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I pressed “Register” button after some hesitation and there i was, enrolled in university level chemistry courses. There were five of them, two dealing with general chemistry, one of organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry and chemistry of the environment. I looked over the syllabus and i panicked. Just to be clear, i did have some basic level chemistry while in school but i skipped most of the classes because i was not into it at all. I didn’t see any purpose in studying chemistry when i was enrolled in a humanities class and i was planning to study in a humanities field further on.

But now i had to find a way of studying the whole five courses of high school chemistry they teach in Finland because otherwise i wouldn’t manage to get even through the first course of general chemistry. I bought the books second-hand (here new high-school books are insanely expensive) and i discovered a great channel Opetus.tv which had very detailed chemistry lessons (a big thank you to the persons who created it and put effort into it). So, during August and September, i spent most of my time watching videos, reading books, taking notes and most of all, solving chemistry problems. Things i’ve never heard of in my life became now very clear to me or at least somehow clear. The most difficult part in learning alone, was that i had nobody to ask when i was confronted with difficulties in solving the problems. Some of the solutions i found online, accompanied of good explanations, some i had to struggle to find a solution for days.

And then i had my first class which started with chemistry of the environment. I remember well up to this moment, i was so nervous about it, i had a knot in my throat and i felt like puking. I was so afraid that nothing will come out of this and i will just give up. This fear of failure made me sick although i promised myself not to come to this point because the whole experience was supposed to be educational and fun.

Then it came the first course in general chemistry, we usually had those on Friday evenings from 17 to 20 and Saturdays from 9 to 17. So, if you wonder how did most of my weekends go last year, there you have it. I’m also really grateful for my work colleagues who covered sometimes my Saturday work shifts when i needed to be in the chemistry class. Of course, it was not compulsory to attend the Friday seminars where we solved problems or Saturday lectures but for me it was crucial to be on set as i was a beginner.

After the first course in general chemistry i found out that all my colleagues had actually a strong background in sciences. I was the only one who had no background at all. All of a sudden, i felt myself so little and out of the place. And after the first lectures and seeing our first homework, i left the class…crying. Yes, i cried half of the way home and a good part at home and asked myself: what the fuck did i get myself into?!

But i didn’t give up. All my free time went into studying chemistry. I re-read the lectures, i took notes, i drew schemes and tried to solve problems. I checked online the things i didn’t understand and even if the result was not correct i tried solving the problem for hours on end and even returned to it before the seminar, trying to solve it one last time. I tried to understand the lectures by myself and most of the times i managed to. Those few times i really didn’t get something during a lecture or i didn’t understand the way one came to a result within a problem, i did ask the teacher.

And now to be honest, i was so afraid to ask the teacher because i was afraid of giving away the fact that i didn’t study chemistry before and i would ask stupid questions and i would be laughed at and not taken seriously. And the teacher would ask: what on earth are you doing here? I was wrong. He never asked me my motifs and he did answer every single of my questions, having the patience to sit with me after class and explain in detail how to solve a certain problem. I did not have the courage to ask in class because i was afraid my colleagues would laugh at me.

Besides chemistry of the environment which was mostly online work, the rest of the courses had exams and i’m proud to say i passed each of them from the very first try although sometimes it seemed impossible. Afterwards i did manage to get higher grades when i re-took some of the exams and realized that upon a second look, things were becoming more clear to me. The courses i enjoyed the most were chemistry of the environment and organic chemistry because it was not that much math involved and since i haven’t studied math in a very long time, my skills were very rusty. I did enjoy though the thermodynamics, kinetics and electrochemistry, some of the subjects i was very good at in physics while in high-school. (Yes, i did have a very passionate love affair with physics in my first year of high-school, believe it or not.)

The courses were not applied in any way to the field of conservation but the main idea was to study the basics of chemistry in order to understand more complex processes. As they were university level courses, the notions surpassed quite a lot what they teach in high-school and sometimes it felt like an impossible mission to keep the pace. High-school chemistry is not that difficult but when you have to cram all the notions in about two months by yourself, you can imagine that the basis i had was not a very strong one. I just barely scratched the surface, not being fully in control of the theory. Even now after the whole adventure, i still feel i need to revise some of the things i learned because i don’t master them completely, especially the pH problems.

What now after the whole business? Well, i can say i don’t regret a bit taking this journey and every sleepless night, effort, tear, frustration, hardship and minute invested in studying chemistry was worth it because it didn’t only teach me precious information but it has made me learn to love a science i once hated, it has opened a whole new world and taught me to think from another perspective. It has given me that precious experience only the people studying science and humanities have it and taught me multiple ways to analyze and see things. On this one i really pushed my boundaries and got way out of my comfort zone. It was very hard and very scary but in those moments i learned to think at the whole experience as a challenge not as a burden. And however difficult things got, there was always a solution, i just needed to calm down, think and find it. And i did.

Was it difficult? It was very difficult but the difficulty was not due to my mental capacities, it was because i ventured myself into university level courses without any previous studies and chemistry is not an easy subject. This was a very crazy thing to do and there were moments when i really wanted to give up and felt so stupid. But patience, work and a change of attitude when looking at things managed to lift me back on track.

