My first job out of college, I was the publications assistant (or, as a coworker joked, the “pub ass”) at Chemical Heritage Foundation, a non-profit for preserving and promoting the history of chemistry. If it involved E.I. Du Pont or Antoine Lavoisier, Marie Curie or Stephanie Kwolek, CHF’s historians, curators, and science education experts were all over it.
I most looked forward to Wednesdays, Brown Bag Lecture days, when various visiting scholars presented their research in the conference room. My assignment was to take notes and write little reports for the quarterly magazine, Chemical Heritage.
I remember one scholar whose specialty was the history of asthma. She outlined different theories as to its cause, everything from cockroaches to backyard swimming pools. I also remember a fascinating art historian who knew more than I thought possible about Renaissance-era Dutch paintings depicting medical procedures — or what passed as medical procedures in those days.
Sometimes the Brown Bag Lectures were highly technical, especially for this right-brained twenty-one year old, and I admit I nodded off to the drone of the overhead projector (remember those?), my belly full of PB&J, on a few occasions.
A charming CHF tradition happened every Tuesday afternoon at three: Tea & Cookies, a half-hour of noshing and polite conversation, inclusive of all CHF staff — top executives, lowly “asses” like myself, and everyone in between. During Tea & Cookies I learned much more about behind-the-scenes duties of different staffers, from the marketer of traveling educational displays, to the head image librarian (if you needed an aerial nighttime photograph of a Monsanto plant, or a historical satirical newspaper cartoon of Louis Pasteur, Marjorie was your go-to girl).
I owe CHF a thank-you, because it corrected my erroneous belief that the sciences were over here, and the humanities were way, way over there, and these two knowledge-spheres never overlapped. Not only did I overcome my fear of chemistry (the bane of my existence throughout high school), but I developed an appreciation for the humanitarian side of science. A world that was previously shut off to me opened up, and I occupied a place within it. I’ll never transform fungi into penicillin, but with some concerted effort, I can write about the process reasonably well.
What’s the quirkiest workplace you’ve ever called “the office”? Or the most confidence-boosting job you’ve had?
~ Alicia Bessette
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