A day in the life of a chemistry professor at Western Washington University.
Story and photos by Jonathan Flynn.
A group of undergraduates gathers around Dr. Jennifer Griffith in the organic chemistry laboratory as she begins to explain how to use the RotoVap, a complex machine reminiscent of something from Frankenstein’s laboratory with its glass coils and network of switches. Today, the students are responsible for separating caffeine from tea through a long series of chemical reactions. Griffith’s responsibility is to make sure they do it right.
Griffith has called Western Washington University home for many years. She began her scientific journey at Everett Community College where she worked towards completing the pre-medicine prerequisite courses. She then transferred to Western and began to pursue a chemistry degree after she realized that she could hardly stand the sight of an open wound. Years later, she is now a lecture instructor and professor of chemistry at Western.
Griffith feels that her high school science experience failed to adequately prepare her for college. But once she enrolled at Western, that all changed.
“I totally remember the exact lab that got me.” She leans back in her chair and laughs. “I had two unknown compounds, a neutral compound and an acid, the two of them mixed together, and I wasn’t given any direction on how to separate them. All that it said was ‘you have to separate these two things, figure it out.’ And that was the first time in my academic career that I was asked to figure something out.”
The struggle Griffith experienced is not uncommon. The most recent Programme for International Student Assessment ranked the United States 24th out of 71 countries in science and 38th in math. In 2017, 47.6 percent of students who took the AP Chemistry test received a 2 or lower. Despite being able to claim that we put the first human on the moon, the U.S. consistently lags in math and science education.
Griffith thinks that, simply put, we make science and math too scary.
“One of my students even said it best: that chemistry isn’t hard, we just put a lot of scary-sounding words to these things. So if that part was simplified, it probably wouldn’t be too bad. His best example is ‘I’m going to go elute now.’– that means ‘fall out the bottom’. But we have to make it sound scary in chemistry. And that’s really what it is! All these very simple things that we put these big scary words.”
Organic chemistry gets a bad reputation in college. It is credited with being incredibly difficult and is commonly believed to act as a filter that separates successful scientists from everyone else. Griffith believes this presumption may scare students away before they get a chance to succeed.
“I hear a lot of people come into [organic chemistry] hearing how terrible it’s going to be, and I get a lot of feedback that it wasn’t as bad as someone they knew had made it out to be” Griffith said.
Griffith’s lab sessions go against the preconceived notion that a laboratory is a no-nonsense place of intense work and no play. Instead, she drifts from station to station, cracking jokes and talking with students about their lives as she teaches. Music radiates from the back of the lab, creating an apparently relaxed atmosphere that contrasts with the rigid sterility of the students’ lab coats and rubber gloves.
As the reactions proceed, Griffith checks in with every student to assess their understanding of the day’s work. In one instance however, she diverts from formulas and compounds, instead speaking with a student about raising chickens.
“I try and do that when I teach too. I try and chat with my students, give it a personal level, let them know me more personal than just the scary instructor at the front because I know that’s what helped me when I was in these two classes” Griffith said.
Jonathan is an environmental science major at Western Washington University and an aspiring science communicator. He is also the science editor at the Planet Magazine. He intends to be the second journalist to ever go into space.