Bad chemistry

The undergraduate chemistry program leaves much to be desired.

The most fun I have ever had as a chemistry major was the time my second year when the chemistry department moved out of Searle before its renovation. The labs had all gotten brand-spanking-new equipment to match their brand-spanking-new quarters in the GCIS across the street, and everything they had left in Searle was up for grabs.

It was incredible. I spent the better part of a week exploring and pillaging, as did many of my Snell-Hitchcock friends, who were busily preparing for Scav Hunt. There must have been tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars of equipment that had simply been left behind. I took a blast shield. I took ring stands and aspirators and beakers and pieces of glassware that looked suspiciously like bongs. One lab had left an entire mass spectrometry apparatus, complete with a DOS computer terminal. Other labs had left intricate synthesis set-ups: dozens of feet of interconnected tubes and beakers and valves, straight out of a mad-scientist movie. One of my friends took a jar each of sodium and potassium, both stored under mineral oil to prevent the violent explosion that happens when alkali metals are exposed to air.

I don’t think I’ve ever quite felt happier to be a chemistry major than I did that day. It was partly because raiding Searle was one of those “OHMYGOD THIS IS SO COOL” experiences, but also partly because the undergraduate chemistry program at the U of C kind of, well, sucks.

Do you know anyone who’s enjoyed Gen Chem or O-Chem? Me neither—and I actually like the subjects, unlike the bloodsucking children of Satan known as pre-meds who make up the majority of students in the classes.

But it’s more telling that few chemistry majors speak fondly of even upper-level chemistry classes. And in comparison to the two other majors in the physical sciences—math and physics—the chemistry major looks even worse.

For example, four separate people run the undergraduate program in math. It’s headed by Paul Sally, widely regarded as the best math teacher on campus, and run on a day-to-day basis by two senior lecturers whose full-time job it is to teach and advise undergrads. They even have their own secretary. Physics is similar, with a full-time senior lecturer and secretary devoted to the undergraduate program and an additional senior lecturer whose primary occupation is teaching and advising undergrads.

The chemistry major, by contrast, is run by a full-time researcher, a professor who receives the title of “Undergraduate Chemistry Advisor” as a departmental assignment, the main responsibility of which seems to be buying us pizza once or twice a year and telling us about how we can get scholarships for grad school.

Or consider electives. The math department offers 19. Physics offers 7. Chemistry? Zero. It’s almost as if the department expects us not to want to take any more chemistry classes than we absolutely have to.

Or consider course evaluations. The seriousness with which the physics department takes course evaluations is almost ludicrous. I distinctly remember filling out four different evaluations each quarter that I was in General Physics—one for the lecturer, one for the discussion T.A., one for the lab T.A., and one for the labs themselves. And even though most course evaluations are now online, the physics department continues to hand out paper evaluations in class, in order to keep a high response rate. Math does the same. But I don’t think I had ever filled out a single evaluation for a chemistry course until they started showing up in cMore. The department simply isn’t interested in feedback about the quality of its teachers.

Or consider the T.A.s. In the math department, graduate students can only T.A. courses after they’ve finished all their coursework. But T.A.s for Gen Chem and O-Chem are exclusively first-year graduate students—most of whom do not have any experience teaching, and many of whom are unfamiliar with the particulars of the American educational system and the basics of English grammar. And at the same time they’re supposed to be helping students with homework questions and lab experiments, they’ve got their own homework and classes to worry about.

Or consider who teaches. Chemistry classes are taught exclusively by professors. Ordinarily this would be a cause for commendation and not criticism, and as anyone who has taken organic synthesis with Milan Mrksich or thermodynamics with Aaron Dinner can attest, the department has some great teachers. But most of the professors make it no secret that they’d rather be doing anything than teaching undergraduates, who by and large will not go on to become chemistry professors like themselves.

Far more people learn about redox reactions and Gibbs free energy than would ordinarily choose to, thanks to the requirements of medical schools and the biology major. This is a fantastic opportunity for the chemistry faculty members to show these students how awesome their field is, and to pass on their passion for chemistry. They squander it.

Even if you haven’t taken chemistry, there are only so many times you can read course evaluations like “Made students cry” or “Aggressive and rude” before you realize the frighteningly antagonistic relationship that develops in these classes. It’s not about the material—it’s about professors versus students.

And that is the real tragedy.

