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Mastering Chemistry Through Pokemon

Julian West | 24 Oct 2011 14:00
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Flash forward eleven years and I am in my first year of science at university, a young adult caught between the colliding worlds of dorm living (i.e. drinking) and difficult classes. My floormates and I are uneasily looking at the organic chemistry course that (if rumors are to be believed) fails more students than all our other courses combined. "Good luck," the upper classmen told us with a smirk.

I began the course and it seemed to start out fairly easily. "Aha!" I thought after these first couple weeks, "they lull you into a false sense of security and then they spring the trap, that's why there is such a low average in this class!" I believed this theory until a few weeks later when I compared notes with one of my fellow premeds. I was still finding the course to be pretty straightforward, and my friend (who was no slouch academically) was finding it impossibly hard. This discovery gave me pause, as both of us had been fighting for the best grades in the first semester.

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It was while taking a break from midterm studying to play my Japanese version of Heart Gold that I was struck by something. For the better part of a month I had been wrestling with what was so strangely familiar about the superficially arbitrary rules of organic chemistry, which was giving me a leg-up on my classmates. Waiting for the Pokemon center to finish healing my team I finally understood why this seemed so familiar: every molecule has a type combination, every molecule is weak to some reactions and resistant to others. Just like Pokemon.

Pokemon battles require you to defeat Pokemon A using Pokemon B; organic chemistry problems ask for you to take molecule A and make it into molecule B. Much like how there are several different moves that Pokemon B can use to defeat Pokemon A there are several different reactions that can be used to convert molecule A into molecule B. The real nuance in both cases, however, comes from understanding that some methods are more effective than others and adapting your actions accordingly.

Placing myself in the shoes of my elementary school opponent, venasaur is easily dispatched if arcanine uses fireblast. However, if arcanine elects to use only scratch I put its chances of defeating venusaur at slightly better than winning the lottery. Eleven years later (on my midterm exam) I was asked to produce an alkoxide from an alcohol, a relatively straightforward reaction. Consulting my Pokedex of organic chemistry I quickly found that sodium hydride at room temperature for a minute would be an ideal reaction to reach my goal. If, however, I was to attempt to use water I might be able to successfully perform the reaction, but I'm not sure that my profs would appreciate the miniscule amount of product. The difference between these choices is the same in both examples: one will result in passing and the other in failing.

When the final exam came around I entered the scheduled room as I had the first room of the Pokemon league. I came prepared with a small team of remembered molecules and a number of different reactions; I knew that some combination of my team could beat any question that the prof could ask. Having adequately prepared, each problem was dealt its "super effective" response and I left the room knowing that, despite a few small errors, this "elite four" of the chemistry world had been given its just desserts.

After working through this strange discovery of a cherished part of my childhood my opinion of chemistry changed for the better. A quick discussion with the chemistry advisor and I had changed my degree path radically. Even today people ask me why I switched majors to chemistry; my answer remains unchanged. In what other program do you get to be a Pokemon master?

Julian West is currently pursuing an honors degree in Chemistry at the University of British Columbia. When not concocting various potions he can be found playing Pokemon on his DS.

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