Chemistry Professors Keep Us Safe

Whittier College is a small, private liberal arts college located in the little town of Whittier, California.  While I was there in the mid-1980’s, the size of the entire undergraduate class was smaller than the 700 graduates from my High School class.

One of the benefits of the small classs size is that a quarter century later, when I walk on campus for more than 20 minutes, I will probably run into a professors that will not only remember me, but call me by first name.  By contrast,  when I was working on my MBA at a California State University and at the end of a each semester, it was not uncommon for the professor to not know some of their students names.  

About a year ago, I attended a retirement party for one of my former professors, Dr. Charles Reeg.  As a freshman in 1984, I had the privilege of being in 2 sections of Dr. Reeg’s General Chemistry Class and as a Senior in 1987/88, I was in his Physical Chemistry and his Biophysical Chemistry classes.

I arrived at the retirement party a few minutes after it had started.   I met Dr. Reeg and he introduced me to the current students and the other alumni at the event.   Ineveitably at these events, among the alumni, a little game always initiates called, “Who is the oldest alum in the room”.    Guess who it was?   Hint: you’re reading his blog.  Among the med students, teachers, doctors in attendance, I was oldest by a bunch.  I wasn’t bothered…  really.

After dinner came the opportunity for current and former students to speak our memories of our time with Dr. Reeg.  It was wonderful to hear that the man was still the quirky, funny and dependable as I remembered.

As I took my opportunity to speak, it struck me that my Chemistry Professors taught more than just Chemistry, they taught safety.  When I was in a chemistry  lab at Whittier, safety was always drilled into us.  A quarter century later,  when I walk by a lab at work and people are walking around with safety glasses, gloves or lab coats, get on them about it.  It was what I was taught.

Not to put down the contributions of any other department in any school anywhere (Statement of PC), Chemistry professors are the only ones that on a weekly basis prevent students from inadvertantly blowing themselves up or burning themselves with chemicals or fire.   Teen-agers should not be allowed to seperate mixtures of organic compounds using heat and flowing water.  It’s just a bad idea. These type of experiments to boil off a mixtures of an organic compound, to certain boiling points, not too high and not too low.  This inevitably involves, fire, flamable liquids,  multiple closed vessels attached to one another through various glass holding contraptions.  In these experiments gasses building up, and things can easily go very wrong, especially when there are distractions of the teen-age opposite sex around.   Maybe that’s why labcoats are so unflattering, to help keep the students on task.  

One year, the Chemistry Department offered a Scientific Glass-blowing class.  This required students to heat glass using a combination of oxygen and acetylene.    The safety mantra of that class, which I still remember to this day, was that “hot glass looks like cold glass, but it feels much different”.    The corrolary was that hot glass tastes different too.

Chemistry professors also keep the school safe.   I remember during my junior year, one of the Chemistry professors came across an old bottle of peroxide forming compounds in an upstairs storage unit and recognizing the hazard, called the bomb squad to take the chemicals away.  That made for an exciting day.

Chemistry professors also teach and prevent students from pouring the non-polar carcinogenics organics down the drain.   We shan’t go into any further detail on that point.

I had to leave the party a little bit early.   As I drove away I thought back on my life 20 years ago.  It was contained on that campus with those people.   Maybe not those exact students (heck, many of them were still in diapers), but with people like them.  People who had chosen to spend 4 years at that place, at that experience.  The experience at Whittier was and still is amazing.  

So, who were your favorite teachers in High School, College or Grad School?

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Chemistry Professors Keep Us Safe

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