I was one of the organic chemistry students that Professor Maitland Jones failed. But I now run a public health chemistry lab and offer this tale of redemption.
In 1998, failing organic chemistry destroyed my hopes of becoming a doctor. A medical anthropology course revealed alternatives; a mentor steered me to public health. I went on to earn graduate degrees in epidemiology and am now on faculty at the University of North Carolina.
I disagree with Freddie deBoer that this type of course gives opportunity for “figuring out what you’re not good at.” The assertion dismisses the reality that sometimes we are called on to skill up on the very thing that we failed.
At UNC I specialize in preventing drug overdose. Since the COVID pandemic, overdose rates have soared as street drugs suddenly became adulterated with more than a hundred substances, each with unique clinical harm.
I suppressed my fear of organic chemistry and set up a laboratory to determine what is in street drugs, providing timely warnings and solving medical mysteries.
The day after The New York Times ran the story on Professor Jones, the same newspaper sent a photographer to take pictures of my chemistry lab. In December, The Times ran a full-page story spotlighting our work. It was then that I finally, and permanently, relegated the shame of failing. It took me 25 years to realize I wasn’t inherently bad at organic chemistry, but rather that I needed a real-world application to master the molecules.