Navigating the Chemistry Major as a First-Year

If you are new to Cornell, welcome! This semester is sure to be different from any other. Starting your Cornell journey and exploring chemistry classes while managing pandemic-related stresses and challenges is no doubt daunting. Please know that CPA, your professors, your peers, and others around campus are here to support you in any way we can. You are not alone!

My first advice to prospective chemistry students is to take a deep breath and relax. It may feel that it is imperative to plan out your schedule three years out right this moment, or to write a 50-item, minute-by-minute list of exactly what to do when the enrollment window opens. I certainly was tempted. Please don’t stress out too much about this. I enrolled in my first chemistry class, CHEM 2150, purely on a whim after meeting some chemistry people at the Academic Open House. Not only was this after pre-enrollment, but the class was also full! I was told the chemistry undergraduate coordinator is very good at placing people on the waitlist. After a couple days of agony and constant monitoring of the Class Roster, this turned out absolutely true and I enrolled without a problem.

Another reason why not to stress too much about course planning and enrollment is that your plans at Cornell are very likely to change. I didn’t believe that myself. I was certain my goal was to attend graduate school for mathematics. After being a mathlete for seven years before coming to college, I couldn’t imagine majoring in anything else other than mathematics. Everything changed after I took my first organic chemistry course (CHEM 3590), and I’ve been working towards becoming an organic chemist ever since!

The most useful source of information for new chemistry students is the department website. It contains a lot of information from prospective curricula to career planning. You should pay particular attention to the representative course schedules, which delineate four very concrete, specific-down-to-the-exact-course plans for you to finish the major on time. Note that courses with lab components will be significantly more time-consuming than lecture courses. In addition to studying the material, you also need to do lab prep, be in lab at least three hours a week, and write lab reports. As a general rule of thumb, allocate at least 8-10 hours per week outside of class for chemistry courses. You might also want to look up the recommended sequences for other fields you may be interested in, as being on track for multiple majors the first semester will give you more options later on. Pay attention on the Class Roster to when a course is offered. Some courses are offered year-round, while others are only offered in the Spring or Fall.

I also recommend visiting the websites of chemistry professors who you might be interested in working with, or talk to professors in-person, especially if you are thinking about graduate school. This would give you an idea of the ongoing work in the department. However, don’t be pressured into securing a research position your first semester. In fact, I am not even sure if this is possible given the pandemic. There will be plenty of opportunities later on.

It is a common practice at Cornell that if the enrollment window opens at 7:00 AM, everyone hits the enrollment button first at 6:58 out of paranoia, just to see if the window has opened already, and then a second time the moment the clock changes to 7:00. Sometimes this works. Other times, both the enrollment window and the Class Roster crashes, and the crash may not be fixed until 7:10. In any case, you definitely should add all your required courses to your shopping cart in Student Center the day before and not wait until the second day to enroll. But don’t panic if you are unable to enroll in some courses. If this happens, sign up for the waitlist ASAP, and things will generally work out. Emailing the department undergraduate coordinator may also help.

As always, if you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to email us or schedule an appointment! We will respond ASAP and do our best to help you!

Christina Cong, ’21

Tips from a Transfer Student

I transferred to Cornell my sophomore year. Since then, I’ve learned a lot. As a transfer student, things are difficult at times. You’re coming into a large university where classmates have mostly settled in, made friends, and acclimated to the rigors of a Cornell curriculum. Even so, it’s definitely possible to maximize your potential and make lifelong friends along the way!

The first tip I’d like to share is to (1) make friends. The first part of any transition begins with building a foundation- this is where friends come in. The first few weeks at Cornell were some of the hardest during my three years, and it was unsurprisingly because I didn’t yet have a group of friends. However, as time progresses, inevitably you’ll find a group of people that you enjoy spending time with. If you’re a bit of an introvert (like me), don’t worry! I met my friends by attending office hours every week and going to class- these are some of the smallest settings you’ll be able to interact with others, so it’s a good chance to try and start some conversations, even if it’s just about course material. Being a chemistry major, there are also options outside of classes, like the professional chemistry fraternity Alpha Chi Sigma. This is the co-ed chemistry fraternity that I joined during my first semester at Cornell, and it was such a wholesome and supportive environment for making friends. 

