As I look back on the chemistry coursework I took as an undergrad, a few classes stand out as especially useful over my career. First some qualifications: I became an organic chemist because I found it to be a good “fit” for my brain. So, organically oriented courses were obviously useful. The chemistry department at my alma mater followed guidelines for the ACS Certified curriculum. Thus required coursework was prescribed and completed.

Chemistry coursework of enduring value.

Sophomore Organic Chemistry:  Fortuitously, I took 2/3 of my general chemistry in the preceding summer, so I was able to take organic chemistry in my freshman fall term. This was the great awakening. It was crystal clear that this was what I was meant to do. The benefits from a course on organic chemistry are many. Foremost on the list is that it is structurally and mechanistically oriented. The cognitive benefit is that a structural and mechanistic approach can render the subject a bit less abstract. At least to highly visual people like myself.

Molecules are tiny objects with even tinier places on them where certain things can happen. Reaction chemistry is revealed as a graphic sequence of specific events on specific objects. This allows the mind to put together patterns of functional groups and reaction motifs. In my view, a year of organic chemistry is the reward for slogging through a year of general chemistry. Gen Chem doesn’t make you a chemist. A tech perhaps. But gen chem is to the chemistry curriculum as The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings- a necessary prelude. That is what I used to tell students, anyway.

Qualitative Analysis: This was the third quarter of a 3-quarter sequence of freshman chemistry. It was heavily lab oriented with a focus on the separation and identification of inorganic cations and anions. It was substantially descriptive chemistry where clever schemes were used to isolate ionic species.

Analytical Chemistry: This is where you really begin to feel like a chemist. We all learn skills in this class that last. It is measurement science and error analysis. Every chemical scientist should have a solid foundation in wet chemistry.

Instrumental Analysis: This class was taken after Analytical Chemistry and built upon learnings from it. I’d offer that time spent on learning how your detectors work and their limitations is invaluable.

Organic Qualitative Analysis: I’ve come to learn that this class was an unusual experience. We learned to identify organic substances using fundamental means for 1982. Melting points, melting points of derivatives, NMR (60 MHz!!) & IR spectra, solubility, sodium fusion, Lucas Test, 2,4-DNP-hydrazones etc. We were required to get three data points per unknown to conclude that we had identified the substance. An indispensable resource was a compendium of derivative properties. A challenging but good experience.

Undergraduate Research: Two years of this experience was invaluable as a prelude to grad school. The asymmetric reduction of ketones (1982-84) work here lead to my doing a doctorate in asymmetric C-C bond forming chemistry and a postdoc in catalyzed C-H insertion chemistry. This activity is a must for those who want to pursue post-graduate work.

Advanced Organic Chemistry: What can I say?

Advanced Inorganic Lab: Good experience. Did some glass blowing. Worked on a vac line, tube furnace, and in a glove box. Good intro to airless work which would be important in grad school.

Chemistry coursework that was inadequate.

Inorganic Chemistry: I took this class in a time when symmetry and spectroscopy topics were an emphasis in the textbooks. Maybe it is still like that. But I wish we could’ve spent more time on descriptive and preparative inorganic chemistry.

Physical Chemistry: At the time it seemed as though the mathematical manipulations were more important than what the relationships actually meant. Statistical mechanics was played down in favor of more time on quantum mechanics. On entrance to grad school of the 5 qualifier exams taken, stat mech was the only one I failed.

Coursework outside of chemistry that has been of enduring value.

Microbiology: My only college bio class. I swear that this class has saved me from food self-poisoning more than I realize. That is a lifelong benefit, but so was the insight into a fascinating world. The course included an intro to immunology which also has been useful.

Communications: I made great strides in learning how to do public speaking.

Russian Language:  Took only 1 year- just enough to be dangerous. It was of nearly zero help when I eventually visited Russia years later on a business trip.  I was interested in the history and politics of Soviet Russia in that slice of time during the cold war.

Computer Programming: Should have taken more classes. In the early eighties we had to use either punch cards or the DEC terminal. Oh, I hear that FORTRAN still sucks.

Air Force ROTC: The biggest benefit was that I learned I am not military material in any sense. But, the communication skills and the history of air power were useful. I couldn’t march to save my life. I was Gomer Pyle.