My purest love since I was a little kid has always been chemistry—mostly because it seemed out of my reach for a long time. This perceived distance existed for two reasons: One, my favorite way of consuming science was through things like comics and cartoons, so I idolized it but had no real stake in it. Two, I’ve quite frankly never been particularly good at chemistry, so it never really felt like I could actually be one of “those people” who knew what they were doing with those Erlenmeyer flasks.
Studying chemistry more seriously now, I’ve definitely developed a more realistic lens as I’ve not only discovered that I’m capable of being one of those people, but also that I am marginalized and tokenized by other people in my field who share neither my physical attributes nor my life experiences. But more interestingly, and more prevalently, are the ways in which my individual success has been tokenized to mean more than just my success to other marginalized communities.
Like I said, I’ve never been good at chemistry. When I first started studying it, in eighth grade, I had to take a summer class to catch up in time for high school. Sophomore year of high school, I turned in all my lab reports late because I didn’t understand what I now consider basic calculations like pH. Despite it all, I decided to take HL chemistry junior year, only to end senior year with a 4 (wait honestly, maybe a 3) out of 7 on the HL exam. Even though all of high school chemistry was just a series of Ls, every year I kept coming back to it.
Then, I got to Columbia, and gave myself a break after that scarring final by pointedly not taking Gen Chem first semester. When I started regretting it right after the add/drop deadline, it finally occurred to me that maybe I kept sticking around because I genuinely liked chemistry, and I might as well major in it. I did more research, and I was excited about how much exposure Columbia offered me to the STEM world in general. But, as the Columbia admissions website advertises, Columbia simultaneously encouraged me to consider my academic interests holistically—something I hadn’t done before college. It’s also worth mentioning that it wasn’t until college that I really started exploring what my identities mean to me (and identity politics in general).
As a result, I’ve not only understood the importance of having people like me—women of color—in STEM, but I’ve also been fueled by that importance to try even harder in chemistry, to the point where it’s one of my best subjects now. It’s what helps me find motivation when a midterm completely bodies me, or I keep getting practice questions wrong. It’s what makes me get disproportionately embarrassed when I answer a question wrong during lecture, hoping that people don’t see me as “another black girl unprepared for class.” It becomes both an extra supply of encouragement and another reason to be afraid of failure.
The summary is that chemistry went from being a subject light years out of my reach, but in a vacuum, to being securely within my grasp, but in the context of the world I live in and my stake in it. Both my confidence and my paradigm changed at the same time, making it difficult to precisely evaluate why I’m still so committed. It’s confusing that I can at once be extremely happy that I’m doing well, and yet feel stressed about what it might mean if I don’t, or can’t, keep it up. It’s also confusing that Columbia gave me so much more #wholesomesciencecontent to love as purely as I did when I was 10, but it also gave me all the very information that makes me much more cognizant of the social implications.
My collection of experiences at Columbia have blurred the line between pursuing a career out of a social or moral obligation, and pursuing it out of sheer enjoyment. The things I gain, and the intangible things black people, or women of color, or other minorities, gain from my presence in STEM align almost too much with my initial desire to study chemistry for the sake of the subject. Hopefully my being in STEM does eventually contribute to some sort of social change, and I get to continue my career knowing that others get to follow suit and feel supported and secure. In the meantime, I’ll continue chasing my degree because I wanna chase a damn degree, and I’ll try to remember how happy 10-year-old me would be, knowing that she ends up being one of those people that actually understands wtf Susan and Mary Test are on.
Eileen Moudou is, obviously, a chemistry major. Reach out if you ever want to go through reaction mechanisms for fun at email@example.com. Your Token [Blank] Woman runs alternate Wednesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.