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.

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