Lately, at a lecture within a recent conference i attended, the lecturer talked about neuroscience and the left / right side of the brain as dealing in a very limiting way with science respectively art. Those who are familiar know that this theory categorizes people as having just one dominant side of the brain though being good only at art or science. The lectures mentioned that this theory was wrong and gave as an example well known artists who were also scientists. That was the moment, I’ve had validated my personal thought that being interested in both it’s not impossible. I grew up, and probably many of us did, with the idea that art and science exclude each other and you can study only one at a time. I do think strongly that this is not the case and i would only hope to see in the future humanities degrees combined with science and the other way round.

Where there is will and passion, there are no boundaries.

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This august I finally received my diploma for the basic studies in chemistry I undertook for the past year. I came from work and upon checking my mail box it was there, together with a course offer leaflet from the university. I couldn’t believe my eyes and myself because as I mentioned earlier, chemistry was not at all among my favorite subjects. But how did I get to this point anyway? Looking back it seems so absurd and if somebody told me about two years ago that now I would be standing with a chemistry diploma in my hands, I would have laughed in their face. But here I am and the journey started quite long ago.

In 2010, while doing my master’s in Digital Culture, I saw museum studies offered as a side subject so I enrolled myself for the basic courses. The courses were in Finnish and I was a beginner with the language but I could manage to submit my work in English. The lectures weren’t though hard to understand. Museum studies courses and some of my own MA’s courses offered some lectures in preventive conservation and paper conservation. Chemistry was part of them but only at a very basic notion-like level, nothing in depth. I never had a good relation with chemistry because of my teachers who, I think, hated the subject more than I did.

But something in those lectures created a spark. That was not the dry, theoretical chemistry we did in school. It was applied, and it was applied in a field that has always fascinated me, cultural heritage. Chemistry was the key in understanding materials’ properties, deterioration processes and how to prevent or to stop them by relating the properties with outer and inner destructive factors. I understood that paper is of different types, I understood their properties and for example, why light can be so damaging for it. I learned about different pigments used in paintings, their chemical properties and ways to analyze them. I learned about various cases of deterioration of underwater archaeological materials. We also had primary notions of microbiology dealing with bacteria and fungus on historical materials. That was the time I learned the fascinating relation between a field I always loved and a science I never liked. And I started being more interested in it to the point that I decided to study conservation and major in chemistry conservation.

But life has stirred me in a bit of different direction and although completing my studies in museology and working in my field, I never gave up the idea of studying conservation one day. Until last year, when I had an attempt at the only conservation school in Finland. I remained the first on reserve places at textile conservation, a thing that disappointed me a lot. But since the exams are mostly focused on handicrafts and I come from a purely theoretical background this was to be expected. One thing though I was happy about was my chemistry exam grade which was very good despite the fact that I studied chemistry on my own only four months before the exam.

Then while browsing through the list of subjects that our university offered, I got the idea that basic chemistry courses would be perfect for me to get at least a basic education in the field. So, without taking into consideration that the courses were university level and I barely had some high school chemistry knowledge, I signed up for them. And the fun started.

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I’m writing this to document my struggles “switching” to a new field and to remind myself that some people are not worth listening to. In fact, they are worth nothing. I don’t know if I will follow this path, I do doubt myself a lot sometimes and some of the people around don’t make it easier either. But one thing is sure, I will never look at my abilities and determination, the same way again after these studies are completed.

Let’s start from the beginning. I started studying chemistry in the sixth grade. Before that, I discovered some of my dad’s old chemistry books. I fell in love with it because it seemed like a fascinating world. I couldn’t wait to start the classes to learn more, to enter the lab and do all those experiments in the book. It was a subject that unlocked the mysteries of the world around me, it would make me understand the world to its tiniest core up to complex phenomena.

This is not how things went. Our teacher didn’t really care to teach, to make us understand. There was no passion and even worse, when I did ask for clarifications I was called stupid: “I said it once, why weren’t you paying attention/are you stupid?” Obviously if I didn’t get it in a second, I was automatically stupid. I had no support in solving exercises and even if I tried but failed, I got the usual scolding…you are so stupid, how can you not understand a thing so easy? No support, no encouragement and as a child I believed it. I was too stupid, that was too difficult for me. I gave up. I didn’t pay attention anymore, I started skipping chemistry classes and I declared an eternal hate and disgust for this subject (along with maths and physics – secondary school physics teacher was horrible). Never again. I was done.

I chose a humanities class in high-school and ignored science classes completely. We had bad science teachers there also. They were not interested, no passion and the usual – those humanities dumb heads, not that they would understand anything. But there was a spark. In my first year of high-school, we had a very cool physics teacher, I enjoyed hear explanations and her way of teaching. I understood things very fast and at the end of that year I got one of the best grades in physics. She left. After that, I stopped studying physics; her replacement did not live up to the standards.

