#WhyWeLearn: Chemistry project shows student more than one life to build

AUM Strategic Communications and Marketing | March 14, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the first in our #WhyWeLearn series focusing on the lives that students build at AUM.

Crystal Arnold came to AUM to earn a degree that would qualify her to attend physical therapy school. But a chemistry project altered her design.

When she began her studies at AUM, becoming a physical therapist was her primary goal because she wants to — and has a gift for — helping others. Her calling to service was kindled in the U.S. Air Force, where she served for six years at Maxwell Air Force Base and in Djibouti, Africa, rising to the rank of staff sergeant, E-5.

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Dr. Nick Thomas and Crystal Arnold

In Dr. Nick Thomas’s Analytical Chemistry class, however, Arnold learned about new possibilities for a future and about change and how to nurture it.

Thomas asked students to grow a crystal of alum. “The goal was to actually see a chemical process as it’s changing,” said Arnold.

What she learned, though, was that chemical processes must be painstakingly and patiently followed.

Over the course of the semester, Arnold monitored the crystal’s growth by taking precise measurements of its weight, watching it maintain its octahedral shape.

“Everything takes time,” Arnold said. “The steps aren’t hard. It’s about whether you take the time to go through those steps,” Arnold said.

“Sometimes if you heat something too fast or you don’t heat it enough because you’re just trying to get it done, you can actually not get it to where it needs to be.”

Arnold savored this experiment because of its duration; often, she said, experiments are created to elapse within the course of a two- or four-hour class period. The Air Force veteran is also glad to have something special she can keep and take home to her parents in Newport News, Va. “It was like this allowed me to see, ‘This is what I accomplished.’ I like experiments where I can take it home and say, ‘Hey, mama, look what I did,’” she said.

The length of the crystal growth project provided opportunities to see relationships and processes over an extended time. “A lot of chemistry is not about memorizing what this chemical or element is,” Arnold said. “You actually need to understand the properties and the interactions that they can have, that one element can have with another.”

Arnold believes following the process Thomas taught her class to a T from the very beginning and maintaining steady conditions was the key to the project’s success.

“I believe the crystal grew well because I filtered it well. The filtering, I think, is the key to making sure it is a success,” she said. The project also led to a better understanding of the necessity of purification, whether a chemist is engineering a life-saving vaccine or pasteurizing milk. Arnold also learned that if her alum solution sat too close to air vents in her classroom, the proximity would adversely affect the crystal’s development.

“It was pretty cool to see that and to understand how your environment affects the crystal,” Arnold said. “It’s the same thing with a person; the environment that they’re in affects them to either gain a goal or lose something.”

Arnold says she definitely gained something. She still plans to pursue a career in physical therapy, but she sees herself also looking at careers in chemistry. What she learned under Thomas’s guidance is that building the life you choose is a lot like a long-term experiment: You follow the instructions from beginning to end and keep a check on your progress, and then, before you know it, you have something tangible to show for it.