When Racquel Jemison struggled in a chemistry class as an undergrad at Morgan State University in Baltimore, her professor approached her about doing research for him. Jemison was incredulous. “ ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought. I’m already struggling in this class and you want me to do research?” But doing the extra work strengthened Jemison’s understanding of certain chemistry concepts.
“For example, Stoichiometry is used to convert quantities or to relate reactants to products in a reaction, in one metric to another, like grams to milligrams; or if you want to know how many molecules are in a gram of something, or if I want to make 10 liters of something, how am I going to do it? So one way of honing understanding is to actually be in the lab and having to do it,” says Jemison.
“Of course, each course has an associated lab, but everything is so scripted—there’s only one right answer, so typically everyone’s doing the exact same experiment at the same time. But when you’re the only one in the lab doing the experiment, it’s much clearer why it’s important, how you’re using the information; it’s more tangible, more graspable.”
Jemison also says she works best when she has more things to balance on her plate. “If there’s not enough going on I find any opportunity to procrastinate, but when there’s a lot going on, it demands focus. Those two aspects: making things make sense in the classroom and bringing in a higher degree of focus—they made the difference for me.”
Now Jemison, a senior chemist at Dow Chemical Co., is working to make a difference for many of us. She works in Dow’s Core Research and Development, Formulation Science, a division responsible for building an innovation pipeline, “essentially the products we’re going to see in the next five to ten years,” she says. “Formulation Science is a subgroup of Core R&D, so we have specialized capabilities including expansive robotic equipment and things like that which can accelerate how many experiments we can do at a time,” Jemison says. “Currently I’m working on a project with Dow Pharma and Food Solutions to make gelling polymers for nasal drug delivery. We’re aiming at improving the efficacy of the drugs and improving the patient experience.”
From childhood Jemison enjoyed learning how things worked. Her interest in shows like MythBusters may have been an early indicator that she would grow up to be a scientist. On the other hand, Jemison may have just been wired that way, because she tends to see things differently from the way others do: A high school chemistry teacher that many of Jemison’s peers saw as demanding, hard, and intimidating, Jemison saw as a challenge.
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