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Chemistry

Melisa M. Gao ’06

MBA Candidate, Harvard Business School

On my first day of organic chemistry during sophomore year at Princeton, I was skeptical. Our professor told us there would be no lectures, problem sets, or precepts in his course. Instead, we would spend each class in teams, working together to try to figure out the outcomes of reactions we’d never studied before. 

I didn’t see how we could learn from each other when we were all equally clueless, but I decided to give it a shot. I’d loved my freshman year math and science classes, and given my interest in understanding biological systems and processes, I knew that organic chemistry was critical. Within weeks, the course became one of my favorites. Class by class, our team learned to reason through the chemical principles at work, and what initially felt like shots in the dark soon turned into educated guesswork and then into critical reasoning and creative problem-solving.

That was my first chemistry class at Princeton, and I was hooked. Chemistry had been one of my least favorite subjects in high school; I found it full of rote memorization and arbitrary formulas. But at Princeton, the subject turned into puzzles and games. From the intricate squares that explained the Mendelian principles behind our genetic diversity to the three-dimensional color-coded models that illustrated the physics of how the elements came together, the classes cut across the natural sciences and explained how the world fit together. 

Support in and out of the classroom

It wasn’t just the material that convinced me to major in chemistry, though. I loved the supportive culture of the department and the flexibility of the major. Many of the departmental requirements could be fulfilled through classes in other departments such as molecular biology, physics, and engineering—a major plus since I was interested in a range of sciences. The small size of the department created a genuine sense of community, both among the students and with the faculty. During our junior year, we attended weekly talks to learn about each professor’s research, and rotated through three labs before choosing one for our junior paper and senior thesis work. 

Shortly after choosing to major in chemistry, I also decided to run for editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian, where I spent all of my time outside of the classroom. I loved the paper, but it was a difficult decision because of the substantial time demands of the job. In deciding to run, I spoke with the departmental coordinator and my thesis adviser; both were supportive and promised to make things work. That was when I knew I had made the right choice: My department cared to help me pursue something else I was passionate about, even if it meant I’d have less time in the lab. After spending the summer after my junior year on campus working on my thesis—as almost everyone in the department does—I disappeared for the fall semester to run the Prince. When I reemerged in February, we got to work, and I finished an award-winning thesis. 

Combining science and management

After graduation, I was looking for a way to combine my passion for science with my newfound interest in management. I accepted a job with the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where I served pharmaceutical and medical device companies on strategic issues. After two years, I moved out to the Bay Area to work for Draper Fisher Jurvetson, an early-stage venture capital firm. I am now completing my MBA at Harvard Business School, and plan to return to McKinsey this summer. 

It’s not a path I would have predicted coming into Princeton, but it’s been a lot of fun so far. It’s taken me to India, where I worked with a startup health care clinic dedicated to serving the bottom of the pyramid, and to Africa, where I wrote case studies on local entrepreneurs. And though I no longer remember any of the properties we studied in organic chemistry, I’m certain that my experiences at Princeton shaped the path I’ve chosen and opened many of the doors along the way. I know that my chemistry background and Prince experience helped me stand out in job searches and in applying to business school. In certain instances, especially working in venture capital, my scientific training enabled me to feel comfortable speaking with other scientists or skimming a journal article. But above all, the skills I learned both in and out of the classroom—teamwork, problem-solving, creativity, and communication, to name just a few—have been invaluable every day since. 

Those are the most important lessons of the world-class liberal arts education at Princeton, and they are learned not in the pages of a textbook but through the passionate pursuit of a subject that engages you. And so, as you consider what major to select, which thesis adviser to choose, what path to take after college, I urge you to follow your heart. Everything else will work out somehow. 

Gao-Melisa