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Why I Majored in Chemistry

Immacula Celestin ’21

While I didn’t always plan on being a chemistry major in college, I came in set on being on the pre-health track. Chemistry was the only STEM class I took my first year, while most pre-health students took chemistry and biology. I can admit I didn’t love chemistry lecture right away, but what I found I surprising loved was lab. I have always been a hands-on learner and lab gave me the firsthand experience of performing experiments myself and seeing reactions we’d talk about in class, in real life. It wasn’t just topics to talk about from the textbook or molecular formulas I had to remember. It was about me understanding procedures and working with special equipment and emerging myself in the topic.

Ever since my first year at Pomona, I always found myself actively getting involved in the chemistry world on campus in some way. Whether it was being in class or in lab, working in the chemistry stock room, attending on-campus seminars, being a teacher’s assistant for lab or a chemistry liaison, and even spending my summer on campus to conduct research. Chemistry just always made sense to me—both in and out of class.

I feel that one of the biggest benefits of majoring in chemistry is the support system that comes with it. From the professors and faculty to the students and everyone in between. Before even declaring my major, Professor Dan O’Leary had been a chemistry resource for me. Whether that was at 8 a.m. during his Organic Chemistry section, or at some random time of that day when I would pop into his office. Professor Malkiat Johal is always eagerly willing to answer the a million and one questions I have about major requirements and sit down to discuss with me my plans and classes for the rest of the course of my time here. And I can’t forget about how fortunate I have been to have learning community groups that turn into lasting friendships and some of the best mentors a girl could ask for. 

Nicholas Oo ’21

Over the past seven years, a unique pattern I’ve observed is that every student from my high school who enrolled at Pomona chose to major in chemistry. It appears I’ve joined the ranks as well. Whether that was due to the finesse of our resident AP Chemistry teacher in bringing a major cool factor to the subject, or the fact that there was a strong presence of accomplished, scientific parents in our nerdy suburb, we’ll never know for certain. What I do know for sure though, is that since deciding to, I’ve never looked back.

Luckily for me, I had the good fortune of being taken under the wing of Professor Roberto Garza-López my first year at Pomona. Not only did his chemistry class solidify my already piqued interest in the subject, it gave me a window of opportunity to put all of these new concepts I’d learned to the test. I spent the summer after my freshman year in his lab using 3D models to quantitatively study the movement of water in plants, specifically within the xylem and phloem. Before this experience, all lab ever was to me was finicky Bunsen burners, slippery glassware perfectly shaped for dropping and ambiguous fluids to be measured with precision. Ten weeks in his lab, however, and there I was, a certified computational chemist.

Truth be told, I did miss that feeling of wet lab though, so I gladly joined Professor Cynthia Selassie’s lab during my second year. With her the following summer, I took on an investigation of the relationship between the para-substituent of phenols and their genotoxicities. I had a lot of independence with this project which forced me to troubleshoot issues on my own. While met with mixed levels of success, this experience ultimately built up confidence in my studies even further, so much so in fact that I hope to continue the same line of research for my thesis as a senior.

All in all, these two years as a chemistry major have been awesome. I have felt inspired by my peers and professors alike, and most importantly feel supported in this quest for higher knowledge. There is one recent perk though, that has really felt like the cherry on top - an official lab coat with my name, no joke, embroidered on it.

Jacob Al-Husseini ’22

If you were to tell me in 10th grade that I would be a chemistry major once in college, I would’ve laughed in disbelief. As an aspiring pre-med, I was only fascinated with the marvels of the human body that could be understood and, most importantly, seen with the naked eye. The molecular level of medicine was never something that grabbed my attention, and for that reason, the chemistry was exclusively an obligation. I was lucky enough to be able to enroll in Chemistry 51 at Pomona, one of the unique courses which allows you to fulfill the year-long chemistry requirement in only one semester. You can guess why I enrolled. Nonetheless, being a student under one of the department’s most impressive members, Professor Malkiat Johal, I was quickly fascinated by intricacies of the applications of physical chemistry to the world of drug design as well as the ability to look at biological problems through the lens of a physical chemist. Luckily for me, Chemistry 51 was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Pomona’s Chemistry Department had to offer.

