College Experiment Brings Personal Breakthrough for Chemistry Student
He can tell you about the hybridization of chemical bond structures. Or explain the stability of aromatic compounds.
But for Charlie Wallace, ordering coffee in Perugia, Italy, made him feel like an idiot.
His notoriously brutal organic chemistry courses were far from the hardest thing the graduating senior experienced at the University of Denver. Reserve that distinction for the quarter spent in a language-immersion program, 5,500 miles away from the comfort of the labs in the Seeley Mudd Science Building.
“I would try to say even the simplest things, like ‘can I have a coffee?’ Then they would say something, and I would only catch half the words, and I wouldn’t know how to respond,” he says. “It was a semester’s worth of just feeling like a moron in somebody else’s country. Chemistry was much easier.”
Before his time in Italy, Wallace’s college experience had been largely science-based. So when he saw the opportunity to study abroad, he decided to spurn the American university in town and enroll in an Italian institution, because, well, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
“I really wanted to avoid the comfort of hanging out with American students,” he says. “That’s not really the point of why we’re supposed to go here or do this. I’d rather make it so I’m dealing with another group of people where the only way I can interact with them is having to learn from them.”
To be sure, Wallace will not be making a career out of Italian. When he graduates in May with a degree in chemistry, he will join the U.S. Navy. In his time on campus, he has learned what he will need to help run, improve and perhaps eventually design the nuclear reactors on American ships and submarines.
The lessons he’s learned outside the lab and classroom have proven to be the most valuable. They’re the things he approached with the same “might as well” attitude he employed when studying abroad.
There was his foray into intramural basketball. (“It didn’t go well, but it was fun.”) And the time he mustered the courage to ask a girl from his Pioneer Leadership Program on a date. (“I ended up with a fiancé,” to whom he proposed during last summer’s solar eclipse.) Or volunteering at a local library, teaching science to elementary school students. (“That was really eye-opening.”)
“We’re trying to learn all of this science and sometimes, in that, we lose the ability to communicate it in a meaningful way,” Wallace says. “Sometimes you need to simplify things and bring out the major points so you can explain to a wider audience. Because if it’s important, a wider audience should know.”
Wallace’s home is in the tight-knit chemistry department, where he knows his professors by first name and co-manages the stock room. He calls finding his community his greatest college accomplishment.
Still, he has relished the opportunity to escape what he describes as a scientific silo. And with time, he hopes he can inspire others to do what he’s done.
“Everybody should try to take the opportunity, as much as they can, to broaden the range of classes that they’re taking,” he says. “I think it’s important to do things outside of [your major] so that looking in, you have a different perspective.”
After serving his time in the Navy, Wallace plans to return to school for an advanced degree. Research appeals to him, but eventually, he thinks he would like to enter education. Perhaps he will teach, or perhaps he will develop curricula for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“If we make it easier to understand science, then it doesn’t feel like [other people] aren’t allowed to be a part of it,” he says. “The solutions that we need to [advance as a society] are going to require a large amount of technology, engineering and science, but they are also going to require collaboration. I want the entire public to feel that they are involved in the process.”