Reflections on working, researching, learning, and living amid a pandemic as members of the Department of Chemistry.
William Wu, B.S. 2022
Thinking back to four years ago, I still remember the day of the freshman welcome party of the chemistry department. It seems that we have some more/less people today.
This is not because we break the law of conservation, but because our chemistry department is an open system, in which we thoroughly exchanged our ideas, our feelings, and our dreams. There are so many brilliant and knowledgeable professors that created a saturated environment of knowledge, and the knowledge has been diffusing into our minds continuously. I believe that everyone here is proud to tell your professors and your family: Thank you for your help, and I have learned a lot.
Some of us may have struggled with the Handerson- Hasselbalch equation in gen chem, but now making a buffer solution has become a part of the daily life. The name of proteins may have been total nonsense, but now you clearly know their crucial function in our bodies. You may start with no understanding of quantum mechanics, and now you have mastered these abstract problems that burdened Bohr, Schrödinger, and Einstein a century ago. So, some of us may say: I know chemistry now.
But please pause a second. Is that really the case? Do I really know chemistry?
Many of us may have participated in research at some point in college life, and we probably saw a totally different picture. You may have strictly followed the procedure from the literature, but the reaction just mysteriously went wrong at some point. You and your colleagues may have spent months troubleshooting, utilizing every bit of knowledge you learned from class, but in the very end, you only made a little progress. Now you may reach a sad conclusion: I know nothing about chemistry.
But be a little confident this time: the fact that you have tried to solve the problem just proved that you have learned some chemistry, but the world of chemistry is so big that all of us only had a tiny glance at the very tip of the iceberg.
Socrates once said: “The only thing that I know is my ignorance.” Knowledge and ignorance are a pair of dialectic concepts: they are contradictory while unifying. We know because we don’t know, and we don’t know because we know. This is the most precious lesson I learned in four years: I have only learned a little, and there is so much knowledge waiting for me to explore.
Graduation is never the stopping point nor the equilibrium, but it is just a starting point toward the vast world of chemistry. Thank you very much, our dear professors, our friends, and our school. It had been a great pleasure to stay with you, but time is not waiting for us. We will stay humble, enthusiastic, and curious. We will keep exploring the unknown truths of the world as we did in our last four years. We will engrave the UW in the memory of our deepest minds, and we are now ready for the endless quest of our boundless future.
Adapted from William’s June 2022 commencement speech. Photo by Charlie Barrows.
Lucinda Liu B.S. 2022
It’s the quote that stands out as you enter Bagley 131.
It’s the one quote that I never hesitate a single second to glance over my shoulder and take a quick peek at before class and leaving class.
It’s the one quote I feel most bittersweet about, but for some reason, it just. makes. sense.
I know at celebrations like these, we speak about the milestone we reached, the accomplishments we’ve achieved, and all the successes from these past few years… but today, I want to echo the fact that the biggest successes, the biggest positivity, the delight, the tenacity, the joy, the experiences, it’s all built on the foundation of failing forward. Our memories here in this department are built on the foundation of failing forward.
Now I know it might seem like a while ago, but many of us started off with the gen chem series. CHEM 142 gave me a taste of what a true “college class” was like, a classroom filled with 300 eager students. Not one class that whole year did I have the confidence to speak a single word to the professors, let alone ask a question. I was terrified to get called on because I didn’t want people to know what I didn’t know. I failed to seek help from professors when they gave me every opportunity to. I failed.
Moving into the o-chem series took it up a notch—who could forget about those 3-hour labs twice a week for two whole quarters?! Each registration I dreaded being left with the 6:00-9:00 pm slot, especially on Fridays. I’m almost certain o-chem fostered my obsession with Odegaard 8-hour study sessions. I was always on the lookout for those large rolling white boards just to draw out synthesis reactions. Although we could’ve drawn them on a piece of paper, there’s something about drawing benzene rings and a backside nucleophilic attack on a white board that just “hit different.” You would think all those hours of studying would have equipped me with the skills and knowledge needed to ace an exam… but instead, I bombed my first midterm in that series. I failed.
Next came the marathon of the biochem series. Biochem weaved together almost everything I knew and everything I had not known from biology and chemistry. I won’t lie, somewhere near the end of the o-chem series, I had lost touch with my initial interest in the Department, but parts of biochemistry really brought it back to me. The series taught me the best way to understand how life works in a fundamental way from studying components like proteins and lipids to the power scientific methods and technology have on breakthrough medical discovery. Yet, I still managed to fall behind on lecture content because my motivation fell through from those dreadful Zoom classes. And every time I had caught up, I’d fall behind again the next day. I told myself this wouldn’t be sustainable, and I needed a better way of keeping myself accountable, but that really didn’t last either. I failed.
Lastly, who could forget p-chem? Seriously. Physical chemistry taught me that pretty much all the thermodynamics taught in the gen chem was just a lie. Okay – maybe not a complete lie, but I sure thought three years of classes in chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, biochemistry, and physics would have prepared me for p-chem. If there’s one thing I learned from all those classes combined to apply to p-chem, it was PV=nRT. Truthfully speaking, there probably was not a single class where I had understood exactly every bit of content that was taught. And so again, I had failed.
Over these past four years, I went through a repetitive process of fail and learn, fail and learn. But it got to the point where I realized those failures were just small hiccups and opportunities for me to grow. Seeking help from professors may have been hard initially, but later, any chance I got, I’d throw in a question at review sessions. Sure, I failed my first o-chem midterm, but that’s not to say I never did well on any exams after that. I did fall behind in lecture content each week, but I built a strong foundation of knowledge, going at my own pace. My understanding of p-chem may not have been the most fruitful, but not every class is designed to pique the interest of every single student.
We have all been challenged in so many ways that one story doesn’t capture it all. The failures, small and large—ones you never overcame, ones you still think back to, ones you’re still working on, and the ones that moved you forward—regardless of what they are, we are all sitting here today, closing, but also opening, a new chapter in our lives, telling unique stories, reminiscing great memories, and celebrating all our accomplishments since Day One.
This year’s graduation is like no other — we’ve been through some of the most unforeseen situations and circumstances that have happened not only around us, but on a global-scale. Through hardships, social issues, and the pandemic, things really haven’t been easy for us, especially since we didn’t sign up for college to have about two years of it “taken away” to be online. So today, I am thankful.
I am thankful that the Class of 2022 gets to celebrate in the year 2022. (We’re also with the Classes of 2020 and 2021 who deserve to be celebrated as well.) I am thankful for all that’s been brought to us, and that after four years at this institution, I hope we walk away with confidence in not only our victories, but also our failures. So of course, today is a celebration. A celebration of our hard work, all that’s gone right, all that went wrong that brought us to this point… to… Fail Forward!
Adapted from Lucinda’s June 2022 commencement speech. Photo by Charlie Barrows.