With rumors of weekly homework assignments comprised of hundreds of problems, intense competition and nearly impossible tests, organic chemistry has the reputation of being a dream-killer for many undergraduates who aspire to attend medical school.
“The legend is that because it’s a required course for medical school, students are anxious to get a good grade, and they compete very hard,” chemistry professor Martin Saunders said.
Students and faculty said they believe the infamous image is at least partly justified.
Aliza Gordon ’08 said taking “Organic Chemistry” (Chemistry 220), the introductory organic chemistry class at Yale, has been a challenging experience that has made her reevaluate her interest in chemistry. She said she enjoyed chemistry in high school and decided to take organic chemistry not only to fulfill a general requirement, but because she was intrigued by the material.
“I used to like chemistry,” Gordon said.
Chemistry 220 is traditionally viewed as one of the hardest classes at Yale, Jessica Blick ’07 said. She said she started out taking the first semester with Frederick Ziegler, a professor in the Chemistry Department, but she took the second semester from John Wood, who is the director of undergraduate studies for the chemistry major.
“Ziegler presented the hardest material in a disorganized fashion,” Blick said. “John Wood has been much better.”
Ziegler said students’ reactions to his class are a “mixed bag.” He said at the beginning of the year, students are generally more willing to put effort into the work and tend to perform better.
“As the year the goes on and lives get more complicated, they have to decide how to spend their valuable time,” Ziegler said. “There are some who feel captive because they want to go to medical school,” Ziegler said.
Ziegler said he has tried to alleviate students’ concerns by setting up a mentoring hotline with students who performed well from the year before acting as tutors.
Raul Navarro ’08, who is also currently enrolled in Chemistry 220, said although he enjoys the subject, some of his pre-med friends have found the course difficult.
“We all know the professor makes tests hard so pre-meds apply themselves and take the class seriously,” Navarro said.
Lomsavath Seunbane ’07 said the class’ reputation as a deliberate mechanism for weeding out pre-meds was validated when he took it last year.
“From the first day to the last day during second semester, about 30 kids dropped out, if not more,” Seunbane said.
Others said students said their difficulty in understanding organic chemistry stems less from a confusing teaching style and more from the complexity of the subject itself.
Blick said that because the course contains so much information, students are forced to memorize rather than try to understand the concepts pivotal to a firm grasp of the material.
Robert Crabtree, another chemistry professor, said he disagrees with those who believe organic chemistry is all about memorization.
“It’s like a language,” Crabtree said, “If you are fluent, it’s natural, not memorized.”
Crabtree said he thinks that human beings have trouble with science because it emerged as a discipline later than some other subjects.
“Science is non-traditional thought for the human species,” he said.
Dominic Zarecki ’09, who is taking “Freshman Organic Chemistry” (Chemistry 125), a class that requires students to take a placement test, said his chemistry professor, J. Michael McBride, has made the experience enjoyable. But he said his advanced class is the “warm and fuzzy” version of organic chemistry.
“He’s gung-ho, energetic and excited to get us to understand,” Zarecki said. “There’s no reason anyone should be confused as long as you put in the time and effort.”
Anthony Zimmer ’07, who is a chemical engineering major currently enrolled in the second semester organic chemistry course offered at Yale in the fall, “Comprehensive Organic Chemistry” (Chemistry 227), said the time commitment involved in organic chemistry might turn off some students.
“Your grade directly correlates to the amount of time you put in,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer, like a number of pre-meds, chose to take a first organic chemistry class at an outside institution, the University of Maryland. He said he did it in part because he wanted to get work done during the summer, but also because he had heard that the workload outside of Yale was easier.
“The competition that we have here just wasn’t there,” Zimmer said.
Crabtree said it is helpful to return to the language analogy to explain why some students choose to take organic chemistry either at Yale’s own summer school program or at another university.
“It’s harder to learn Spanish by taking a class once a month for many months,” Crabtree said. “[Summer school] is a way of concentrating one’s mind.”
Though students said minor improvements could be made to teaching styles and class structure, overall, they said they think organic chemistry will always require patience and scholarly application.
“It’s a very different kind of material with strange new concepts that are new to everyone,” Zarecki said.
Saunders said that in the 50 years he has taught organic chemistry at Yale, he has constantly revised his teaching style to help students learn the material. He said it would help students if they too were willing to rethink their preconceived notions and established ways of learning.
“I think students should take an open-minded view,” Saunders said.