Moving to the logistical side of things, the second tip I have is to (2) think about your interests, and try to decide on a chemistry major track. There are different tracks tailored for specific postgraduate interests, and it’s helpful to know what courses you have to complete before graduation. It’s ok not to know! I’m not telling you to go plan the next two or three years- it’s impossible to know exactly what you’ll do. However, the more you know about what courses you have a genuine interest in and when you need to take them, the more prepared and confident you’ll be. 

If you have an inkling to try something outside chemistry, do it earlier rather than later. It is much easier to try something new and discover a secondary interest in that area rather than finding out later. Chemistry can be an intense major, and that’s amazing if you are invested in learning and pushing yourself by taking hard courses- that’s exactly what I did! However, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t courses I still wanted to take. Some programs have fairly rigid curriculums, so that might be an issue if you decide to wait. Now, as a chemistry major, I assure you that there is plenty of time to finish the major and take other courses, even graduate ones. You can also try to tailor the major to suit your postgraduate interests! 

And (3), joining a lab can also be a great way to establish yourself within the department. It never hurts to email a professor saying you are interested in their research. Some may reply that you need to take certain introductory courses first, but nonetheless it’s always good to engage with faculty and show interest.

I know those were a lot of words, so here’s a quick recap:

  1. Make friends
  2. Think about what courses you might want to take, both chemistry and non-chemistry
  3. Try talking with professors about joining a lab

If you’d like to discuss anything in more detail send me an email at jng57@cornell.edu.

Jack Gruhin, ’20

Taking a Gap Year

Going into senior year, I was burnt out and pretty jaded. I was relatively sure I was headed towards grad school, but the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I was with the thought of signing up five years of my life to a future I wasn’t even sure I wanted. During my time at Cornell, besides dealing with difficult classes, I experienced something like four stress fractures, a herniated disc, achilles tenosynovitis, a broken foot, and a bad concussion. By the time senior year rolled around, I was desperate to enjoy my time left at Cornell without having to worry about processing the previous three years while putting together grad school applications. I wanted to spend time with my friends and work on research I was passionate about. I was also very invested in chemistry outreach and wanted to take the time to implement new ideas based on my experiences. I eventually decided to take a break–I would be able to recharge, get to know the person I had become over the past four years, and step into the future confident about whatever would happen next. 

Fortunately, there are many jobs available in chemistry/biology research, especially right now. After a short search, I secured a job with Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School. My job is to help synthesize/optimize tiny polymer bubbles (5 micron diameter) to deliver gaseous oxygen directly to the bloodstream. I am basically a baby version of a grad student, allowing me to test drive the process and explore a new area of chemistry before committing to a PhD. My undergraduate research focused on polymer electrolytes for lithium ion batteries, so the new research was similar enough that there wasn’t a huge learning curve, but different enough that I have been able to acquire a bunch of new knowledge and skills. There have definitely been times where I worried about being left behind while my friends and classmates prepared for their journey toward advanced degrees, but as time has passed, I have become more confident in my decision.

I am glad I took this time to gain perspective outside of the “Cornell bubble,” reflect on the parts of chemistry I enjoy the most, and figure out how I as a person have changed and what I am aiming towards in the future. As a bonus, taking a gap year gives you a chance to earn real money, form a “network,” ask coworkers about their career experiences, and explore alternatives to further degrees in the chemistry field. 

Liz Chartier, ’20

Finding an Unknown Field in Chemistry

During my sophomore year, when I was starting to think about how to spend my next summer, my PI forwarded me an email for a summer program I had never even heard about before. It consisted of an application to spend 10 weeks in one of two sites to learn about the basics of nuclear chemistry funded by the DOE. Besides the couple or so lectures on nuclear chemistry we had had in general chemistry on the basic types of decay, I had never even known that nuclear chemistry was a field. Even by then, I was confident that I was aware of the different fields you can go into, since I was trying to think about what I wanted to go into after getting an undergraduate degree in chemistry. Yet, I had never even considered nuclear chemistry as even a field where people were currently working in.