Andrew Alexander is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry. He is a Viewpoints Editor of the Maroon.

  • alumni

    Totally agree, that’s why by 3rd year I started Econ as well and found that the grass is indeed greener on the other side. It was less painful than just doing chemistry even though it was more work.

  • Donald J. Bungum

    Totally disagree. Chemistry is both intricate concept and foreign language, so you have to go through the difficult steps of learning the language before you can get to the beauty of the intricate concepts. No pain, no gain, just like every other worthwhile thing in life. Don’t trash the department just because the material is hard.

  • Adam Weingarten

    Sadly, I find myself agreeing with too many of the point against Chemistry. As a 4th year Chemistry and Geophysical Sciences major, I’ve found the best description for chemistry courses has been “I like the material, but nothing else” fitting of nearly every Chem course I’ve taken (which is all but a couple).
    I wouldn’t think Chemistry courses should be such a trial (any more than physics or math, at least), and yet they are. After a while, it becomes depressing upon realizing that I have only enjoyed 2 of the 14 courses I’ve taken for Chemistry. And yet I KNOW I want to do chemistry. How many people who genuinely LIKE chemistry are scared off by poorly-run courses taught by professors who cannot teach? I have one friend who took gen-chem, for example, and wanted a deeper explanation of the book, who was told (in broken English) to just read the textbook, refusing to offer further help. This is not how Chemistry should be handled.

  • Thomas Graham

    I agree that the chemistry department (and some professors in particular) could stand to work a lot harder on pedagogy. But I think the author of this article exaggerates the problem. There are many good professors in the chemistry department, and I have had more positive experiences than negative ones in my classes. I, for one, really enjoyed Honors O-Chem. I have never had a “frighteningly antagonistic” relationship with any professor. On the contrary, I have found most of my professors to be supportive.

    There are definitely ways in which the undergraduate chemistry program could be improved. Incorporating the primary literature more into courses would make them more interesting for both students and professors and would help to present chemistry as a vibrant, evolving discipline and not just as a dry collection of facts. It would also be nice to have additional elective courses built around faculty research interests. Milan Mrksich’s Intermediate Organic Chemistry course, for instance, exemplifies how well a class can work when it is taught by someone who is really excited by a subject and wishes to convey that excitement to students. I think that the quality of instruction might be improved if professors were given more opportunities to teach about what most interests them.

    Ultimately, I think that the best feature of the University of Chicago chemistry program is the ease with which undergraduates can do research in labs. An actual research experience provides the sort of practical education that classes simply cannot (though lab classes often waste time trying unsuccessfully to replicate this experience). The department should make every effort to promote undergraduate research and should work on securing funds for undergraduate research programs along the lines of the Beckman and PCBio Fellowships. Classes in the department ought to have a more research-oriented emphasis and should aim to teach students to think like scientists and to ask incisive scientific questions. Beyond simply learning what is known, I would like to learn what remains unknown and what areas of inquiry are most active today.

  • Ron Rahaman – Chemistry ’08

    Like Thomas, who is awesome, I feel that the author’s points are greatly exaggerated. And since the author participated in ransacking Searle, he clearly doesn’t care about the department anyway.

    With only one or two exceptions, I found that if you gave a little in the classes, the professors gave a lot back. If you — heaven forbid — talked to a professor about your common interests, it was always a lot of fun.

    While electives are pretty scarce, I’m sure they’ll increase once Searle is finished and the department grows again. For now, the professors are happy to have you take grad-level courses. They’re topical, and often less work than undergraduate courses.

    Besides which, the strength of the chemistry program lies in mentoring and undergraduate research. In this regard, the chemistry program vastly exceeds the other physical sciences. It’s not hard to finish the chemistry requirements in less than 10 quarters, then spend your fourth year doing labwork full time. Nothing prepares you better for a career in chemistry, whether you go to grad school or not. And if you don’t want a career in chemistry, why are you a chemistry major?

  • Renee

    Some of your points are valid and I agree.

    However, the pre-med bashing needs to stop. You don’t bite the hand that helps you, do you? If you do, that’s perfectly fine. But you’ll find that hand won’t be there next time you get sick.

