Who Likes Organic Chemistry? I Do!

A profile of Chemistry teacher Dr. Steven O’Malley.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Organic Chemistry. Even the name sounds daunting. The course is known across the collegiate circuit as an extremely demanding and challenging class. Many college students have an intense disliking for the topic, but chemistry teacher Dr. Steven O’Malley fell in love with the class as a college student, so much so that he felt he had to keep it a secret because “most people just hate it,” he said. Before discovering his passion for organic chemistry, Dr. O’Malley lived an exciting life traveling across the United States and Europe for his father’s job.

Dr. O’Malley was born in Massachusetts but frequently moved from one military base to another around the United States and Europe to accommodate for his father’s job as an electrical engineer in the United States Air Force. “It’s a lot like living in any other suburban community, when you live on a military base. The difference is that almost all the families are in the same economic bracket, so they all lived in the same kind of housing, and all your families worked for the military, and you all went to the same kinds of schools,” Dr. O’Malley described. Despite the challenges that came with constantly moving from town to town, Dr. O’Malley learned the value of living in the moment and the importance of social skills.

Dr. O’Malley’s family settled down in Maryland during his high-school years. He attended the University of Maryland at College Park, where he studied engineering because others in his family had pursued it in the past. During his college years, however, Dr. O’Malley found his real passion in chemistry. He recalled, “Toward the end of college, I realized I really just liked chemistry more than anything else.” Within chemistry, his favorite subject was organic chemistry, which he first only took as a requirement. Dr. O’Malley reminisced, “I totally fell in love with [organic chemistry] by surprise. I took it as a requirement in college because chemical engineers have to take that, and I expected to hate it because everyone I knew was a premed student and they all told me horror stories about organic chem.”

Before coming across organic chemistry, Dr. O’Malley had never considered teaching as a potential profession. But, he recalled, “It was a really good friend of mine who was studying with me one evening for one of our orgo midterms, and she just said very plainly, ‘You know Steve, you really seem to like this. Maybe you should teach it someday.’ And that spiraled into me considering it seriously.” For Dr. O’Malley, teaching meant teaching on the college level, which required a doctorate.

After graduating from college, Dr. O’Malley studied at Columbia University for a Ph. D in organic synthesis. His research, in simple terms, involved “developing a type of reaction using organosilicon compounds.” Organosilicon compounds are compounds containing a metal atom bonded to an organic group containing carbon-silicon bonds. Dr. O’Malley then applied those compounds to the synthesis of dolabelide. His main takeaway from his research was being content with the fact that everything will not always yield ideal, or even any, results. “In my experience, most of the organic chemistry stuff that I worked on and that people in my lab worked on, the majority of it doesn’t work the first time and, sometimes, never. So you really have to be disciplined and patient to find the small successes where they are, like anything in life I guess,” Dr. O’Malley advised.

After graduate school, Dr. O’Malley was caught in a rough year of busy schedules. He briefly participated in postdoctoral research, then taught at John Jay College for a year while working at Stuyvesant once or twice a week as a substitute teacher. In addition to those commitments, he attended night school to get the master’s in education necessary to be a public-school teacher in New York. Regardless of that busy schedule, Dr. O’Malley remembers his students to this day. “I remember very fondly, coming into my morning organic chem class that year and just expressing, retelling stories of my education class from the night before and they loved hearing those stories,” he described.

Once Dr. O’Malley entered Stuyvesant as a teacher, his love of teaching and working with students only grew. In his first year at Stuyvesant, he taught tenth grade chemistry and physics lab, the latter of which he did not know much about. “I kind of just walked in and said, ‘Let’s see what happens!’” he remembered, laughing. After a few years, Dr. O’Malley received the opportunity of teaching an organic chemistry elective, Advanced Placement chemistry, and Advanced Chemistry Lab. Organic chemistry remains closest to his heart.

While teaching at Stuyvesant, Dr. O’Malley is delighted to work with students who “genuinely want to learn for the sake of learning,” he said. He also noted that his inclination to be a high school teacher was affected by the greater amount of time that he can spend with students in high school in comparison to college. As a high school teacher, Dr. O’Malley has a responsibility to help students mentally. “I think the challenges are that many of the students here are significantly overworked, so I try to challenge them but not burden them, and that is very difficult to try to be a good human being for them to be able to talk to if they’re ever anxious about anything,” he said.

When he is not teaching, Dr. O’Malley loves to learn new languages and travel. Currently, he is studying Portuguese because he is planning to live in Portugal over the summer. So far, he has learned Portuguese, Japanese, Norwegian, and Gaelic. He can also be found running in the early morning while the city, he describes, is “still waking up.”