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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Living | Arts
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Grad-student suicides spur big changes at Harvard chem labs

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 1/2/2001

n August 1998, Dr. Ned Hallowell was vacationing with his family in Connecticut when, as usual, he checked his daily e-mails. In the subject field were the words, ''Harvard needs you.'' A Harvard alum, Hallowell figured it was just another request for money. But when he opened the file, here's what he found:

''We have just on Friday suffered the loss of a young and talented graduate student, to suicide.'' There had been others, the memo continued: half a dozen in the past several years. ''Clearly, this is a tragic and an appalling concentration within a single department.'' Could Hallowell, a Boston-area psychiatrist who had just written a book about worry, help? The letter was signed by Paul Nghiem, a physician doing a postdoctoral fellowship in the chemistry department.

Hallowell responded immediately, but said he couldn't do anything without first talking to the department chairman. He figured he'd heard the end of it. The next day, the head of the department, Jim Anderson, called.

Since then, Anderson, Hallowell, and Nghiem have met monthly to talk about - and act on - what could be called ''touchy-feely'' stuff in this prestigious department, which has four Nobel laureates on its faculty and selects an elite 35 students a year from around the world. The result is a department that has been transformed in both tangible and intangible ways. The cold, barren lobby has given way to a warm warren of offices. The adviser system has been changed to better accommodate students. Catered buffet dinners now attract faculty and students. Free psychological counseling is promoted. And soon, when the department opens its first student center, students will have a place to relax.

''There is a natural tendency to pathologize the victim of the suicide, rather than consider what might be amiss within the system where it took place,'' Hallowell says. ''Thank God the system responded the way it did.''

Career pressures

Harvard's Mallinckrodt Laboratory, an imposing building on Oxford Street, produces some of the world's top chemists. The downstairs bulletin board contains notices of upcoming speeches by professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University with titles such as: ''The Colorful World of Semiconductor Nanocrystals,'' and ''Chemical Routes to Ordered Nanotube Structures, Physics and Devices.'' The upstairs laboratories are hushed enclaves from which pungent odors emanate and combustible substances percolate.

It was here that faculty and students helped determine the cause of the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic.

It was here that professor Elias J. Corey, one of the world's top organic chemists, worked on the theory of retrosynthetic chemistry that led to his Nobel Prize in 1990.

And it was here, in August 1998, that a gifted young graduate student procured a supply of potassium cyanide, which he took home to his Somerville apartment and ingested.

Jason Altom was 26 when he died. On a table next to his bed, he left three notes: to his parents; to Corey, his adviser; and to the chemistry department.

His death stunned the department. The year before, Mike Lam, a first-year graduate student from Hong Kong, had died after ingesting potassium cyanide on the third floor of the chemistry building. And, as Nghiem mentioned in his e-mail to Hallowell, there had been a string of other suicides over the years.

But Altom's death seemed different. Unlike Lam, who was new to the department and little-known, Altom had practically lived there the previous five years and was well-respected.

In his lab, he was working on synthesizing haplophytine, a complex compound. Five years earlier, he had applied for - and been admitted to - the Corey Lab, a rarefied group of 20 to 30 graduate students. There are 18 such research groups in the graduate chemistry department, each one named for an advising professor who is responsible for the quality of the work done in his lab. The Corey group has long been considered one of the most productive labs, publishing some 900 scientific papers over the years. When Corey outlined three different projects for Altom to work on, the student selected the most difficult.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Altom, who set extremely high standards for himself, grew frustrated in his research. Although he had synthesized both parts of his molecule, he needed to finally bring the two together in a bond. A month before his death, it looked as though he'd been successful, but his hopes were dashed when further tests proved him wrong. He felt he'd failed, that his work had been in vain.

According to the notes he left, he was certain that his dreamed-of career in academia was doomed. Those fears were apparently baseless. Corey did not want to comment for this story, but students and professors say Altom retained his adviser's support.

But the scientific quest can be an unforgiving, lonely road. ''You're struggling to make it work, and when it doesn't, you have to struggle with that,'' says Nghiem. ''And you're basically struggling by yourself.''

It takes a strong constitution to withstand the high-stakes pressure of such ''macho chemistry,'' as it is called. ''Research is extremely frustrating,'' says Anderson, who took over as chairman a month before Altom's death. ''It's dead-end streets, weeks and months of work that can turn into nothing. There's isolation. There's depression. There has to be an emotional infrastructure to support you, people you can go to. You need to retain warmth and breadth in order to weather it.''

Though Anderson concedes that the graduate chemistry department is a particularly competitive place, he says much of the pressure comes not so much from the professors as from the students themselves. ''The students are brilliant,'' Anderson says. ''They're very high achievers. In fact, I would say about 95 percent of the motivation and pressure is from the students themselves.''

But in his suicide note to Anderson, Altom offered a different perspective and left suggestions for what the department could do to better help students. ''Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students,'' he wrote. He recommended that instead of one adviser holding a student's future in his hands, a committee of three professors be assigned to each student. ''If I had such a committee now I know things would be different,'' he wrote.

Even before his death, after complaints from other students, such a plan was under discussion. Today, instead of one professor holding - or withholding - a key letter of recommendation, there are three who can help. And if problems develop between an adviser and a student, there are two others left.

Students say they perceive a change in the department ethos, too. ''Before Jason's death, there was a feeling that faculty was not as accessible as it should be,'' says Tim Dransfield, a sixth-year graduate student who has served on the student Quality of Life Committee for the past five years. ''Since Jason's death, it's clear that the vast majority would like to have more input in our lives.'' Some professors, he adds, are trying to offer more constructive criticism than negative.

