Chemistry Dept. Changes Ph.D. Advising System

Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry James G. Anderson, chair of the department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, announced major changes to the department's graduate program yesterday in an e-mail message to students and colleagues.

The department's faculty voted to accept Anderson's proposals in a meeting Tuesday, one month after the suicide of fifth-year graduate student Jason D. Altom awakened departmental concerns about the quality of graduate student experience.

Effective immediately, the nine-point plan includes creating pre-thesis committees for Ph.D. candidates at the end of their second year, increasing interaction between students and the department chair and developing several lecture series on health, wellness and career opportunities.

Anderson, who assumed the department chair July 1, has been talking with administrators from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and University Health Services since Altom's death, and estimated last week that he has spent three-quarters of his time as chair rethinking the graduate program and "reconstituting an important part of the curriculum."

According to the announcement, second-year graduate students will now be required to form pre-thesis committees and will submit annual reports to each member of their committee describing completed and proposed research.


In his suicide note, Altom had requested the formation of such committees to give students multiple lines of communication within a department, providing "protection for graduate students from abusive research advisors."

The chemistry faculty approved frequent buffet dinners--the first of which will take place next Tuesday--for graduate students and post-docs to discuss the department with Anderson in an informal setting. Anderson will also meet with the student-run Quality of Life Committee on aregular basis, as well as individual classes (allfifth-years, for example) to discuss issuesspecific to a particular stage in the graduatecareer.

Hoping to highlight the "exciting,nontraditional choices available" to graduatessearching for opportunities outside of academia,Anderson plans to invite Harvard alums to leadcolloquia within the department, aiming both "toaid students in defining their career goals [and]to discuss both conventional and alternativecareer opportunities available to Ph.D. chemists."

Edward M. Hallowell `72, an Arlington-baseddoctor and author who will deliver the first of aseries of lectures on the role of emotionalstability in effective research, said he applaudsthe chemistry department's efforts to address thepersonal component of scientific work.

"I think it's just wonderful," Hallowell said."For students in research departments with thepressure to produce, it can be very stressful."

Hallowell said previous theories about stressand the workplace--in which "flogging the brain"was thought to increase productivity--have beenreassessed by scholars recently. On the"performance anxiety curve," after a certain pointon the graph, more stress correlates with lesscompleted work, not more.

The same philosophy that informed corporationsto encourage naps, reintroduce humor into theoffice and implement "family-friendly" policies isnow finding its way into the academy, Hallowellsaid.

For some, the changes are unfamiliar, thoughnot unwelcome.

"It's extremely difficult to have a theory ofeducation," said Erving Professor of ChemistryWilliam A. Klemperer, who attended Tuesday'smeeting. "I have no idea how effective [thechanges] will be. But if people think it's a goodidea, let's try it. It's a good experiment.

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