Fast forward 13 years. After years of studying in humanities, and specializing myself in museum studies I fell in love with a branch of museum profession called conservation. I said that nothing will stop me to study that. Bad luck…chemistry was needed. Only the first high-school course but still. I cut my ties with chemistry right at that very beginning; it was like I never studied it. Because I never did, actually. I skipped most of the classes and barely passed. I wasn’t interested. I went to the library and took that book, opened it and tears came into my eyes. I didn’t understand anything. It seemed so difficult. But I said: YOU WON’T GIVE UP! And I didn’t, I bought the book and started studying chemistry on my own. First months were hell. There was nobody to help me, nobody I could ask. Swearing, frustration, tears, ripped pages with exercises. But time went and I started understanding. I was so happy after few hours of struggle to understand and even solve problems on my own. And at one point I realized, with amazement that I started liking it.

After going through just one chemistry course (out of five), I signed up for university. Chemistry. One of the craziest, if not the craziest, thing I did in my life. No background studies and there I was, sitting in a class with people who had a strong background in chemistry. I realized what I have done one week before I started the classes. I panicked so bad that I almost puked right before my first chemistry class. How could I keep up with these people? They are so advanced, I know nothing. You have no idea how many times I cried after classes because I couldn’t understand almost anything. But I studied on my own and in one month I went through the whole 5 high-school courses, at basic level, at least to understand the concepts. (thank you opetus.tv!) Until now I am proud to say that I have passed all courses with a very good in Chemistry of the Environment. And I think I’m falling in love with chemistry to the point of thinking to switch completely to science and start my studies all over again.

Things aren’t so easy, however. I did mention the struggles and certain people in the beginning. Let’s put it straight: chemistry, like any other subject, is not easy. Especially when you are crazy enough to sign up for university courses with no strong background. But that’s not the point. You can learn it; I’m a living proof of that. What makes it worse, are the people around you. In my case, it started with the teachers. A bad teacher will make you hate a subject or if you are lucky, you’ll be just indifferent to it. I can’t complain now, my present chemistry teacher had always had the patience to explain the most stupid questions I asked him. And that’s what makes a good teacher.

But what is worse, is other people’s attitudes. I was told that this is useless because if I don’t understand things right on the spot then I have no talent for it. Have these people heard that work is required in every field? You don’t wake up overnight and get top grades. Everything requires hard work and passion. Chemistry is not like singing, you have the voice or you don’t. Even singing requires lots of work. Very few people are born with extraordinary talents. The rest of us have to work. Giving up is not an option.

I was told that I’m at that age when you are too old to study and as a woman I should have other normal priorities (read lifescript), not dreaming of a career in a STEM field. To be clear, lifescript has never interested me. It might suit others but I always found it extremely boring. If an activity is not intellectually challenging or has a certain degree of difficulty, I drop it. I love studying, reading, thinking and solving problems a lot. Am I 100% at this point that I want to go into STEM? Maybe not 100 but I’m strongly considering it. I do love my job a lot and my present field but studying chemistry will never take me away from cultural heritage field. On the contrary, I will become one of those multidisciplinary persons with a wide understanding of various disciplines and enhanced capacity of solving problems and be innovative.

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At this point, I’m in a bit of panic as I finished my second MA and I just realized that the school year will start soon but I’m not going to be a part of it anymore. It is somehow hard to believe because I have been studying for a while with some breaks in between when I was working. I enjoy studying a lot and learning new things. Going to classes and keeping a study schedule, visiting the library, checking the courses, outlining a study plan has its charm. At least, at the university level since I enjoyed that part much more than lower education.

Anyways I did find that one can very well study online nowadays through various organizations. I did find out about Coursera (courser.org) from a friend of mine a while ago and I already managed to get and complete few of their courses. Most of them were in humanities, one in IT and one in agriculture. You can find lots of courses, from different areas and from universities all over the world. I am taking courses only in English and the universities i attended were mainly from UK and US.

Nowadays I’m taking a course in cultural heritage from a university in Italy, Rome and I can say I am very pleased with it and besides things which I already knew, I did find out new ones especially about ancient history and completing my reading list with several books.

Some of the courses follow a strict schedule and deadlines, some can be taken at own pace and assignments are not compulsory unless you want to earn a certificate of completion. Certificates divide themselves between standard ones and personalized ones which you have to pay for. Some course packages can be taken for a certain fee. I never paid for the courses I have taken and I got only standard certificates. I was thinking at some point to get a package of courses but there isn’t anything that I really want to take and be willing to pay for yet.

As about the fields, one can choose from a wide variety, although I think they do have more in IT and engineering but I would advise that one should stick to their fields as some of the courses are very challenging (it’s university level) and they do not start with introductory data. For example, I do have a humanities background and I can’t take a course in robotics. But I could take courses from social sciences, business, language learning and even life sciences. Some biology, agriculture, environment and health courses are indeed for everybody who is interested. Also there are some IT courses which are more general but if you want to really learn something, you need to make an extra effort and not just be contempt with the video lectures.

Actually, I could say that about all the courses from the site. Of course, one can pass the course just by watching the video lectures and complete the quizzes but if one really wants to go deeper into the subject, I suggest getting acquainted with the reading list, extra links and materials and do their own research if they want to know more about a certain topic.

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life is a journey, not a destination