How I came to love chemistry
By: Ann Cartwright, Chemistry Professor at San Jacinto College, mother of two daughters.
I knew. By 11th grade I knew. I was in a geometry class and it was such an exhilarating challenge. I knew I wasn’t brilliant in math, but to use an idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” you don’t have to be brilliant, you only have to be “smart enough.” I knew with hard work, I was smart enough. I vowed to never let the math teacher give me a problem I could not work. It might take two-three hours every night on homework, but I bought in to the challenge.
In 12th grade the effects of the United States to introduce more science and math, due to the wake-up call of Sputnik, trickled down to my small high school (125 students in four grades). The school offered the first chemistry class in 30 years and, by luck, I was in it. It was my first science class with a lab. The school didn’t offer physical science or physics. I had taken biology with no lab and class was usually spent reading aloud from the text. The teacher was a coach and probably didn’t want to be there. But chemistry had lab! We made gunpowder, and we dropped sodium in water to watch the explosion. They only had to evacuate the school one time due to our chemistry class that year. The words of chemistry were all new to me and they were magical—atoms, molecules, elements, compounds! Like math, it was a challenge but with human interest—we studied substances from everyday life.
My parents were not educated people, but they valued education, and paid for good grades. Even in elementary school an A brought in $1, which was pretty heady stuff when my allowance was a quarter/week. By high school, if I was studying in my room, I didn’t have to do household chores. The money and the study time turned me into a scholar. I was not a reclusive geek. I was the co-captain of the girls basketball team, editor of the yearbook, first-chair clarinet in the marching band, and, to my daughters’ mirth, I was the homecoming queen!
In college I never questioned what my major should be; chemistry was the only option. I enjoyed other classes, but in my worldview, reading literature or psychology was what you did for fun. I was the only female chemistry major at the small liberal arts college and I heard the comments from the guys that I only memorized my way to A’s, but they had true understanding with their C grades. The chemistry teacher gave us all a problem which was 30 to 40 fictitious elements with their properties and we were to arrange them in a meaningful pattern. Something similar to what Mendeleev did 100 years before when he came up with the periodic table. I spent almost all waking moments thinking about that problem and in a flash of insight, I cracked the code and arranged my own periodic table. The teacher knew about the previous comments about memorizing and he made a short speech in class praising my problem solving ability. To use a line from John Irving, “You have to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” I was.
I visited the University of Kansas when I was a senior in college to see about graduate school. The chair of the department of chemistry told me that if I wasn’t ready to think molecules 24 hours per day, don’t come to grad school. At 20 years old, I wasn’t ready. I taught science in an urban public school for two years, and then I knew I was ready to think only molecules all day and night. I entered KU with a scholarship during interesting times—the woman’s movement had just started in this country, the civil rights movement was still in progress, and the Vietnam War was in full swing.
During my first year of graduate school, some male faculty and students made it known that women didn’t have a place in the chemistry department. We were taking a man’s place and that man would probably have to go to Vietnam and might be killed. They also voiced the concern that women could not lift gas cylinders. That’s funny, that’s what I thought dollies were for—you rolled the tank to the dolly, put it on, and moved it. I had never seen any of the guys bench press a gas cylinder. They also said having women around made them uncomfortable and they couldn’t swear. Obliviously they had not heard me, when an experiment went wrong in the lab. Luckily I was somewhat what Margaret Meade called “field independent.” I interpreted that term to mean “outsiders can’t tell me what I am capable of.” Comments like that did not discourage me. My inward thought was always, “I’ll show them I can do this.”
When I was looking for a research advisor, I didn’t look too closely at their research interests, but rather who was in their research group. Were there women? Were there minorities? Some of the faculty would not accept women in their research groups. I wanted to know that the faculty member truly believed in the ability of all people. My faculty advisor, Dr. Grover Everett, became my mentor. He always believed in me and introduced me to so much more than science. He taught me about the importance of travel, to try international foods, and to exercise daily. Because of him, I started running back in the 70s, and I still do it almost every day. I still stay in touch with him.
So how did I end up with this science career? I inherited a type A personality accompanied by large amounts of energy. My parents didn’t understand what I was doing, but they supported my choices. Sports gave me self-confidence, and I had the greatest mentor in the world.