Turn Off The Bunsen Burner

In August of 1998, the suicide of chemistry graduate student Jason Altom sent shock waves through Harvard's chemistry department.

Late one night, Altom swallowed a lethal amount of potassium cyanide, after frustrating months spent failing to get a complicated chemical reaction to work out.

Altom wrote in his suicide note, "This event could have been avoided...Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students."


Three months after the suicide, a cover story in the New York Times Magazine blasted the department for its treatment of graduate students. "Lethal Chemistry at Harvard" told the story of students who left their Bunsen burners on and their lab coats hanging by their desks to make it look like they were working longer hours than they really were.

The story painted a grim picture of Mallincrockdt Laboratory, a place where cold-hearted, whip-cracking advisors stood over graduate students whose every failed experiment was a life or death matter.

Since the incident, the department says its has worked day and night to ensure that nothing like the Altom suicide will ever happen again.

Graduate students say their efforts have worked.

Now, they say they are much more comfortable in their day-to-day interactions with each other and their faculty advisors.

More importantly, they say the Altom suicide was a wake-up call to the students themselves: working together and being supportive of each other is the best way to combat an overly competitive department.

Still, despite the change, graduate students and professors alike say the department is not in an ideal place yet. Students are still under pressure to produce results, knowing that if they don't, both their own future and their advisor's reputation will suffer.

Alan Long, director of the laboratories of the Department of Chemistry, says that breaking down some of the walls and creating lines of communication within the department has been the key to change.

"But I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a competitive place," Long says. "The people we bring in here are competitive by nature. Harvard is Harvard."

Mending the Wounds

After Altom's death, graduate students were quick to say the pressures he faced were not unique to Altom and to the lab of Professor E.J. Corey, where Altom worked.

Altom wrote three suicide notes, one to Corey, one to his parents, and one to the chair of the chemistry department. In those notes he suggested numerous reforms to the structure of the department and ways to improve the lives and relieve the stresses of those in it.

The department has listened to Altom.

Since his death, the department implemented a number of reforms geared toward helping students feel that they had someone to go to when they were in distress.

They created a new system, based on Altom's suggestion, that gave three advisors, rather than just one, to each graduate student.

In the previous system, one of graduate students' main concerns was that their fate rested completely in the hands of their particular advisor, since no one else had any idea what they were doing in the lab.

"Almost all your interactions are still with your one particular advisor," says Karl Haushalter, a third year graduate student in the lab of Professor Greg Verdine. "But it used to be common for a graduate student to talk to no other faculty member until their thesis defense."

In the previous system, if a student didn't get along with their advisor, it was hard to get out of the relationship.

"Having multiple advisors creates a system of checks and balances such that if subjects are not comfortable broaching a topic with their primary advisor, they have somewhere else they can turn," Haushalter says.

Chemistry department chair James G. Anderson says that the multiple advisor system gives students more options to choose what is right for them. The new system makes it easier for students change labs and advisors.

"There is a very close relationship between graduate students and a faculty member, and a lot of weight of their recommendation comes from that advisor. By having multiple advisors, it broadens that base and what possibilities there are for post-Ph.D. research," he says.

And now that students can choose two other advisors, it creates a situation in which at least professors are held accountable for their actions and one professor cannot have sole control over a student's future.

Brian Lawrence, a seventh year graduate student, was a member of Corey's lab and a friend of Altom's, but left when he realized it was not for him.

"The human element was missing. I hardly every talked to him about anything but science," Lawrence says. "From day one you were expected to work at the level of a post-doc."

But Lawrence and others say graduate students and faculty alike have been working to create a better atmosphere for students.

"It's a difficult situation to be in, but the group dynamic is helpful," Haushalter says. "The fact that the other people are there is an asset to me."

Though he was just a first-year graduate student when Altom died, Haushalter had been intimately involved in reforming the department. He is a co-chair of the chemistry department's quality of life committee. The committee organizes dinners with the whole department every two weeks, as well as social and sporting events, all meant to foster camaraderie in the department.

"We want the department to be involved in graduate student life," he says. "If we have an idea, they are very open to student input."

Graduate student Joshua Finkelstein says that his lab has grown very close, and he hopes their spirit of cooperation will spread to the entire department.

Finkelstein says there are now lots of people in the department who have time to sing in choruses or be on sports teams. Students who get involved in such extra-curricular activities now know their fellow students value such activity.

"I consider myself to be moderately social, but it's really good to have a tight department, because issues that grad students face are very different from situations you have ever faced before," he says.

Professors in the department claim they are equally concerned about students' welfare. They say that the department was not inhumane before the incident in Corey's lab--several say The New York Times story, for instance, blew problems in the department out of proportion--but there has definitely been a change since.

"The major thing that has changed is that everyone recognizes the importance of paying really close attention to each other. If someone seems distraught, we no longer accept that as a 'normal' thing that happens in everyone's scientific career," Verdine says.

If You Can't Take the Heat...

Though graduate students say they have been are markedly affected by the changes that have taken place in the department in the past three years, they admit the nature of being a graduate student has not changed.

Students complete their Ph.D. work in the laboratory of professors and assistant professors who themselves are anxious to have their lab groups succeed.

Students say professors realize their students are under pressure, but are still not about to give up getting the best results in order to preserve students' welfare.

"I think it would be awful for Harvard and the department to lose its concentration and its edge," Verdine says. "God knows it wouldn't be good for science, Harvard, or our students."

Verdine says that students who don't have the emotional stability for graduate chemistry work will discover that very quickly, and either learn to deal with it or choose another lab.

For professors like Verdine, who in the early 1990s was trying to get a tenure offer, lab work can be even more intense. If the lab of a junior professor doesn't produce results, the professor may not get tenure. And that means extra pressure on graduate students in associate professor's laboratories.

"It would be disingenuous to say that my students didn't feel pressure to help me get tenure," Verdine says. "But it created a real esprit de corps in the lab during that year. Students know there is pressure on their professor that translates to them."

But pressure on graduate students today comes largely from their inner drive and much less from their advisors, students say.

"Part of being a graduate student is struggling with things like that," Haushalter says. "There is definitely a mental toughness that you have to develop. You do face a lot of pressures, but they are mostly internal."

Anderson says that what graduate students do is largely shaped by their own goals and aspirations. The image of the advisor standing over them with a whip, he says, is misconceived.

"There is a conception that faculty are driving students and setting the pace. A vast amount of the horsepower and directions emanates from the students, and it's very important to recognize that," he says.

Students also say chemistry lab work's all-or-nothing pace puts pressure on grad students to produce. When students get close to a break-through, they feel extra pressure to stay the extra hours or the extra nights or weekends to get that breakthrough.

"The nature of science is that there is no guarantee. If you are in another department, you can fake it. There are doable problems in other fields," Finkelstein says. "But in chemistry you might have a stretch of nine months where nothing works."

But for Lawrence, who has been in the department for seven years, who served with Jason Altom in the Corey lab and who knows what it's like to have that stretch where nothing works, the only way that things can improve is through the attitude of the individual graduate students.

"It has definitely changed for the better," he says. "Graduate students have said 'This is crazy, it's not rational, let's not do this to ourselves.'"

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