I have a new ultimate challenge.

Last semester it was physics. For every hour of study I devoted to biology or organic chemistry, I gave three to physics problems. Every upcoming exam filled me with fear, every passing grade felt like a dodged bullet. When my final grade came in, higher than my wildest expectations, I was giddy with relief. The battle felt epic; the victory was sweet.

Now, though, physics is a known quantity. Sure, the material is new and just as mystifying as it was before, but I’ve become accustomed to the sense of bewilderment that colors most lecture classes. Having survived the final exam last semester, the smaller midterms seem less intimidating and my panic less acute.

Obviously it was time for a new challenge. And so it has appeared in the form of organic lab.

Like physics, organic chemistry lab is considered one of the pre-med weed-out classes. It is notorious for class averages in the 50s, with an epic final exam and lab reports a minimum of thirteen pages single spaced. When the undergraduates talk about the class there is a hint of fear in their voices.

We postbacs, however, get special treatment. Our organic professor is part of the program; he knows us all by name and teaches us separately from the undergraduates. We have no final exam and our lab reports are recommended to be about three pages long. When we pass by the undergraduate lab we see dozens of students frowning over their equipment in utter silence, while our TAs play music and have promised to get a beer with us after class sometime.

Which is the irony of this class being my new source of stress; there is really nothing stressful about it. Everything that makes the class a brutal, terrifying obstacle course for undergraduates has been removed. Friday afternoons should be fun; I already like organic chemistry on paper, it should be great to watch those principles enacted right before my eyes. Potions class, like in Harry Potter, one student called it. And it would be exactly that if it weren’t for the fact that I am completely terrible at doing actual organic chemistry.

We’ve had four labs so far and not a single one has gone off without problems. In the first lab my lab partner and I washed our equipment before we used it and the residual water interfered with our results. In the second, our substances refused to dissolve no matter how much solvent we added. The third gave us great results that we were later told absolutely could not, under any circumstances, be accurate. Our most recent lab yielded  no results at all, aside from a strange reddish sludge that our TA proclaimed, “Very interesting,” in a tone of voice suggesting he instead meant, “How the hell did you mess this one up?”

I’ve come to dread Fridays. No matter how much preparation I do ahead of time, nor how well I think I understand the concepts, the minute I step into the lab I feel I have surrendered all control. The magical organic lab fairies will decide whether or not I end up with a product, and apparently they’ve taken a dislike to me. The TAs and the professor assure me this is normal and how organic chemistry often goes. If that’s the case it’s a wonder more organic chemists haven’t blown up their own labs in frustration.

Don’t worry, I’m not planning on blowing anything up. With my lab luck it wouldn’t work anyway and I’d probably singe my eyebrows off in the process. But I remain disappointed to find that, while theoretical organic chemistry is one of my favorite science subjects, o-chem PhD is not in the cards if my MD falls through.

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