  • John (B.Sc. 04)

    I graduated just a few years ago and my experience was entirely different from the one given above. Personally, I found my chemistry classes to be very enjoyable; I looked forward to them each quarter. Moreover, my chemistry major friends did too. The thing about it is that we all took advantage of the opportunity to do research as undergraduate students. For this reason, it struck me that Andrew calls “raiding Searle” the best experience he had as a chemistry major. For undergraduates already involved in research, raiding Searle might not have been such a windfall.
    A great strength of Chicago’s program is that undergraduates are invited to participate in real research. Nowhere else have I seen faculty members so strongly impassioned to provide research opportunities to undergraduates. Having a base of highly enthusiastic undergrads motivated the formation of Benzene when I was a third year.
    One more thought… while two faculty members are singled-out for excellent teaching, I would like to add that I can still list my chemistry professors in the order I took their classes: Yu, Rawal, Mrksich (2 quarters), Hillhouse, Jordan, Mazziotti, Butler, Lee, Rice (optional graduate courses: Kozmin, Hopkins, Bosnich (2 quarters) and Jordan). These professors were all willing to meet with me during office hours (or after class) and treat my questions seriously. Naturally, these were best teachers I had as an undergraduate: How can one ask for more? And, I found no other department gave more. Therefore, I side with Mr. Bungum: learning chemistry must be an active pursuit. Likewise, learning at Chicago ought to be characterized by the active pursuit of knowledge. (Note the University’s motto.)

  • Carl Brozek

    Andrew, wouldn’t a letter have sufficed?

    You could have written an email to an administrator in the college about how the undergraduate chemistry program is not allowed funding to hire full-time advisers and their secretaries.

    You could have held a face-to-face meeting with your chemistry-major adviser where he would have told you that graduate courses are great chemistry electives, and teachers here are eager to help you and share your enthusiasm.

    You could have pursued these or other ways(I’m sure you can think of some) to improve your chemistry major experience – or even to help the undergraduate program! – like a mature student.

    Unfortunately, you waited till your last year to lash out from your high tower to embarrass your mentors, but you’ve embarrass yourself. Graduates of the undergraduate chemistry program from this school are highly successful, which often requires maintaining good relations with their undergraduate mentors.

    Do you think you’ve really helped yourself or this school’s undergraduate program?

  • John S. Anderson B.S./M.S. in Chemistry 2008

    As a recent graduate of the department I find it insulting that someone could write such thoughtless slander about it. The chemistry program at the University of Chicago is one of the best in the country. I am currently in graduate school and I feel that the department did a first-rate job preparing in me for graduate studies both through its classes and through the research opportunities that I had as an undergraduate.

    One of the factors that makes this department excellent is the fact that it does not coddle whiny students by walking them through every step of their own education. Some students obviously find this policy “antagonistic,” but it accurately reflects the way the real world operates. I have personally experienced that I often need to be challenged to actually learn and perform my best work. I also find it unfathomable that someone can claim to enjoy the field of chemistry, and yet not like having that material presented by the very people who are defining it on a daily basis. If students at this college wanted teachers whose main concern was teaching undergraduates, they would be better served by matriculating at a different educational institution.

    The only thing of merit that can be pulled from this lengthy diatribe is that of electives. Because the courses that are currently available in the department are so phenomenal, I think that adding more would be a fine idea.

  • Travis Blane B.S. in Biological Chemistry 2009

    The University of Chicago Chemistry Department is one of the most well-renowned departments in the country. If one failed to personally capitalize on the all of the opportunities made available to them as an undergraduate, then maybe you should do some self-evaluating of your own ability to seize what’s in front of you.

    Instead of wasting one’s time writing articles for the Maroon as a chem major, do some research in the lab. The professors in the Chemistry department receive undergraduates into their labs with open arms from first year onward. Jim Norris, Ka Yee Lee, and Greg Hillhouse have looked out for me over the last four years among others. One should have taken the time to actually get to know people like this.

    The “real world” outside of this UChicago subculture is very similar to the demands of the Chemistry major. People demand a great deal from you and and don’t hold your hand. If you want a “fuzzy warm” feeling from everyone around you, go be a greeter at Wal-Mart and you can hug everyone that walks through the door. The department wants to help you. All you have to do is ask.

