounded wonderful and I wished I could start now. He smiled broadly at that. We shook hands.

When I got back to my dorm, my Dale Carnegie books had arrived. So I read them.

Eventually the semester ended and all of the organic chemistry students took the final. When all of the grades came in, mine was the highest. But there were other A’s. I really felt that my grade should be increased to an A+ based on the curve. So I thought about how best to approach this based on what the Dale Carnegie books said. Then I went to Dr. Silver’s office.

I walked in and said “Hi Dr. Silver. How are you?”

“Hi Sue. I am fine. How are you? What can I do for you?”

“I just have one question. Why didn’t you give me an A+ on the final?”

He looked flummoxed as he stammered and said “Well let’s take a look at that…” Then he rifled through various papers and exams and mucked around his office. I really caught him off guard. He hesitated and then said “I really don’t see any reason not to give you an A+. So I will change your grade to an A+.” Then he smiled at me. I smiled back.

“Thank you so much Dr. Silver! See you next year!” Then I walked out on air.

* * *

Here is an organic chemistry quiz for you: What famous organic chemist is this and what pivotal discovery did he make?

Here is a hint:


peter said...

This is: Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz (also August Kekulé) (September 7, 1829 – July 13, 1896) was a German organic chemist.

One of the most prominent organic chemists in Europe from the 1850s until his death, especially in the theoretical realm, he was the principal founder of the theory of chemical structure.

Kekulé was the principal formulator of the theory of chemical structure (1857-58). This theory proceeds from the idea of atomic valence, especially the tetravalence of carbon (which Kekulé announced late in 1857) and the ability of carbon atoms to link to each other (which he announced in May 1858), to the determination of the bonding order of all of the atoms in a molecule. Archibald Scott Couper independently arrived at the idea of self-linking of carbon atoms (his paper appeared in June 1858), and provided the first molecular formulas where lines symbolize bonds connecting the atoms.

For organic chemists, the theory of structure provided dramatic new clarity of understanding, and a reliable guide to both analytic and especially synthetic work. As a consequence, the field of organic chemistry developed explosively from this point. Among those who were most active in pursuing structural investigations were, in addition to Kekulé, Frankland, Wurtz, Alexander Crum Brown, Emil Erlenmeyer, and Aleksandr Mikhailovich Butlerov.

Kekulé's most famous work was on the structure of benzene. In 1865 Kekulé published a paper in French (for he was then still in Francophone Belgium) suggesting that the structure contained a six-membered ring of carbon atoms with alternating single and double bonds. The next year he published a much longer paper in German on the same subject.

The empirical formula for benzene had been long known, but its highly unsaturated structure was challenging to determine.

Sue said...

I knew you would solve it Peter! You used google didn't you?

peter said...

You read my explanation at Superchilled I suppose?

Sue said...

You got it! But if you prefer, I could delude myself into thinking that you are that naturally smart. ;)

Sh@ney said...

Bugger I was going to say I have no fucking clue who he is but he sure is good at making snakes with wooden pegs! My bad!

Sue said...

LOL Shaney! The snakes are there because he had this dream:

"...I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis."

Benzene is a ring of six carbon atoms, each with one hydrogen atom on it. Prior to Dr. Kekule, no one could figure out how that was possible since each carbon atom needs 4 bonds to be electronically satisfied.

Sh@ney said...

It's the drugs...I swear...Or it could be that empty space between my ears. I must get off my ass and get it filled. Any suggestions? Fertiliser perhaps?