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Reflections on freshman year, by Associate Professor of Chemistry Chris Smart, VC '83

Dear Class of 2017,

I’ve asked a few faculty members who are themselves Vassar alums to reflect on their first year at the College and the pathways (some straightforward, some circuitous) that led them to discover their own intellectual passions and interests. The first reflection is by Christopher Smart, who received his degree in Chemistry from Vassar in 1983. He went on to earn a PhD from Yale before returning to Vassar, where he is currently an Associate Professor of Chemistry.

In 1979, when I first came to Vassar as a student, advising by the faculty of incoming freshmen was nowhere near as carefully executed as it is now. I was not explicitly encouraged by anyone to explore areas of the curriculum outside my comfort zone, and my first semester’s course selection was not very daring. The ironic thing is that I was eventually persuaded to explore the curriculum more broadly, by a very caring faculty mentor, and it had a direct bearing on my career path.

So what did I take that first semester? English 101, Intensive Introductory Spanish, Intermediate German, and General Chemistry. With 4+ years of Latin and 2+ years of German already behind me, I assumed that I would continue studying foreign languages, and eventually choose one as my academic major. The chemistry course I took as a token nod to my favorite high school mentor, who was my chemistry teacher. I thought at the time that I did not have the facility with mathematics that would be required to major in any science, let alone chemistry.

But I was a financial aid student, and I had a campus job – I had been assigned by the Student Employment Office to work a set of shifts in the Post Office. Owing to a schedule conflict, I visited the Student Employment Office in order to get my shifts switched, and when I was there I was informed that a new job had been posted in the chemistry department as a research assistant to one of the department’s senior members, Curt Beck. Since this work schedule seemed like it could be more flexible, I ditched the Post Office and went to introduce myself to Professor Beck.

Beck’s philosophy in training his research assistants (I was one of several) was to involve them as partners in the research work, so we weren’t simply gophers or pot-scrubbers, but we were trained to be part of the on-going empirical research effort and were given responsibility for making firsthand measurements and observations. Even more thrilling to me was to learn that Beck’s goal was to use the analytical methods of organic chemistry to learn about the provenance of the world’s collected amber artifacts, and thus plot a trade map of the ancient world. This was the epitome of multidisciplinarity before multidisciplinarity was trendy! Beck would even do his own translations of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, when he thought we might benefit from this ancient Roman’s perspective on the natural sources of amber. I won’t hide the fact that I was a little “gaga” over the idea that someone could combine expertise in classical languages (Beck also read Greek, and was bilingual in English and German) and organic chemistry and make a professional career of it!

Curt Beck and I made a good team, and I stuck with him all year, followed his suggestion to major in chemistry, worked with him in the research lab all four years, and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the provenance of a set of archaeological amber samples excavated at Carthage. Needless to say it was Professor Beck who would not hear of my staying in my comfortable little world of foreign languages. Rather, he persuaded me to carry on with chemistry, take the math I needed, and continue my study of the piano and foreign languages. In short, he pushed me to investigate every corner of Vassar’s liberal arts curriculum.

The moral of my freshman year story is this: just because you’ve shown yourself to be successful at something, it does not mean that it is the something that you should end up as, nor does it mean that you can’t be just as successful at something else. Explore, explore!

—Chris Smart, VC '83, Associate Professor of Chemistry