    Not only have I received a world-class education, but I get to rub shoulders with professors making an impact and defining new limits to Chemistry everyday. I have been provided opportunities to do research in the lab since my freshman year. My best friends have been those who have worked through my Chemistry courses alongside me, and I am thankful I have gotten to know so many more in class. I have become friends with graduate students, who have been able to give me advice about where to attend graduate school and how to go about gaining admissions. Professor Norris and Professor Hillhouse have even attended my baseball games. These are tenured faculty taking the time to come out and support chem majors. It’s a tight-knit small department that looks out for each other, unless of course you’re too socially incompetent to take part in it.

    Professor Hillhouse does more than buy pizza. He wrote over 100 letters of rec this year, including my own. Ka Yee Lee writes just as many or more. They do everything in their power to help you achieve. You have to help yourself first and stop wallowing in self-pity.

    If you want electives, look at the graduate courses. There are at least four offered every quarter.

    Course evaluations are important. We filled them out since freshman year. Guess what, dude? Course evaluations are important, but exaggerated statements like, “Made students cry” and “Aggressive and rude” are meaningless, much like your article.

    You’re entitled to your own opinion, but don’t insult my friends and colleagues in a public forum.

    Grow up and take responsibility for your own piss poor ability to interact with and form connections with your fellow chem majors and professors.


  • Carol

    This article is full of exaggerations and bitterness. I am currently a first-year in Honors O-Chem, and not only do I not want to “kill myself,” as many upperclassmen told me I would in O-Week, I really enjoy it. I live across the hall from a second-year chem major, and he loves it, too. We have complaints about certain professors and certain TAs. We pull all-nighters and freak out over minutia. But, at the end of the day, we both thoroughly enjoy not only the subject, but our UChicago chemistry experiences.

  • Syed Zaheer

    I think we might be missing the main points Andrew is raising here, and unnecessarily slamming him in the meanwhile. He does raise valid points about the overall structure and approach of the department’s teaching.

    I absolutely agree that we should be self-motivated and actively pursue chemistry knowledge, but certain aspects of the teaching can and definitely should be improved. Many students here are not lazy or stupid, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their grievances might be legitimate. Even if the students are lazy and stupid, the department should still improve so as to better teach those who are motivated, and to attract and retain students who might not have considered Chemistry otherwise.

    Some examples of possible improvements:
    Like Thomas already said, having a greater research focus in classes

    Investing in ESL classes for some TA’s or assigning them to classes later in their careers

    Hold teaching workshops for TA’s and Professors

    Review lab manuals and course materials to improve clarity

    Andrew mentions having professional instructors for the introductory classes. This is particularly key since these are how most students are first exposed to the department. The old saying, “The first impression is the last expression” does in fact hold true for Chemistry departments.

    Also, I don’t understand why it was wrong for Andrew to think that raiding Searle was the most fun part of his chemistry education here. If the equipment was discarded and going to be thrown out anyhow, how is that a sign of disregard for the department?

    I don’t think Andrew is lashing out, he is raising points that are valid for some students and should be discussed. The article isn’t about making the department better for the 10% of students who are diehard chemists, it is for the 90% of students who are pre-meds, future science writers, the biologists, and non-academics. If they better appreciate Chemistry, it will mean more funding and support for us in the future, and increased respect for our beloved field.

  • Gregory Ng Pack

    I haven’t been bothered by any lack of electives, probably because a BS in Chemistry is 18 credits. Not to mention (though I will) that the course selection is already very good, very thorough anyway, and there are always upper-level courses you can take. If a student wants to learn more chemistry, s/he can.

    I am not sure if interaction with an undergraduate adviser significantly affects anyone’s experience in chemistry to merit any real criticism. And while we may not have as many undergraduate advisors as other departments, I don’t think it is obvious that this is a problem. And there is no reason that a student can’t seek out anyone in the faculty for guidance.

    I agree that it is too bad that classes such as Gen Chem are generally not so well liked, but I am not sure how this can be changed, and it is not clear that this is the fault of the Department. (I suggest that Hillhouse should make cookies for everyone on the first day class.) Chemistry is an interesting field, and this hasn’t been lost in any of the courses I’ve taken here.

    You say that “few chemistry majors speak fondly of even upper-level chemistry courses,” but I think most of the chem majors enjoy their classes. I think the classes are hard, but we’re interested; I think that we like them, though we may complain, and we like to complain, we’re still students after all.

