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#HonorsProblems: Surviving Organic Chem

The following blog post was written by Naomi Naik, a CCAS senior studying biology and english (through the combined BA/MA program). Naomi is also pursuing the pre-med track. You can find out more about her here.

The molecule looked like a giant jellyfish. Or maybe a spider. Halfway through my organic chemistry final, the monster lay there on the page, mocking me. My task: explain how the ungainly molecule folds into a tidy package. The problem: I had no clue. Maybe if I looked at it sideways? No, that didn’t help. This was getting ugly.

Contemplating changing my major, I spent eight months sophomore year slogging through two semesters of organic chemistry, or orgo, the course widely known for weeding out pre-meds. When I wasn’t hopelessly confused, I spent my time wondering what the class was actually about. Because I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just about organic chemistry. For me, the overriding question was not “Is this on the test?” but rather “What are they really testing?”

Orgo has been haunting pre-meds since 1910, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a landmark report calling for tougher admission standards to medical school and for medical training based on science. Hence emerged science prerequisites that have remained virtually unchanged: two semesters each of biology, physics and general and organic chemistry.

The report was meant to professionalize medicine but led to generations of doctors more grounded in science than in the humanities. This is not necessarily bad, but lately a sense has emerged that the pendulum has swung too far. Medical schools are tweaking admission protocols, looking beyond an A in orgo for future doctors who are less Spock and more Kirk.

So what is organic chemistry, anyway? And why is it so difficult? Basically, orgo examines how molecules containing carbon interact, but it doesn’t require equations or math, as in physics. Instead, you learn how electrons flow around and between molecules, and you draw little curved arrows showing where they go. This “arrow pushing” is the heart and soul of orgo.

To develop orgo intuition, you solve problems and draw arrow-pushing mechanisms again and again, until they become instinctive. This takes a huge amount of time, for me 20 to 30 hours a week. The class turned me into a bore, a sleep-deprived, orgo-obsessed grind who saw the shapes of molecules in every sidewalk crack and snack cracker.

My study group and I called orgo the “bad boyfriend,” because it stole so much time from our personal lives. As in, “I just blew off Thanksgiving dinner to hang out with the bad boyfriend.” This is one thing that orgo is testing: whether you have the time and desire to do the work.

At first, this commitment of time and psyche did not pay off. On the first exam I scored well below the mean. My problem sets came back with whole pages slashed out in red pen. I felt stupid and demoralized. But slowly, orgo awakened my long-dormant spatial-reasoning skills, and I (occasionally) started to enjoy some of the problems.

Second semester, I had a breakthrough. On the third exam, stuck halfway through the final problem, I tried a new strategy. I put down my pencil, leaned back and stopped thinking. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the answer sprang into my mind’s eye. “Oh, my God!” I thought. “I actually have orgo instinct!” After that, everything started clicking.

When the final exam came, I was ready. I chugged through the first few pages, then stopped. There lay the giant jellyfish-spider, streaming carbon chains like tentacles. Draw the arrows? I didn’t even know where to start. Next problem, just as bad. The test became not a showcase of my new orgo instinct but a scramble for damage control. I guessed I got a C.

When the test ended, the students sat stunned. “What was that?” my study partner asked. “A monkey could have done better on that exam than me.” Later, in the bathroom, one of our classmates sobbed as another consoled her.

The day after the final, a physician friend gave me a celebratory gift: a stethoscope. I told her about the exam, and she nodded. “That’s a terrible feeling,” she agreed. “It’s kind of how you feel when you lose your first patient.”

Of course, bombing a test isn’t the same as watching someone die. But what’s similar is that dreadful realization of your own limits, that terrible moment when you stop controlling the situation and start mitigating the damage. I expect that’s an all-too-common feeling in medicine. I often felt that way in orgo, but kept going back for more. That’s what orgo is testing, I think: resilience. And humility.

I got a B on the final, by the way. You know what? I’ll take it!