Suicide Spurs GSAS, Chem. Department To Review Advising

A fifth-year graduate student in the chemistry department drafted a plea for administrative change before taking his own life last month.

In a hand-written note, Jason D. Altom, who died in his Somerville apartment Aug. 15, urged Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry James G. Anderson, newly-appointed chair of the chemistry department, to broaden the base of faculty who interact with students regarding their research.

"This event could have been avoided," begins the note, which was provided to The Crimson by Altom's family.

"Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students," Altom continued, saying he felt a chemistry student's advisor has sole control over the student's academic and occupational prospects.

Altom suggests involving thesis committees--a group of three professors who evaluate a degree candidate's research--earlier in the process would "provide protection for graduate students from abusive research advisors."


"If I had such a committee now I know things would be different," he added.

Altom's death has galvanized Anderson, who assumed the chair of the chemistry department July 1, to place scrutiny of the graduate student experience at the top of his agenda.

And the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) is taking a second look at the programs it has instituted to improve the advising system.

After the death of Hailei Ge, a first-year graduate student in computer science, last November, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) urged the administration to reexamine the student-advisor relationship.

Last spring, GSAS Dean Christoph J. Wolff and Dudley House Master Everett I. Mendelsohn initiated a series of roundtable discussions, during which faculty and students spoke openly about advisor expectations; further panels are scheduled for later this fall.

Student leaders call for more action, and say GSAS is only beginning to respond to the call for changes in the advising structure.

In the wake of three suicides within GSAS since 1997, student leaders ultimately lament that it seems to take tragedy to spur forward the fight for better advising.

Think Different

Anderson tells The Crimson he has a number of ideas for significant changes within the chemistry department to be discussed this fall, estimating that he has spent three-quarters of his time as chair since the recent suicide thinking about the event and devising ways to improve advising.

"There is no doubt that the Altom death crystallized a number of things that have been in our thinking," Anderson says.

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