  • Andrew Whitehill

    I have to say that I love the chemistry department at the University of Chicago. I believe that it has prepared me well for graduate school and for a career in science. I feel like, through the curriculum in the chemistry department, I have a sufficient background in chemistry to be able to pick up a chemistry journal and understand most of the articles to some degree, as well as be able to have intelligent conversations about chemistry with professors and scientists. It wasn’t until this year, when talking with potential graduate school advisers, visiting graduate schools, and attending and presenting at scientific meetings, that I was able to fully appreciate the depth and breadth of my chemistry education and the level of chemical intuition I have developed as a Chemistry major at the University of Chicago. It is true that some of the classes were challenging at times. However, I believe that it is the challenge, the fact that you have to think for yourself and come up with reactions, proofs, derivations, etc. on your own instead of being spoon-fed them, that really makes the chemistry department stand out.

    I disagree that the professors do not want to be teaching students. I have had a professor or two who might seem uninterested or might not have been the greatest professor. However, I have found almost all of the professors to be readily accessible outside of class and willing to help. In addition, the professors (in general) seem to put a lot of time and effort into preparing the classes. I have taken classes at the University of Chicago with professors who either don’t care about teaching or don’t want to teach, and it’s obvious. While I might agree that there are one or two professors in the department who I do not think are great teachers, in general I have admired the amount of time and effort that the professors have put in to planning their classes, writing the problem sets, answering questions, and making themselves available outside of class. Putting together the powerpoints used in lecture (ie Profs. Ismagilov, Engel, Yin, etc.) is not a trivial task, and neither is writing out the lecture notes that many of the professors use to lecture from.

    Along the same line, I have loved the graduate students, and I think that the graduate students are a great resource. I have only discovered recently what a great resource the graduate students are, and I wish I had taken more advantage of the TA’s earlier in my Chemistry career.

    And for the record, I loved Honors Gen Chem with Aaron Dinner and Don Levy, and it was actually the impetus for my switching to a Chemistry major. Honors Organic Chemistry with Rustem Ismagilov was probably my favorite class I’ve taken in the Chemistry department, even though Organic Chemistry is not a subject that interests me strongly. I could also mention other professors who I’ve really liked, such as Richard Jordan, Greg Engel, Karl Freed, etc.

    As for electives, the only chemistry class I had to take that I think it would have been okay not to take was Intermediate Organic Chemistry, and even that is useful (as the only biochemistry course). Pretty much the rest of the curriculum, except for maybe general chemistry, is necessary for a complete chemistry education. And there are tons of graduate classes in all different areas that undergrads are free to take (and that are not difficult to take).

    As for the evaulations… every chemistry class I’ve taken and every professor I’ve had has numerous incredibly insightful evaluations. In addition, if you follow the evaluations from year to year, it is clear that at least some of the professors make an effort to take them into accound. The chemistry evaluations have very insightful comments, unlike the evaluations from other departments that are all about numbers (Bio, for example), or that have only one to two responses, or that have no data at all. The Chemistry evaluations let you know exactly what to expect from a particular professor, what to focus on in a particular class, and how to get the most out of the course.

    Frankly, I have found Greg Hillhouse (the undergrad adviser) to be accessible. He is usually available for appointments, and if I have a pressing issue I can often just stop by his office and he is there and willing to help. I haven’t found it an issue that he does research as well.

    I’ve mentioned this before, but I will mention it again because I think it is useful. I have loved all of the TA’s that I’ve had. They are often supportive and helpful (sometimes more so than the professors). TA’s will often make special office hours or discussion sections to help on homework, will often schedule additional times before tests and exams to offer extra help, will often give you hints and advice about the class and the professor, and are often just friendly people. I would have been a lot less successful and enjoyed the chemistry program a lot less had I not spent a lot of time at TA discussion sections / office hours. I feel like I should mention Valarie Keller and ZG, because I think that they are both great people and great resource for help as well (depending upon what you need).

    To be fair, I do not believe the department is perfect. It does have professors who are not amazing teachers (and some that are), and I have had my fair share of frustrations with it. The chemistry program is set up to teach you the fundamentals of chemistry, and because of the necessity of nearly all the required classes, there is not a lot of room for electives (except Advanced Organic/Inorganic or Computational). The chemistry department is not a good department for students who are lazy and/or don’t want to put in time and effort to learn the material. It requires a good deal of learning and/or figuring out stuff on your own. It also requires a good deal of math and some degree of critical analysis. However, if you know what to expect and are willing to do the work, I think the department is great for preparing you for future studies in chemistry (or in my case, a related field).

