After 3 non-science blog entries, I feel that I should write something about science. I did come here to (mostly) be a chemistry major, after all.
So what is there to say about my experience with chemistry, after these 3.5 years?
Hands down, the best class I've taken here is Ch102 with Professor Theo Agapie. Reputed to be one of the most difficult chemistry courses you will take, it is a survey course to inorganic chemistry. What is considered "inorganic," you may ask? It is all of the chemistry that involves, not exclusively, the elements besides the big 4 used in organic chemistry: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. Rusting of iron? Inorganic. Cyanide poisoning? Inorganic (even though it contains carbon and nitrogen). Poisoning of water by lead leeching out of corroded pipes? Inorganic. Don't be fooled by the name "survey course" as a descriptor to Ch102. It is only a survey in the sense that you are almost guaranteed to have never properly encountered any of the topics it covers prior to taking the class, and not in the sense that it is very introductory and surface level. We covered symmetry elements for crystal structure, an introduction to Ligand-Field Theory in transition metal complexes, an in-depth explanation of Molecular Orital Theory, Hard-Soft Acid Base Theory and the nephelauxetic series which are very useful in predicting the reactivities of compounds, basic bioinorganic applications of chemistry, and basics of organometallic catalytic cycles. I've definitely pulled all-nighters to finish the sets for this class, but the material is mind-blowing and well-taught. Professor Agapie is arguably the best lecturer I have ever had at Caltech--he explains theoretical concepts well, makes the material engaging, all without sacrificing quantity and depth of what we cover. Ch102 was also where I met my group of chem major buddies, and it is the class that set me on the path of inorganic chemistry as my future.
Ch112 is the inorganic class after 102, also taught by Professor Agapie and extremely difficult but rewarding. We went heavily into group theory here. It's actually mind-boggling how such an elegant mathematical concept can be applied to chemistry and used to so accurately explain and predict binding in molecules. Linear algebra from core math class Ma1b returned with a vengeance for the group theory and the spectroscopy that we learned in 112. But don't worry, it is explained very well and even for someone who doesn't like math all that much, such as myself, it was understandable and made the material make so much more sense. It was 112 that made my classmates and myself finally feel that we had gotten a solid grasp on Molecular Orbital Theory and the quantum physics behind spectroscopic characterization techniques.
Next in the inorganic series is 153, taught by Professor Harry Gray, who authored the Ch1a textbook in addition to making major contributions to Ligand Field Theory and pioneering pretty much the entire field of bioinorganic chemistry (which I shall explain in more detail down the page). 153 is also colloquially known as "The Harry Gray Show." The sets are ridiculously difficult, and the technical material for them is not covered in the professor's lectures but in readings and at TA office hours. Instead, the class meets for a 2-hour lecture every Friday where a different Caltech chemistry professor or a visiting prof from another university has been invited to give a talk on their research as it applies to the topic we are learning. Professor Gray will chime in with his own expertise and stories, and on occasion the camaraderie between him and the speaker will be evident in their mutual teasing (to put it mildly) or roasting (to put it more accurately). Here was also where we learned about the existence of a detective novel called The Delta Star, which sounds like an intense spy-conspiracy title but is actually, and quite nerdily so, based off the delta star anti-bonding orbital in Molecular Orbital Theory. The novel was written by retired cop Joseph Wambaugh, who came to Caltech and interviewed a bunch of scientists here as he developed the plot to his book. Harry was apparently his special host and friend, and as a result, the name "Harry Gray" is the only name to directly appear, without any pseudonyms, in the final novel.
The classroom of Ch153 is usually packed--in addition to the students, graduate students, post docs, and staff researchers from various labs also sit in and listen to the talks. Harry buys us donuts, coffee, and bagels every Friday, and as a reward for toughing it out in 153, he treated the entire room to a 10-course Thai food meal on the very last day.
I also took Harry Gray's Ch212, a graduate-level course on bioinorganic chemistry. Bioorganic chemistry is what you see in pharmaceuticals, lots of carbon and hydrogen rings, some sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen in the medicines we take for everything from cancer to allergies. Bioinorganic chemistry is heavy metal poisoning, the role of oxygen transport by iron enzymes in the blood, electron transport in photosynthesis to create the food we eat. This class did not have problem sets. Rather, it was 7 students split into 2 pairs and 1 trio to give a half-hour partner presentation on a different topic every week. We did a lot of reading research articles in the literature to prepare the powerpoints. And for our final projects, one group calculated the efficiency of the enzyme nitrogenase, which is present in legumes to fix atmospheric dinitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer, while the other two calculated the efficiency of photosynthesis. There was a significant discussion component to Ch212 that is not present in larger class sizes. At first, it was very intimidating, but we drastically improved our literature reading, presentation, and active critical thinking skills, not to mention won bragging rights to say we had engaged in intimate conversation with one of the world's most renowned scientists on a weekly basis for a whole term.
It is a requirement of the chemistry major at Caltech to take at least 5 advanced chemistry electives, a category which the four classes I mentioned above are part of. Most students end up taking more than 5 electives because there is room to do so, as well as a lot of different, interesting subfields to explore. In another post, I'll dish about my experiences with the 5-lab course requirement of the chem major, and working in 3 different lab groups at Caltech. As a closing remark, I'd just like to say that I strongly believe Ch102 should be required as part of the chemistry major core. Inorganic chemistry is such an important, yet relatively unknown as far as high school students are concerned, cornerstone of chemistry as a field.
At this stage in life, exploring is so important. You should not seek to exclusively follow a passion you know you are already interested in, but to also explore new fields you are unfamiliar with. You don't know what you don't know. Taking 102 at the urging of my upperclassman friend in my sophomore year marked a defining point in my career: As a result of the class, I changed majors and concentrations, and when I became a senior I found myself applying to all inorganic chemistry Ph. D. programs for graduate school, when two years ago I had no idea that the field existed.
Talk about life-changing.
Thanks for reading! Till next time,