Um, I’m Curing Cancer I Guess…?

I should work for the CIA.

When you’re in the CIA, you can’t tell anyone what you do. That’s basically my life already as a grad student in my particular branch of science. Well, to be precise, I am allowed to tell people what I do, but I literally can’t.  Not well at least.

This week, a couple of interesting chemistry articles have been published, indirectly related to my own research, and for the life of me I can’t think of how to talk about them without resorting to endless jargon.  Sometimes it feels like I picked the absolute worst subject to study in terms of being able to relate to the normal world.

To demonstrate my point, here’s a typical conversation for me:

Normal Person: What are you studying?

Me: Chemistry. [hesitates] Organic chemistry.

Norm. Pers.: Oh wow, so like cells and stuff?

Me: …Um, nope, that’s probably biology you’re thinking of. I’m more just making molecules, you know, organic molecules. Which just means carbons and hydrogens mostly… [trails off]

NP: [eyes briefly glaze at the words "carbons and hydrogens mostly", but feigns interest] Oh, OK. So, like, what are you working on?

Me: [mumbles] Palladium-catalyzed ligand-directed C–H bond functionalization. [hesitates, there's silence so continues] More specifically, oxime ether-directed. Not really an oxime ether, it’s an O-acetyl oxime. And really I’ve only been able to do acetoxylation successfully, so “functionalization” is kind of an overstatement.

NP: [looks frightened]

Me: [feeling awkward, tries to smooth over the situation] Um, it’s a certain way to make molecules – um, chemicals. Useful chemicals. Like, maybe someone else – not me – could use this to make drugs. I mean good drugs, not D.A.R.E. drugs. Um, like eventually this could help cure cancer…?

NP: [suddenly looks radiant and proud] Oh, I see! So you’re gonna cure cancer! Well, that’s great. That’s fantastic, I’m glad someone’s working on it.

Sigh. No, I’m not gonna cure cancer, and Normal Person still has no idea what I do.

Do graduate students in non-science fields have this same problem? Do med students? I would venture to say that it’s easier in other fields than mine. For example, I imagine the conversation would go a little differently if I was a med student.

NP: What are you studying?

Me: Oh, I’m in med school. I want to be an oncologist.

NP: Oh wow, so like cancer?

Me: Yup.

See? Much simpler.

Maybe I should start telling people I work for the CIA and I can’t discuss what I do with them.  At least half of that statement is true.

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