  • Robert Boyle

    Most Math TA’s are actually undergraduates who have completed the analysis sequence. They are assigned to the sub-20000 level classes, and new grad students TA the higher level ones.

  • Valeriy Shubinets

    After reading this article, I must say that I was somewhat offended by the description of the premed students in the chemistry classes. I am a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a chemistry major. Currently, I am a medical student at Harvard. I certainly hope that those who remember me as an undergraduate student at Chicago would not call me a “bloodsucking [child] of Satan.”

    This may seem a little off-topic, but I would just like to leave a comment that explains how important my education as a chemistry major at UofC has been in preparing me for my future pursuit of medicine. I actually came to college never thinking that I would end up majoring in chemistry. During the first year, I really enjoyed the general chemistry sequence. By the time I began my organic chemistry classes, I was completely hooked: I joined an organic chemistry lab and had a great time in it. If the undergraduate department had such a tremendous impact on me — someone who did not even think about doing chemistry in the first place — then they must be doing something right.

    I have grown so much as a result of what the department had to offer me. In fact, if I had to single out one most important thing that I have learned as a chemistry major at UofC, it is this: I have actually learned how to think. The classes and the research have both constantly challenged me to think at greater levels than I have previously been able to do. Believe it or not, I might actually be a better physician as a result of my undergraduate experience. As demanding as medicine is these days, I somehow feel prepared to take on any challenge in my future profession, either in research or clinical care. And I know I am not the only one: quite a few of my premed friends who took chemistry classes together with me had a very positive experience and strongly believe that chemistry (and the department at UofC) gave them a very strong foundation for their future careers.

  • Julia Kennedy-Darling

    I vehemently disagree with your stark portrayal of the chemistry department; your main criticisms of the department are both exaggerated and offensive. First, your comparison of the opportunities in terms of available courses between the various physical science departments neglects the numerous graduate courses that cover an array of topics in chemistry that go far beyond the introductory courses available for the undergraduate degree. Any undergraduate can enroll in these courses. Due to the small class sizes typical of the 300 level courses it would be redundant to have similar undergraduate courses. Second, your analysis of the administrative affiliations associated with the undergraduate department does not seem accurate. To deduce professor Hillhouse’s duties as head of the undergraduate chemistry department to merely ordering pizza is naïve. I have sought his advice on numerous occasions and he has been nothing but accommodating and helpful. Additionally, his willingness to help students in the application process for the NSF should be commended and not criticized; he is by no means required to provide this resource. Finally, do you think that the caliber of professors would be nearly the same if this university were not a correspondingly high-caliber research institute? Of course professors are interested in their research and may project this enthusiasm during class, but with my experience they are also just as interested in teaching students.

  • Mike Haibach

    In addition to the comments below (which I agree with), I also feel bad for the author if this article truly represents his experiences. Did we major in the same Chem department for the past 4 years? There are so many opportunities due to our world-class faculty and relatively small number of Chem majors.

    If you liked Milan Mrksich’s and Aaron Dinner’s courses, why not ask to work in their labs? Or take Chemical Biology with MM and or Statistical Thermo with AD (both offered this year)?

    Just as an example, I’m taking a course on new catalysts from Prof. Yamamoto, one of the most prolific organic chemists ever. There are only about 10 students in this class! (A word to future 3rd and 4th years: just get a pink slip and show up on the first day if you want to join a grad class) I would bet that I’m not the only undergrad to take advantage of these great “electives.”

    If you would rather play with a blast shield and sodium than work in a great research group, or rather be entertained in class than discuss new discoveries with the chemists who make them… why go to this school at all?

  • Vikram

    I would like to point out that the “entire mass spectrometry apparatus, complete with a DOS computer terminal” could have been donated to The Museum of Science and Industry – meaning it was out dated, spare parts were no longer available. Anything that was useful was removed from the Searle labs before they were opened for public.

    Your friends took sodium and potassium, you got a blast shield in response. I think a smart guy like you clearly deserves a lot more from the department. Well life is not fair but at least you have the ring stands.

  • Jean Knox

    I am a parent of a fourth-year chemistry concentrator, and read this article and the ensuing discussion on his recommendation. Like most academic departments, I am sure that the undergraduate Chemistry program could be improved by additional resources (e.g., better funding for summer work for undergrads) and also, perhaps, by thoughtful structural changes.

