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Deciding On Chemistry

November 28, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 48

I couldn’t help but smile when I read “High School Science”(C&EN, Sept. 12, page 47). I very clearly remember what motivated me to study chemistry, and it’s a story that I have relayed to others many times. It’s a striking example of the potential influence that an adult can have on a teenager with nothing more than a simple comment.

I was 17 years old and canoeing down the Suwannee River in north Florida with my Boy Scout troop. My scoutmaster was a chief chemist at a quality-control lab in an International Minerals & Chemical’s phosphate facility in central Florida. While sitting around a campfire one night with another adult chaperone—who happened also to be a chemist working for IMC—my scoutmaster asked me the typical question an adult asks of a teenager: “So, Joe, what are you going to study in college?” I responded in a typical teenager-like way: “I don’t know. I’ll probably study biology and go to medical school like my father.”

Both chemists sitting with me around the campfire that night simultaneously responded: “Well, you should study chemistry instead of biology if you’re thinking about going to medical school. If things don’t pan out, chemistry is a much better degree to fall back on.” I thought about it for a second. It certainly made sense. I decided then and there to study chemistry and never looked back, and I never applied to medical school. Fate is a funny thing.

By Joseph E. Coury


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