Why You, a Non-STEM Major, Should Still Take Ochem

September 27, 2022 | | 7 min read

You’ve heard of it. Your friends have heard of it. Your therapist has certainly heard of it: organic chemistry, the study of carbon-based compounds, though a more apt name might be “destroyer of GPAs.” It’s a class that demands rigor, determination, and sheer grit, holding little sympathy for undergraduate sleeping schedules. 

So it might surprise you when I say that taking organic chemistry was the best decision of my college career. As a dedicated art and music kid in high school, I walked in expecting nothing but repetitive calculations, memorization, and extensive diagramming, and walked out with a new system of problem-solving that revolutionized the way I approached my everyday life. 

Professor Nathan Romero, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSD, knows this feeling well. After all, he finished undergrad in 2012, and ten years isn’t quite long enough to alienate him from the difficulty of the 40 series of organic chemistry. But rather than regarding organic chemistry as an intimidating, incomprehensible field of study, he compares it to playing with molecular Legos—it’s all about building something from smaller pieces, whether that’s a biodegradable polymer or a new pirate ship.

“That’s one of the things that really got me hooked on organic chemistry: just the unlimited potential of making bonds between different atoms,” he says, and adds with a laugh, “Sometimes you’re sitting at that Lego box, and you want to make something that no one’s ever made before, so you put rocket boosters on the pirate ship.” 

That freedom and creativity is the lifeblood of chemical innovation, bringing world-changing inventions like plastic and the Haber-Bosch process to life. It’s also these concepts that the organic chemistry courses at UCSD attempt to instill in its students.

Unlike Legos, however, organic chemistry isn’t so kind as to provide students with a step-by-step instruction manual. In addition to dozens of new reactions, terminology, and formulas to learn, tests are paradoxically longer while containing less text, expecting students to fill the half-empty pages with original ideas. This also means that the concept of “correctness” isn’t concrete, which can disorient students who are accustomed to plugging numbers into a calculator and receiving a neat, quantitative answer. It’s not uncommon for first midterm averages to be as low as 20%.

“Especially for CHEM 40 and most other introductory classes, organic chemistry is much more visual, spatial, and problem-solving oriented,” Professor Romero explains. “A lot of it is developing the intuition to go about problem-solving, and pattern recognition.”

In other words, organic chemistry is difficult, time-consuming, and detail-oriented, especially concerning the movement and behavior of molecules in esoteric situations. Why am I recommending that non-STEM majors take it?

It’s simple. In the process of becoming good at organic chemistry, students learn how to apply their knowledge of the theoretical to unfamiliar subjects and conquer their fear of mistakes to become more courageous learners.

“Learning organic chemistry parallels in a lot of ways learning a new language,” says Professor Romero, a point that becomes obvious the further you go into organic chemistry. As any second language learner will tell you, vocabulary is only half of it. The other half is grammar and syntax. 

Though organic chemistry begins with a long list of terminology to learn (functional groups, bimolecular nucleophilic substitution, Baeyer-Villager oxidation, etc), the class fails to reward memorization. In fact, one of its biggest strengths is incentivizing students to understand the underlying principles of the science, allowing them to venture beyond the scope of the textbook. Professors write exams to emphasize intuition and pattern recognition, prompting students to consider every aspect of a reaction, including side-reactions, stereoselectivity, and acidity and basicity of substituents. Just like how my randomly strung-together sentences of French failed to impress my French teacher, it’s impossible to form a coherent chemical “sentence” without understanding why molecules behave the way they do. 

Organic chemistry students take this mindset everywhere they go. More than ever, they’re impressed with a sense of curiosity and creativity. “Why does the ball fall back to the ground after I throw it into the air?” “Why should I add a crescendo to this section of the music, and what would change if I decided to decrescendo instead?” Organic chemistry teaches students to question how everything works, then apply the experience to something new. It’s like finally throwing away your Lego instruction books after years of playtime. Now that you understand how each piece fits together, you’re ready to piece them together to create a rocket-powered pirate ship that doesn’t exist in instruction books. 

Of course, breaking away from manuals is never as easy as it sounds. Think of a library displaying the newest New York bestseller (“Fun and engaging,” a review promises), or a viral song on social media, just as ear-wormy and mind-numbingly fun as the last ten tunes. The result is always the same: a book genre with identical cookie-cutter protagonists treading an overworn and unwelcome formula, and a Youtube recommendation page full of musicians afraid of becoming the experimentalist who fell out of favor.

Now launch all of that out of a window, because organic chemistry makes it clear that there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. Since there’s no comprehensive guide to every possible reaction in the universe, even professional chemists have experiments that don’t turn out as expected, leading to new discoveries and ideas. 

“Revising chemical understanding based on unexpected observations and forming new hypotheses plays an important role in organic chemistry,” Professor Romero explains. As a result, the organic chemistry class cultivates perseverance and creativity, since mistakes are the vessels for future innovation. Professor Romero encourages this process by occasionally asking his students to give him “wrong answers only” to mechanistic or synthetic problems, then going over the real-life implications of the proposals. Who cares if your exam answer is incorrect? What matters is why. 

As Professor Romero points out, there may be many ways to make that Lego pirate ship, or there might be none. Ultimately, the process of failure, success, and failure isn’t just about picking yourself up after a mistake, but learning to reevaluate your work and triumphing the second, third, or fourth time. 

“Emphasizing more of what you don’t know is all part of the process of experimenting with your learning and figuring out what works for you,” Professor Romero explains. “I always encourage folks to be really courageous and fearless about facing what you don’t know and things that make you uncomfortable. It may feel awkward, but the process of doing science is balancing on the edge of what we know and what we don’t.”

So the next time you look at an organic chemistry textbook and think, “Why should I take this class? I’m a music major!”, just remember that you don’t necessarily need to be a chemist or even a scientist to benefit from organic chemistry. The intuition formed for underlying theory and the conquering of mistakes through practice can be applied to every field, regardless of background. 

And who knows? Maybe knowing how to transform a malonic ester into a nitrile is your ticket to the Grammys.