    Mr. Alexander’s article has surely sparked discussion. However, the personal and vitriolic remarks that he has employed to make his points have, in my opinion, done little to further his objectives. Antagonism, I have found, generally takes two.

  • Sara Wichner

    I am one of those supposedly nonexistent people who enjoyed genchem and o-chem, and have plenty of friends who did also, chem major or not. Almost all of my professors have given lectures that I found interesting and stimulating. None of my professors have ever made me cry; instead, they have been encouraging and excited when I told them that I am a chemistry major and inquired on my further intentions with the degree, summer and schoolyear research plans, etc. Who are these people that are professor victims? Probably students that haven’t figured out yet that they aren’t going to med school – the chem department hastens this discovery.

    The chemistry department holds its students to very high standards. It is said that no chemistry major leaves here with doubt in his or her mind concerning a career in research. (A WashU alum I met last summer fared differently and had withdrawn from graduate school). I found adjustment to the looser expectations of the biology department more difficult than I did adhering to those of the chemistry department. I appreciate that no hand-holding occurs in the chemistry department.

    As for advising, the department doesn’t need a person whose job it is to advise – who better to advise than professors who have gone through the system and succeeded in such a way that they hold a position here? Whenever I had a question concerning the major or the career, I have always felt comfortable approaching past professors; in fact, Laurie Butler and I have been in correspondence since I was a prospie and her advice is always prompt and very helpful. All undergrad chem majors should do research to figure out if they want to go to grad school anyway, and not only are professors eager to have undergrads in their lab, but also the professor the undergrad works for is almost an automatic advisor, making special advisors unnecessary.

    Concerning the pre-med remark, some are indeed very competitive; conversely, some of my best study partners have been pre-med (granted, these are people who would be science majors even if they weren’t planning on going to medical school), and I really appreciated their attention to detail. The chem department could definitely do something about having chemistry as a requirement for non-chem majors; offering three levels of genchem (similar to how the physics department does the intro sequence) in which one level is need-to-know, one up is challenging but reasonable, and one is for students who took AP could solve this problem. As of now, genchem is taught here in a way that students that take it have as much knowledge as juniors at other schools; for non-chem majors, that is unnecessary.

    That you were more interested in gadgetry than the fundamentals courses of your major that you didn’t enjoy is more telling of your choice to major in chem than of the department itself. Most of your criticisms, especially that the professors are, for the most part, uninterested in teaching undergrads, are unfounded or based on hearsay, probably from students who will, and should, switch to a different major.

  • Laurie Butler

    Andrew, I think I owe you a thank you for stimulating this discussion. It has been quite wonderful to read all the comments on your article from our intelligent and thoughtful majors, both present and past. I for one, love both research and teaching here.

    I’d like to tell you what the faculty say about Chicago’s chemistry students. We brag to our colleagues at Stanford and Yale about the intellectual strength of our majors. In a letter of recommendation I wrote to Caltech for a student who got a B in one of my physical chemistry courses, I included a copy of the first midterm and told them the student’s quite impressive grade on it. They accepted the student to their Ph.D. program immediately. The parents of one student who took introductory chemistry with me and graduated with honors after doing research in our department came up to me at the honors symposium and told me that their son, at Harvard, did not get as good an education as their daughter did at Chicago.

    I know the level of many of our courses is very high but I don’t apologize for that. It is, in fact, what you are paying the high tuition for, to be challenged. I also know that sometimes a bright student would do a lot better on an exam if they could just get a few hours more sleep. But I do believe that all this work helps our dedicated students develop an analytical approach to problem solving that serves them well in their future endeavors. Prior students in my classes have gone on to contribute to the world as doctors, researchers, environmental activists, historians, musicians, and teachers. And not one of them was “blood-sucking”.

