No one is more surprised than me that my son Sam is going to be starting a Ph.D. program in organic chemistry in the fall. “Organic chemistry?” a friend recently asked. “Isn’t that the subject that knocks kids off their course to medical school.” Yes, but mostly because they fail it, not because they’re so good at it their professors ask them to consider graduate work.
That’s what happened to Sam. Three years after finishing his B.A. in English, he was still figuring out what he wants to be when he grows up. After considering graduate work in psychology, he decided what he really wanted to do was go to medical school. He started taking chemistry courses last summer, to get his pre-med prerequisites completed with a plan to apply to medical schools next year. He unexpectedly found he was a natural at chemistry and loves working in a lab, that getting a graduate degree would mean free school, a decent living stipend and health insurance, and a new path opened up in front of him.
David and I are in Tennessee visiting Sam and Marianna, and we went to see the lab where Sam works today. It looked like a real mad scientist’s lab, with a tray of dishes tilting back and forth, a beaker of a yellowish glop twirling behind a glass window, racks of small tubes with colorful tops and bottles of chemical mixtures behind glass with mysterious symbols written in black. Sam talked about the work he’s doing and showed us his lab book, full of notes and numbers and drawings of chemical structures. As an English major myself, I could fully appreciate the papers Sam wrote during college and the short stories and essays he produced for his honors project when he graduated from Clark University. The research he’s part of at the University of Tennessee is all foreign to me, but fascinating, and a reminder that the best way to figure out where you’re going is often to just keep moving.