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Organic chemistry is an ordeal—just ask most science majors. There are the bewildering names of molecules, the elements, bonds, reactions, and reagents. There are the recipes, lab work, and late nights hovering over flasks. There are the separations, purifications, and analysis. Even for experts, making molecules is slow, painstaking work.

“We think we can change that,” says Martin Burke, a chemist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. And to drive the point home, he offers to transform a chemistry neophyte—me—into a synthetic chemist.

Burke steers me into Room 456 of the Roger Adams Laboratory building and toward a black lab bench holding a contraption about the size of one of those industrial espresso machines you see at Starbucks. Atop it sits two aluminum blocks, drilled through with 2.4-centimeter-wide holes, for holding nine vials. A tangle of thin tubes connects all the different pieces. But its basic principle is simple: It’s a chemistry version of a highway cloverleaf, intended to steer ingredients from one place to another. Burke and his students call it simply “The Machine.”

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