After only several classes, I was eager to get behind the scenes of Pomona’s research, and luckily, Professor Johal was more than helpful in allowing me to explore what the department had to offer. I joined the Johal Lab as soon as I could, looking over the shoulders of two seniors working with polyelectrolyte systems, learning everything I could in hopes of coming up with a project of my own. I was finally able to see the complexities of the theory put into practical and purposeful use, and I couldn’t have been more excited to see where I could take things next. I spent the next semester and summer researching how water influences the ability for drug binding within the body, coming to understand potential limitations that exist in the world of drug delivery with hopes to facilitate improvement for all recipients. In this process, I was able to collaborate with another member of the department, Professor Cynthia Selassie, who was instrumental in the development of the QSAR, one of Pomona’s most notable contributions to the scientific community. Not only did I see the theories put into practice, but I facilitated an increase in the overall understanding of the scientific world that will eventually impact and improve peoples’ lives. To me, that was where I was hooked. To be a freshman in college who believes that they have the power to help people is the most empowering aspect of research in the sciences and one that has kept me enthralled since the beginning.

This year, I am lucky enough to continue pursuing research in the Johal Lab. Most recently, teaming up with a pediatric neurosurgeon out of USC to design and implement aptamer conjugated nanoparticles for targeted tumor treatments of non-operable pediatric tumors and to ensure that resected tumor margins are free of residual cancer cells. We are in the process of developing a cancer treatment method that will not even require the use of a scalpel, which can be applied to make sure there is no cancer cell left anywhere in a child.

Overall, the chemistry department is as hard as it is rewarding, and I am beyond honored to have the privilege of being inspired and supported by my mentors and my peers every day I walk into Seaver. We are encouraged to try, fail, and, most importantly, learn the process of what it means to seek and discover. As a student who has only begun their second year, I’ve had experiences that are, for the most part, unheard of for undergraduates, which is a massive testament to Pomona’s desire to facilitate real-world learning. With a little over two years left, I am excited for what is in store, and I know that no matter where I go and what I do, Pomona will have my back.

Kate Aris ’22

I came to Pomona as a pre-med student intending to major in neuroscience since I want to become a neurosurgeon. I enrolled in the standard general chemistry and genetics courses for a pre-med student and could feel myself gravitating to the Chemistry Department, specifically Professor Fred Grieman. I was interested in the global warming project he assigned to us as first years and felt I learned more in that project than I ever would have imagined. I continued on the pre-med track and even took Intro to Neuro which I honestly loved so much. I kept in touch with Professor Grieman even though he was only my professor for first semester first year. I remember Professor Grieman would always tease me about not being a chemistry major. One day in his office we were talking about my future courses at Pomona as well as what opportunities I should seek out in terms of getting to medical school. He once again asked jokingly when I was going to declare my chemistry major and that afternoon, I finally gave in. Professor Grieman is now my advisor and I have also completed physical chemistry with him. So in all honesty, the people in the department are the main reason I am a chemistry major. I love my chem courses and find them to be so stimulating but my Professors and peers are the best I could ever ask for.

I do not think there is a department on campus more welcoming, caring and intellectually stimulating than chemistry. The professors go above and beyond to make me as a student feel like I can achieve anything. They are so supportive not only in our classes but also in lab, research as well as finding opportunities outside of Pomona. Additionally, my fellow chemistry majors are like a family. There is such a sense of camaraderie, collaboration and mentorship within the department. My best friend is a chemistry major in the year above and he has been so supportive and always guides me in the right direction. I think people understand that chemistry is quite a difficult major. The department requires the maximum number of courses and many of the classes are not easy. But I think that is exactly what makes the major so rewarding. Our lab curriculum is also incredible. I love how hands-on our experience in the lab is and how many skills I have acquired already. We also have the Robins Lecture series which is just an incredible opportunity for undergraduates to get to hear talks from renowned chemists and even have the chance to eat lunch with these scientists like I did!

I will be working with Professor Nicholas Ball in his lab this current semester to do an independent research project that hopefully will transition into my thesis. COVID threw a wrench in my research plans as I was hoping to get started a little bit earlier but Professor Ball was so welcoming into his lab group and I am excited to get started. 

I have had the best experiences with my mentors for classes so it even inspired me to become a mentor for classes I have already completed. I think this just speaks to the fact that everyone wants everyone to succeed in the department. We all challenge one another but at the end of the day we are also each other’s biggest cheerleaders and teammates. I am also a student-athlete who is on the track team and I feel my professors and coaches have worked with me and together to make sure I can have the best of both worlds whether it be running to practice a little late coming from lab or being flexible meeting with me based on practice schedules.