January 17th, 2008

flasks

All or nothing? Me?!

Things that have made me laugh like a drain this evening:

1) Finding the official letter from College confirming that I was qualified to enter the third year of my degree course, with the grades I achieved.
Organic Chemistry IIA - A (First - 70-100%)
Organic Chemistry IIB - G ("bad" fail - 0-24%)

The actual reason this happened was that my organic chemistry was in a terrible state, owing to my having had awful tutors in both my first & second years. My first year organic tutor was probably an alcoholic, and he would often turn up for tutorials late & reeking of spirits. Twice he didn't turn up at all. On one occasion he eventually arrived at 9.55am, then asked what we were all doing outside his office, and accused us of making up that we were supposed to be having a tutorial. (Yeah, all 8 of us - it was some sort of student prank, I guess *rolleyes*). He was sacked at the end of the year, but that didn't help me much. My second year organic tutor was a very intelligent postdoc who was always on time and very organised, but he was Portuguese, and had a VERY strong accent & not good English for explaining things - he preferred to draw a load of molecules on the board with skeletal formulae & arrow-pushing to "explain" things, which didn't work for me at that time.

So at the end of my second year, knowing that I'd already failed Organic Chemistry I, IIA and IIB, I went in tears to the only female member of the organic department, begging for extra tuition so I could pass my degree. She couldn't help me herself, but she recommended one of her students, who I paid £15 an hour for the best tuition I've ever had. My work as a tutor now is based at least in part on the lessons I had with him. He managed to get me to pass Organic I & IIA with flying colours (85% and 75%, iirc), but there just wasn't enough time to teach me all of Organic IIB as well. I didn't actually need the course unit from Organic IIB to finish my degree, so I chalked that one up as a loss.

2) Finding the original handouts from lab courses covered in Some Unknown Chemical. Many of them are stained with interesting shades of brown, but one features a brilliant purple compound! Anyone else remember my EvilPinkStuff? :D

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test tube

my dream is achievable

I have found the course I want to do at university: Chemistry* (Graduate Certificate / Graduate Diploma) at Birkbeck. It is for people who have already studied chemistry at degree level or equivalent, and wish to update their knowledge. Which sounds remarkably similar to my stated aim of "going back to do my degree again but actually listening this time". There's more to it than that, though - I want to go into a different area of chemistry.

When I did my degree, I ended up specialising in Physical Chemistry just because physical lab was the one I was least bad at. Though I did maths & further maths A-levels, I never have been particularly gifted in calculus - I never quite "got" things like integration and partial differential equations even at the time. Let alone now when I haven't used maths of that level in years. So I was never going to be very good at a lot of the quantum and thermodynamic stuff that requires that kind of pure maths. Then I ended up going into Environmental Chemistry, which is something I am good at - but it's not a good area for me to study from an emotional point of view. The problem with environmental research is that you can prove that something is extremely damaging and needs to be banned, and then it can take 5 years after your original paper before any other scientists listen to you, 10 years before pressure groups pick up on it, and a further 10 years before any legislation even starts going through governments. I like the idea that my research could change the world, but I find that waiting around for governments to act very stressful & upsetting. I'd much rather work in another field where I don't feel personally responsible for global warming.

Organic Chemistry was always my favourite at school, but I struggled with it horrendously at university - principally because we had one lecture teaching us skeletal formulae ("line notation"), and then every other organic lecture used skeletal formulae more or less exclusively. (I have, in fact, found most of my first year organic notes, and I'm not exaggerating!). I'd be sitting there trying to copy a diagram from the board with a certain number of wiggles: /\/\/ and having no idea at all how that related to a molecule. And if I got the number of wiggles wrong, I'd have drawn a completely different molecule and not even realise. Argh. Then the fact I had bloody awful organic tutoring and spent a lot of my degree clinically depressed without any useful medication made it impossible to catch up.

I don't know for certain that organic is what I want to do - I also want to study lots of Inorganic Chemistry. I've always liked Transition Metals, and the Lanthanide and Actinide course I took was amazing. I also enjoyed Acids & Bases and Non-Aqueous Solvents. I'm just sure it's all of that stuff I'm interested in and not Molecular Reaction Dynamics, Liquid Interfaces, Molecular Theory of Gases, Liquids and Solids or Chemistry of the Gas/Solid Interface.