I Just Want to Play with Dead Things

It’s that time of the year when grad school application deadlines are fast approaching. I’ve picked out the schools I want to serenade, lined up my letters of recommendation, took both the general and chemistry GREs, made accounts for the online applications, and picked out research groups I would like to join. All that is left at this point is writing that dreaded personal statement that is supposed to explain why I’m interested in a Ph.D. in chemistry.

This was supposed to be the fun, easy part. All I have to do is write about me. I do this on a biweekly basis already on here, so what’s one more essay geared toward a slightly different audience? However, every time I sit down to write it, my mind goes completely blank, and rereading the prompt just makes me panic until I question every single part of my life. Who even am I?

The prompt asks you to describe why you’re interested in applying to their chemistry program, along with what makes you unique. However, they don’t actually want you to answer this honestly, and I’m sure almost no one does. If we’re honest, we’ll all sound like the same cynical, greedy, desperate souls that we are, or we’ll sound like weirdoes that don’t belong in this society.

If I were to answer this question honestly, it would take me back to my glorious high school days… Cue the melodramatic sigh and dreamy music.

I decided to be a chemistry major sophomore year of high school. One day I overheard my chemistry teacher telling a classmate that a chemistry degree was better for medical school because you were able to do more with it if you decided not to go to medical school, and you need a lot of it in any medical field anyway. It was in that moment that I made the decision that would define the rest of my life.

It was still very early in the school year, so although I didn’t know anything about chemistry when I decided to major in it, I had plenty of time to fall in love. And fall in love I did, but ultimately, I wanted to go to medical school.

I didn’t have some noble desire to help people or cure cancer or save lives. I wanted to be a forensic pathologist, and that required an MD. That was the only reason. To this day, I’m not sure where the passion for such a strange career choice came from, but I was definitely 100% passionate about it.

I started out watching crime shows religiously, mainly Law & Order SVU. I think this was how I came across the profession first. I started to consume all sorts of books on the subject, from Stiff by Mary Roach to Dead Center by Shiya Ribowsky, and pretty much every book ever written by Cyril Wecht. I knew in my heart that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

During my junior year of high school, I job-shadowed a forensic technician. I watched him do some lab stuff, teach a class, pick up and transfer blood samples, and, of course, perform an autopsy.

The autopsy was the defining moment for me. If I couldn’t handle it, I would have to change career paths right away and move on to my fallback, teaching English. I prepared myself a few weeks in advance by reading medical examiner reports and watching autopsies on YouTube. If my parents weren’t already worried about me, I’m sure they were at this point.

When we walked into the cold, cold morgue and the tech wheeled in the lumpy black body bag with a person inside of it, I was ready. When the MI that I was shadowing unzipped the bag, what I saw wasn’t a person, but a waxy, lumpy doll that looked like a person. It was surprisingly easy to separate this figure from the person he used to be.

The other thing that was surprising was the smell, which wasn’t nearly as bad as I anticipated. It mostly just smelled like old provolone cheese (which, coincidentally, was what I had had for lunch right before that). He had been a skin donor, so his body was a little mangled from that, but otherwise he wasn’t in any sort of gory condition. All of his organs looked like the same velvety purple sacks, except for his intestines, which looked like brown, tangley strings.

It was in that moment that I was sure I could handle this kind of work. I knew I would have to take anatomy classes so I could tell the difference between the different bits, and I would have to up my game in biology to understand what those bits were doing, but other than that, I was all set.

By senior year, I had completed all the preliminary research a young, wide-eyed ME-in-training could possibly handle. However, now I was beginning to get self-conscious about my career goal. It seemed that forensic pathologists did not just become such after medical school. They had to do rotations and residencies with living people just like other med students. They also almost always started out doing surgery or other specialized health fields. Later, they drift into forensic pathology. This worried me because, as you remember from above, I had no desire in aiding in the longevity of people’s health. I just wanted to pick them apart and see what they were made of. It seemed like a long, long time to be doing things I wasn’t interested in that I was expected to be passionate about just to maybe end up in the career I wanted eventually.

This is the point where I went through a slight academic identity crisis and switched my major to food science in hopes of working for the FDA. This lasted me up until the spring of my freshman year, where I realized that I still really loved chemistry, and that the two of us belonged together.

Now I’m at the point where I have to make another decision for grad school—which type of chemistry? I settled upon analytical and biological in hopes that I still may find my old dream. Analytical because I still get to pick things apart and see what they’re made of. Biological because it involves living things—and things that used to be living. I’m hoping these may help me find my way back to something resembling forensic pathology, but even if they don’t, they’re still things I thoroughly enjoy, and I fathom I’d be happy doing them in any setting.

So, to summarize my reason for graduate study in chemistry, I just want to play with dead things. There. This is my personal statement. Come take me, grad schools!!

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