Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

When Big Chemistry Happens To Good People

By Kally O'Reilly

Why do people stay in bad relationships? Low self esteem? Scared of change? The assumption that there is nothing better out there? I suppose people stay because they simply don’t know what else to do.

I dated engineering for about seven years, five years of undergrad and two years working as an engineer. I can’t say that I was in a bad relationship with engineering. But I was in a bad relationship with a company I’ll call Big Chemistry.

I never felt abused, per se, but I felt like I had nothing to contribute. The relationship didn’t bring out the spark in me. Perhaps we simply didn’t understand each other.

The two years I spent with Big Chemistry, I lived in Freeport, Texas, about 50 miles south of Houston. The humidity was thick, the mosquitos were thick, the Texas accents were sometimes thick. The humidity I didn’t mind. It was a welcome change from my desert upbringing. I liked feeling the wet air on my hands. The mosquitos were another story, starved and angry and swarming. When I’d leave a building, I’d run for my car, scramble in, and spend the next five minutes smashing the disgusting little beasts on the window. Slightly less annoying were the people I worked with.

I worked in a chlorine production facility. We took salt water from the ocean, which was next to our facility, and applied a crapload of electricity to it. This reaction resulted in chlorine gas (which burns like hell if you are ever unlucky enough to breath in even a small amount), sodium hydroxide (which we fondly referred to as “caustic”), and hydrogen gas (which, once in the hydrogen plant, had to be kept clear of oxygen so as not to end up with explosive fires). It was a lovely place, with rusting ladders to tall chlorine scrubbers. Though a tetanus shot was not a requirement, steel-toed boots were a must, unless we had to walk among the electrolyzers (where the salt water met the crapload of electricity), in which case we wore industrial rubber boots to prevent accidental electrocution.

In a production facility, there are two opposing forces—the people who maintain the daily operations, whom we called operators, and the people who managed them, typically engineers. Operators lived with the reality of production, the reality of keeping equipment functional in spite of the best “designs” put forward by engineers. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the operators were less than happy, battling daily with equipment that they made work by pushing the appropriate buttons on the control board, regardless of design. But the conditions were normal for a manufacturing site. Big Chemistry treated its employees well, salary was good. It was those damned engineers!

Engineers lived with the frustration that their designs were not used as designed. The operators didn’t appreciate our efforts. As I found out from one operator, engineers just want to put their name on something and don’t care about the reality of production. I could see what he meant. But every aspect of my job as an engineer was met with resistance. Writing protocols, trying to put valves under computer control, getting towers inspected. You had to earn the respect of the operators. And I didn’t. I didn’t know how. Partly because what these operators wanted most was to simply push the control buttons. And at times it felt as if they were looking for the button marked “self-destruct.” They were so successful at pushing my buttons that I hesitate to write about these guys now, for fear that it will give them some sort of satisfaction. The point is, I didn’t know how to be thick-skinned, to not let it bother me, to laugh it off and go about my business.

And I’m glad I didn’t. I left Big Chemistry, and engineering for that matter, to pursue molecular biology, a field I didn’t know I loved until I was neck deep in experiments. The operators at Big Chemistry asked me if they had pushed me to leave engineering. The answer was plain and simple. Yes.

I’ve now dated biology for almost 15 years. The relationship has, of course, evolved as I’ve married molecular biology with neuroscience. The spark is definitely still there. But as with any relationship, working in science isn’t always easy. And if the day comes that I feel the relationship isn’t working out, I’ll move on. For now, even in the hardest moments when experiments fail and papers are rejected, I am reminded of the fact that I never have to see Big Chemistry again.


Kally O’Reilly, a Research Scientist at New York University, studies learning and memory after abnormal development. In real life,  “normal” and “abnormal” are ill-defined; Kally’s path to neuroscience was certainly not normal, but she remains appreciative of her experiences.