Beakers and Flasks

I can’t say I remember too much from Intro Chem lab, aside from thinking I could all but be a pharmacist after an aspirin synthesis, and that filtration had entirely too many steps (unclip and then suction, or the other way around?). But there was one day that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget.

It’s not the context I remember so well, because I’m unclear what exactly preceded the incident. I think I was in disagreement with my lab partner (disagreement being a strong word, back then I was pretty passive in more than just lab), and decided to consult our lab instructor. In explaining my confusion, I referenced something we had in the “beaker,” a mistake I won’t ever make again.

A typical Chem lab at Swat. Most students’ opportunity for a more diverse, hands-on learning practice. My old source of anxiety.

“Kenzie.” She seemed confused at first, then just disappointed. “Which one is the beaker?”

Sensing her unease, I timidly gestured towards the almost-triangular piece of glassware with the tapered neck.

“No, the beaker.”

Then finally, “Do you even know what a beaker is?”

My enthusiastic lab partner piped up, eager to point out that what I had been referring to was, in fact, an Erlenmeyer flask. Beakers are cylinders, with straight sides. And even if I knew what I was talking about in terms of the procedure, I knew I had lost any credibility in our outstanding disagreement.

Flask on the left, beaker on the right. In my defense, it’s not exactly intuitive.

This isn’t to say we didn’t finish the lab, or that I was totally incompetent the entire semester, or that I still don’t know the difference between a beaker and a flask (because I do). But in that moment, I was reminded of everything I didn’t know. I’d never been in a lab before coming to college, because North Carolina public education is just okay, and as a result, I never learned to differentiate the equipment. I didn’t take AP Chem, or anything more than one semester of balancing equations. I didn’t march right into my advisor’s office on the first day of classes and assert that I wanted to be a doctor someday, because maybe I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it.

Yet as much as I may struggle to declare them, there are a lot of reasons why I think I want to go to med school, and they’re probably not all that different from anyone else’s. I like science, I like brains, and most of all, I like people. I’ve done well in the relevant classes, and I decided I preferred them to the alternatives. Maybe I had too many people telling me I was smart when I was little, or maybe it’s the family physician who remains one of the coolest women in my life. Or it could be because somewhere along the line, I decided I enjoyed listening to other people tell their stories much more than telling my own.

But there’s another reason – subtler, and probably more unique. I want to prove to the world, but more to myself, that I am more than the dumb blonde who didn’t know a flask from a beaker in Intro Chem. I want to prove to myself that you don’t always have to be assertive to get to med school, and you certainly don’t have to be mean. And that starting late, cultivating other interests, and messing up in lab doesn’t mean you’ll never get there.

Fortunately enough, I have another lab memory to share, this time from Orgo I. This memory is much less interesting than the first one – in fact, not at all interesting – but it’s much more important. It was about halfway through the semester, and I was in the middle of a filtration procedure, the same one that seemed so complex only a couple of months earlier. I stopped to reassess for just a second (some lab anxiety never goes away), and I realized I was fine. I wasn’t confused, I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t even thinking too hard about what I was doing. I just did it.

A simplified vacuum filtration diagram. We used this process extensively in Orgo.

My freshman year lab partner from Into Chem (bless her heart, as we say in the south), may turn out to be more successful than me. Wealthier, happier, a better doctor, a groundbreaking researcher, I don’t know. But I know now, if that happens, it won’t be because she knew the difference between a flask and beaker when I didn’t. And it certainly won’t be because I gave up when things got confusing and unfamiliar and hard. Because I haven’t. And I won’t.

Less relevant, but perhaps my coolest lab experience so I’ll throw it in at the end: a chick embryo in Bio 1 lab! All thanks to my ability to differentiate glassware?

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