Chemistry Grad Student Dies

Jason D. Altom, a fifth-year graduate student in the chemistry department, was found dead in his Somerville apartment last month, in what city authorities have deemed an apparent suicide. He was 26.

Over 200 friends and University affiliates attended a memorial service for the Oak Ridge, Tenn., native on August 24 in Dudley House, at which participants sang, read poetry and delivered remarks about Altom.

Fellow chemistry students Rebecca J. Jackman and Michael Grogan were among those who spoke to the gathering, and described Altom as a caring, outgoing person.

Mark C. Noe, who earned his graduate degree in the chemistry department two years ago, said he remembered Altom fondly.

"He always seemed to be in good spirits," Noe said. "He was a good chemist and a good friend."


Officials in the chemistry department confirm that Altom was an excellent scientist.

"He could have done virtually anything he chose," said Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry James G. Anderson, chair of the department. "He was a superb student as measured against students in the department there."

Altom worked in the research group of Emory Professor of Organic Chemistry Elias J. Corey, a 1990 Nobel Laureate.

Altom also taught review sections for Chemistry 115, a graduate level chemistry course led by Corey, and was considered an extremely responsive and knowledgeable instructor.

"Jason probably came to my office more than anybody else in the group," Corey said. "[He was a] wonderful student."

Corey noted Altom was close to completing his Ph.D, having finished synthesizing both halves of the molecule haplophytin.

At any time Altom could have stopped working and written his thesis, but hechose to keep trying to link the halves together,Corey said.

"He really wanted to hit the jackpot," Coreysaid. "I had confidence in Jason. I thought hecould do it."

Altom, a member of the cross-country and tennisteams and a National Merit semi-finalist at OakRidge High School, graduated with highest honorsfrom the chemistry department of the University ofNorth Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1993.

He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and was anactive participant in the Inter-Varsity ChristianFellowship while at UNC.

Altom's death marks the fifth suicide withinthe University community during the 1997-98academic year, and the second suicide within theGraduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS).

It is also the second death in the chemistrydepartment in two years.

In February 1997, Fung "Mike" Lam, a first-yeargraduate student who had recently joined Corey'sgroup, was found unconscious in a chemistrylaboratory and died two days later atMassachusetts General Hospital. The cause of hisdeath has not been made public.

Altom is survived by his parents, Donald andDianna Altom of Oak Ridge, Tenn., his sisterKatherine Altom of Washington, D.C., as well ashis maternal and paternal grand parents

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