Why I Became a Chemist

Dr. Trent Vorlicek Professor, Minnesota State University

It all began with bleach. Yes. That’s right. The reason I’m a chemist can be traced back to a bottle containing a 10% (w/v) sodium hypochlorite (NaClO) solution. Well, I didn’t exactly know it was bleach, much less NaClO, back then, but I can assure you I do now.

I go back in time to when I was three. I know I was three because my mother wrote about the incidentin the baby book she kept for me...

I was quite fond of watching my mother do the laundry; I would observe and learn (usually I would be singing nonsensical songs as well, but that’s beside the point). I remember she would often pour a capful of some kind of liquid into the washing machine whenever she washed white clothes; I observed and learned. After washing, those clothes seemed so much whiter; I observed and learned. Soon, the budding scientist in me came through, and I started asking questions. If a capful makes clothes appear whiter, what would, say, an entire bottle do? If the liquid makes white clothes whiter, would it work the same way on colored clothes?

These burning questions had to be answered. Hypotheses were formulated. (The future) Dr. Vee would have to experiment.

Luckily, my father unwittingly provided the perfect test subject. He had just received a brand new pair of blue jeans for his birthday. Oh. The nascent chemist bubbled with joy! On a quiet morning, I stealthily slipped into my lab, err, the Laundry Room.

In went the jeans. In went the bottle. On went the washer. Impatiently, I awaited the results.

Those jeans turned a stunning, nay, breathtaking white. I was so excited. Indeed, a hypothesis confirmed! I raced upstairs eager to share my results with my father. Suffice it to say, in his son, he was not well pleased. For some reason, he did not share in the joy of my discovery.

I can’t say that I planned from the beginning to become a chemist. When I started college, I was interested in becoming a pharmacist. The first semester of my freshman year, I enrolled in general chemistry and biology courses. While I enjoyed both classes, I was fascinated by chemistry. It seemed to strike more closely at the heart of why things are. I was curious to learn more, and I decided to major in chemistry.

When I finished college, I felt I wasn’t done learning. So, I enrolled in graduate school. Now that I have a Ph.D. in chemistry, I realize there is still so much more to know. That’s the beauty of chemistry. It is ever-changing. It is ever- expanding. For every question answered, ten more lay in wait. The chemist is a restless being, perpetually in search of the next discovery.

So, why did I become a chemist? I could be philosophical and say it was meant to be. Rather, I picture myself with that three year old kid as he looks in awe at his father’s white jeans. I take him aside and say, “One day you’ll be able to explain why those jeans turned white.”

“Cool”, I reply.