Gen Chem: Step 1; get organized.

Stoichiometry is the foundation of most experimental calculations done in general chemistry; it’s a way to figure out how much product you’ll get if you mix two chemical reagents together. Over the summer we did it a lot. Our professor had a three step outline for approaching problems like these, and every time we ran across one he’d pull us up short and ask the class, “What’s the first step in stoichiometry? Get organized.”

As it turns out this is a pretty good approach to life in general. I have since inherited a little voice in the back of my head that pulls me up short when things start to feel a bit overwhelming. “What’s the first step? Get organized.” I’ve used this to sort out everything from physics problems to vacations to making sure I don’t forget anything when I leave my house for the day. There’s very little in life that can’t be helped by taking a minute to make sure you have all the information spread out in front of you before proceeding.

Biology: From structure follows function

If you want to see how something works, don’t look at what it’s is supposed to do, look at how it’s put together. In biology, the secondary, tertiary and quaternary structures of proteins all follow the original arrangement of amino acids. If a single amino acid is out of place, the structure changes and the protein will no longer function the way it should. This is the core of genetic dysfunction. It’s an interesting exercise to turn this perspective onto larger structures in the world. We’ve been taking a great deal about health care in America for the past few years, but it’s only as I’m starting to learn how the system was put together that I can see why it functions the way that it does.

Physics: It’s not the gun, it’s the bullet.

Ie: momentums being equal, the smaller object can will cause the most damage. It’s a good reminder that the things in life that can hurt us the most, can often seem the most inconsequential from the outset.

Organic Chemistry: Things that are unstable are harder to form and quicker to react

Manipulating organic molecules is all about creating a transition state that is unstable enough to finish the reaction, but stable enough to be created in the first place. Keep everything where it’s comfortable and nothing will ever happen; try to push the molecule into a state that is too volatile and your experiment could literally blow up in your face.

Most of our lives are spent trying to achieve the same kind of balance. How can I put myself just off center enough to keep things interesting without taking a risk I can’t recover from? Psychology classes teach about finding “flow;” a state in which your challenges are exactly matched to your abilities and interests. For me, the postbac program and the future to which it leads is all about finding that match; putting me in a transition state just unstable enough to successfully reach the desired products. Preferably without blowing off my eyebrows in the process.

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