  • CP Carroll [BS Chem/BS Biochem ’06

    I certainly think your assessment brings up a number of valid points regarding the conflict that abounds between our chemistry faculty’s teaching and research commitments and the priority that is ascribed to the latter. However I disagree fundamentally with your assessment of the curriculum. The availability of elective coursework largely depends on personal motivation, especially if one is pursuing a BA. Additionally, all of the PhD level courses are open to undergraduates who have completed the pre-reqs (which many are able to do by spring of junior year or the fall of senior year. I personally benefited from the excellent instruction of Professor He in his graduate bioinorganic course and was able to take the med school/PhD biochemistry and molecular biology course in my senior year. Furthermore, you neglect to point out that many students chose to double-up in Chemistry and Biochemistry, which eats much of the elective time you say we lack. Just to throw my hat in the ring, I loved honors and intermediate O-Chem and thought the advanced organic/inorganic and physical chemistry laboratories were excellent educational experiences that have directly served me thereafter as a both a master’s student and a medical student.

    As a final note, tell your friend to mind the potassium as it can create a dangerous situation when sealed under oil for long periods of time.

  • Jonas Peters

    Andrew: I write in as a U of C chemistry alumnus (B.Sc. ’93) and a chemistry professor that sits on graduate admissions committees. I want to provide a perspective that differs from the primary thesis of your viewpoint, namely, that “the undergraduate chemistry program at the U of C kind of, well, sucks”. You may have a detail here or there correct. Heck, who wouldn’t want more electives? But the tone and the content of your viewpoint are sorely non-representative of my own experience, nor to the best of my recollection many, if not most, of the students who were my contemporaries and chem majors.

    For starters, having sat on chemistry graduate admissions committees at Caltech and MIT for 10 years now, and having witnessed the progress of many dozen PhD students during that time as a result, I can tell you that U of C undergraduates have a stellar reputation and enter graduate school better equipped on average than their contemporaries from most of the ‘best’ schools. This is not just my own view, but a view that is shared by many other professors at many very good schools. It is also true that top graduate schools are well populated by U of C undergraduates, despite the comparatively small size of the department. So we can conclude two things: (1) U of C chemistry majors are well prepared for continued studies, and (2) A healthy percentage of U of C chemistry majors want to continue such studies, because of, or despite, their undergraduate chemistry experience. I suggest it because of their experiences. This is certainly true of me and the folks I know well who went on to grad school from the U of C.

    There are of course also “the bloodsucking children of Satan” to which you refer, who go on to medical school. I assume you were being humorous here, so I am not too bothered by the reference. Nerdy Institutes of science have comparatively fewer such folks around, so maybe I am not so sensitized as you are. Or maybe you find yourself on the wrong side of the bell curve in your classes, and hence you’re overly sensitized. Be that as it may, my best college bud, Matt Benz (‘Benzy’), was one of these presumed bloodsuckers, and he and I struggled through the chemistry curriculum together (admittedly, he slightly more than me). I don’t remember him as a bloodsucker to be honest. Rather, I remember a great guy that had a B average or so (a few B- and C’s to be sure), played BBall for the fighting Maroons, stayed up late with me studying while I drove him crazy wanting to understand more of the details, the guy who went for beers with me at Alpha Del afterwards, the good sport that allowed me to teach him how to smoke pot for the first time (sorry Benz – hope your mom doesn’t read this). He was, you know, a regular Joe sort of guy for the most part. Quite distinct from a bloodsucker. I also recall how much support he received from U of C faculty, and how he managed to get into medical school at Michigan in part as a result of such support, despite his GPA that might have otherwise made it problematic. Benzy is now an very successful opthamologist, and when I saw him last year for the first time in quite a while, he seemed most excited to return to folks their ability to see the world around them. I mean, he seemed really excited to be doing that. And you know, I would trust him operating on my eyes. He was very good in the lab to my recollection and had goods hands as they say in chemistry. Which is key.

    I could add more. The dozens and dozens of hours faculty put up with me coming to their offices to ask questions about P-sets, exams, and questions more generally, the research opportunities available to all chem majors at U of C in really cool labs, the fact that gen chem and O-chem made me switch from biology and becoming an entomologist to becoming a chemist instead (ok, maybe a zigged when I should’ve zagged there). But hopefully you and other folks reading this site get the message. The U of C is a pretty kick @#$@ place to be a chem major. But not if you don’t want to be a chem major. Perhaps this latter question is one worth asking yourself. Sometimes we get frustrated at the system when we wrestle with whether we want to be a part of it in the first place. In any case, the next time you find yourself in an abandoned chem lab, go for the precious metals. They fetch a much better price than sodium.

  • Kajsa

    Totally agree. Another exception would be Valerie Keller — few students actually ge to know her, but she’s the reason why I like ochem.