Dr. Beth MacDougall-Shackleton


Students probably think that their profs have breezed through school their entire lives. That was true for me during high school, and for most of my undergrad degree, but I had a terrible time with Organic Chemistry. It was a required course for Biology majors, but no matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to follow the reactions on the whiteboard, much less remember them during exams. It shook me up to be failing academically for the first time in my life. Anyway, I worked like a maniac, and somehow managed to scrape through with a 50%. I had a 4-year scholarship which I had to forfeit due to the low grade, but I could continue in my program.

I think the low grade probably raised some eyebrows when I applied to graduate schools, but I still got into Princeton. University curricula are so diverse that it’s quite possible for students to excel in some areas and to be really challenged in others. For example, some of the most gifted and creative researchers I know are not the best at brute force memorization. Learning which subjects you’re great at and which aren’t, which areas you can’t stop thinking about and which you can’t stand, is part of the path to self knowledge. For me, it was clear: everything in biology, especially evolution and behaviour, just made sense to me the first time I heard it. But I was never in the running for any chemistry prizes!

I honestly think it’s been good for me as a professor to have struggled academically at one point in my career. Now, 30 years later, I can empathize with students who are trying their best and still having difficulties with course content. I’ve been there!