After looking more into the program, I decided to apply since it looked interesting and ended up being accepted. I got to spend 10 weeks in San Jose, where 12 of us got to learn about nuclear chemistry through lectures and labs. We also had a large amount of guest speakers come in and talk about their research and brief overviews of the field of nuclear chemistry. Even though I started the program not being very interested in nuclear chemistry as an area, I ended up deciding to focus on it as what I plan on for graduate school, on top of getting to know a lot of really important people in the field. This just goes to show you that no matter how much you might think you know about your options in chemistry, there might always be another path!

David Fiszbein, ’21

My Online Internship Experience

This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Merck’s Discovery Process Chemistry group in Boston. Although this wasn’t the lab-based experience I had imagined, my remote internship was an incredibly rewarding opportunity for learning and growth. Not only did the organizers ensure that us interns had our own projects, but they also took care to support our career growth and show interns what the pharmaceutical industry is like.

My research mentor and I worked on meaningful projects that developed my skills as a chemist. This summer, I learned how to write a literature review as well as how to communicate science to a wider audience by making a video about one of Merck’s drugs. My mentor was incredibly supportive and helpful through the entire process, and on the side, I got to calculate some theoretical medicinal properties of some compounds she was working on!

In addition to this, interns were invited to participate in the Next Generation Network (NGN) program, where each intern was paired with a career mentor (separate from the research mentor). I met with my mentor once a week to discuss topics such as how Merck is structured, opportunities for chemists in the pharmaceutical industry, interview tips, and resume/LinkedIn review. 

Merck also put together multiple online seminar series to teach interns about topics such as “Hit to Lead Drug Hunting,” “Zepatier: HCV Clinical Case Study,” “COVID-19 Drug Discovery,” and “Introduction to Peptides in Pharmaceuticals.” These presentations given by experienced scientists from different groups at Merck were extremely informative and engaging—I didn’t even know many of these fields existed before.

Considering the current pandemic, I was initially worried that my internship would be cancelled. Instead, Merck put so much effort into creating a meaningful experience for interns. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to explore my interest in the pharmaceutical industry—this summer will definitely be one to remember.

Judy Pan, ’21

Interning in Person During a Pandemic

After accepting a research internship at Bayer early this year, I was certainly fearful that my position would be cancelled by the time April rolled around. Much to my surprise, though, I was told that I would be moving to Missouri for the summer and working in the lab. While my summer certainly had its ups and downs, it was great to be back in the lab again, even under the very tight restrictions Bayer kept on its facilities.

Many of the safety measures were similar to those being implemented at our labs here at Cornell—wearing masks all the time, keeping six feet apart, not sharing lab space, daily temperature screenings, and the list goes on and on. Despite all of this, I was still able to have a fulfilling summer research experience, and I’m very thankful to Bayer for that. While the COVID pandemic seems like it certainly won’t be going away anytime soon, it’s at least nice to know that science will always continue despite the challenges, and hopefully everyone will be able to return to their labs safely soon.

I would absolutely recommend the summer internship experience to anyone interested in exploring industry, even if it’s just a passing interest. To be frank, I applied for this internship on a whim, but I’m truly glad that I did because I was able to learn a lot more about the field and make contacts that will be there for me if (when) I need help in the future.

Jonah Capella, ’21

Exploring Other Academic Interests

During the fall semester of senior year, I actually ended up taking no classes in the chemistry department. I enjoyed many of my chemistry core classes in sophomore and junior year and wanted to use them as a basis for taking a couple of upper-level courses in the Materials Science and Engineering department. I chose Fundamentals and Applications of Electrochemistry (MSE 5740) and Glass: Structure, Properties, and Applications (MSE 5320), both of which opened my eyes to underlying fundamentals in both fields. My knowledge of thermodynamics was extremely helpful in MSE 5740 in understanding the basic concepts of electrochemistry and how the technologies that rely on them work. MSE 5320 also challenged me to apply my knowledge of chemistry to glass, a material that I rely on in everyday life in many different facets, but never have truly thought about how its properties rely on its chemical structure and composition. Additionally, I gave a presentation on a specific type glass, which was the first time I ever gave scientific presentation. I think that taking electives outside the Chemistry department has been enlightening and has shown me the importance of the underlying chemical concepts I learned in the chemistry curriculum, as well as given me the opportunity to improve upon my scientific communication skills. Now, I plan on pursuing electrochemistry related research in my graduate studies and am looking forward to using my chemistry background in my materials science research.

Emily Nishiwaki, ’20