Lessons in Chemistry: Why did Elizabeth not pursue her PhD?

Lessons in Chemistry on Apple TV+
Lessons in Chemistry on Apple TV+ /

Lessons in Chemistry follows the life of Elizabeth Zott, a chemist who simply wants to further scientific discovery with research that could change humanity’s understanding of its own chemical make-up. She, however, is met with more than one obstacle in pursuing her goals.

When we’re first introduced to her, it’s 1958 and she is the popular host of the nightly cooking program Supper at Six. Her work, while based on her exacting analysis and experimentation with culinary science, was not how she planned to use her Masters in Chemistry. In fact, she’d intended to earn her PhD and become Dr. Elizabeth Zott.

As episode 2, “Her and Him,” reveals, Elizabeth had been in the process of qualifying for the next step in her graduate program that would allow her to conduct research for her dissertation. Her plans, however, were derailed by a callous, violent, and criminal act perpetuated by someone she admired. The information below contains references to sexual assault, rape, and victim blaming, please read with caution.

Lessons in Chemistry: Elizabeth doesn’t earn her PhD because she won’t apologize for her rape

It was 1950 and Elizabeth had just finished taking her PhD qualifying exam at UCLA. Her brilliance shined as she explained the research she was going to conduct and how previous scientific breakthroughs had made it possible to pursue her determined focus in the field of chemistry. Dr. Bates, who’d been on the panel had come to inform her that she’d pass with flying colors despite the one hold out who was part of the old guard of scientists.

Elizabeth’s excitement turned to a slowly dawning horror when Bates kissed her. She protested that she didn’t feel the same way for him, but he locked the door and forced himself on her. In the midst of the attack, she turned around and stabbed him with a pencil.

Disturbingly, the university did not come to her defense and she was told that she was a “lucky girl” because Bates decided not to press charges for stabbing him. Elizabeth was told that she could continue pursuing her PhD if she were to formally express regret for her actions which would allow them all to put this “misunderstanding” to rest and move on.

Elizabeth said she had one regret, that she didn’t have more pencils. Her refusal to apologize for her rape and let Bates sweep it under the rug, ended her doctoral pursuit. A year later, in 1951, she is working as a lab technician at Hastings Research Institute. She always requires that the door remain open in whatever room she’s in when alone with a man. Whenever that isn’t respected she flashes back to the day she was harmed and begins to panic as she understandably carries trauma due to Dr. Bates’ actions.

Lessons in Chemistry episode 2, “Her and Him,” highlights the ways in which sexual violence and a lack of institutional support can hinder or even completely end someone’s ability to go after their dreams.

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New episodes of Lessons in Chemistry stream Fridays on Apple TV+.