Responding to tragedy

If Altom's suicide held lessons for professors, it also held some for students. Anderson has told them repeatedly that instead of trying to handle stress alone, they can seek free, confidential help from therapists. ''Free'' and ''confidential'' are key words here. Graduate students live on a basic grant - tuition included - with little left after paying for food and rent. Confidentiality is crucial, since no one wants to jeopardize his or her degree with gossip about emotional issues.

Many students apparently are taking advantage of the service. Anderson can't supply figures, but Dransfield knows students are using it. ''They never would have considered it unless it was well-advertised and free,'' he says.

Hallowell, who volunteers his time, is the one who gets the calls from students and refers them to therapists.

''It's hardly Sunnybrook Farm over there, but it certainly is better than it was,'' he says. ''There were people who were spending an inordinate amount of time brooding over their futures, who was going to nail them, and I think that's happening less. It's a more connected place.''

That, literally, is true. Or soon will be. Anderson proudly lays out the blueprint of a new 2,200-square-foot student center, to be completed this spring, to serve all three buildings in the complex. It will sit on the top floor, with skylights, and offer a place for students to simply hang out, a novel activity here. Anderson says the space was designed with three criteria in mind: ''warmth, warmth, and warmth.''

Using a pencil, he points out the cafe, an espresso bar, a conference room for meetings between teaching fellows and undergraduates, a TV room for replaying lecture tapes - or watching the Red Sox. There's a lounge area for conversation, a game area with a pool table and, off to one side, ports for Internet connections. (''This is important,'' Anderson says. ''They can come to this area intending to work, and if they find someone interesting to talk to, they can take a break.'')

Where have students hung out before? Anderson pauses. ''I don't know,'' he says.

Hallowell, who took some chemistry courses in his undergraduate days, remembers the building with a shudder. ''It was a foreboding place,'' he says.

Today, thanks to recent changes, he barely recognizes it. Gone is the grim lobby dating back to 1928, with cold flagstone floor and four concrete columns. It was replaced last year with a bright new space, light sandstone floors, and, most important, offices filled with humans. ''It used to be that you'd open up these 500-pound doors and come right into a gray dungeon,'' says Anderson.

Now, there are five offices surrounding the foyer, filled with ''people there to help,'' as he puts it. There are his office and the dean's, as well as the offices of the director of academic affairs, tutors, and other support staff.

Next, Anderson faced the problem of getting the highly driven students to relax and mingle. Because of the way the department is divided - into 18 fiefdoms - there tends to be little interaction between students who don't share the same lab. Anderson wanted to dissolve those walls. So every other Tuesday night, a huge buffet is offered in the library (despite the ''no food and drink'' sign). It is free and catered by an outside company, not the same old student food service.

At first, only a handful of people showed up. Today, more than 200 attend regularly, sitting on the floor, in carrels, at tables. ''You put graduate students and free food together, and there's guaranteed good attendance,'' says Dransfield. Adds Heather Rypkema, a fourth-year grad student who is also on the Quality of Life Committee: ''It's better than eating Science Center pizza at my desk.'' Some faculty members attend, and Rypkema says the casual chats between students and their mentors help break down the usual barriers.

Encouraging paths

Harvard turns out an inordinate number of young professors for a few coveted slots in the top chemistry schools throughout the country, including MIT, Cal Tech, and, of course, Harvard itself. By the time they graduate with a PhD, the students have spent at least 10 years in college and graduate school, and the presumed next step is to continue down the academic road. At the end of that path looms the precious Nobel Prize.

But recently, the chemistry department has made a concerted effort to introduce alternative career paths. ''Students think if they don't get a first-rate faculty position, they've failed,'' says Anderson. ''We've been working very hard to dispel that.''

Now, in his opening speech to students in the fall, Anderson touts careers such as business or patent law. He brings in speakers who have their doctorate in chemistry but have chosen diverse fields. ''The speakers talk about completely rethinking what you do, what you like, what turns you on,'' Anderson says.

One more change is in the works: hiring women faculty. Of 18 professors, only one is a woman, while 30 percent of the graduate students are female. ''It's a really critical problem; it's an intolerable situation,'' says Anderson. In addition to their academic credentials, he believes the presence of more women faculty would bring ''a deeper sense of the human condition during the undergraduate and graduate years.'' Women, he feels, better understand the balance between lab research and real life.

Harvard is nothing if not traditional, and there are those in the chemistry department who don't totally embrace all the changes. ''I think there are people who just like it the old way, where essentially only work happens here,'' says Nghiem. ''But the criticism has been silenced by the overwhelming need for some change.''

At 73, Corey has not taken on any new advisees in several years. He has retired from teaching and devotes himself to research with his remaining students, who are said to be devoted to him. Those who know him say that after a 50-year career, he remains bewildered and devastated by the suicide.

Altom's parents, who live in Oak Ridge, Tenn., say they have not been in touch with anyone from the Harvard chemistry department in a couple of years. ''At the time of Jason's death, we thought some of the changes he had suggested were a very positive thing,'' says Donald Altom, Jason's father.

If the Harvard chemistry department, with its exacting standards, has been a tundra for students in the past, it appears to be thawing a bit. Hallowell hails it as a model for other high-stress workplaces.

What Anderson is doing at 12 Oxford St., says Hallowell, is creating good chemistry - in more ways than one.

This story ran on page D01 of the Boston Globe on 1/2/2001.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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