Chocolate chip science

Chocolate chip cookie dough from a recent batch.

Chocolate chip cookie dough from a recent batch.

I remember very clearly the first time I felt like I really was a chemist. Not just a chemistry major, but someone who thinks and acts like a chemist.

I was baking cookies.

It was winter break my sophomore year of college. I don't remember why I was making cookies; perhaps I was helping my mom make Christmas gifts.1 They were chocolate chip, which I like but are not my preferred cookie.2 Whatever the reason, I was measuring ingredients and mixing them together, as my brothers and I learned to do as soon as we were tall enough to reach the counter when standing on a kitchen chair.3

I was adding the vanilla and eggs to the mixing bowl, when I realized I could use my fledgling organic chemistry skills to classify the compounds I was stirring together. Sugar was a ring-shaped molecule; shortening was a molecule too, but a triglyceride; the vanilla was a solution of vanillin molecule in molecules of alcohol; eggs were a combination of lots of molecules: fats, proteins, and more; the shell was full of calcium. For leavening I added baking soda: sodium bicarbonate, a compound whose formula I knew. By combining my list of ingredients in the right ratio, and adding heat, I was rearranging these molecules and atoms and creating something new. It was amazing.

It was chemistry. And realizing that it was chemistry, that I had recognized it as chemistry, made me think I am a chemist!

Funnily enough, I had several months research experience under my belt at that point: a summer program at Duquesne, and time spent setting up a lab at IUP. I'd done three semesters of a chemistry major, and I was at that same time waiting to hear back about my application for a summer of chemistry research abroad.4

Despite all that, it was a bowl of cookie dough in my mother's kitchen that made me feel like a scientist.

1: My mom is well-known for gifting delicious baked goods to friends, family, teachers, bus drivers, milk truck drivers, and anyone else she wants to thank.

2: That would be molasses with lemon glaze. Yum! My favorite chocolate cookies are Jumbles, which I think may be an upstate NY thing.

3: One of my favorite pictures of my little brother is of him at about age 3, standing barefoot on a chair with his shirt and shorts spotted with flour and grinning widely at the camera while holding out a fresh chocolate chip cookie on a spatula. Now that he's a teenager, I don't know that he'd find it as adorable as I do, but I love it.

4: My application was successful, and I spent the next summer in Germany. It was fantastic and I melted my shoes. But those are stories for another time.