Sunday, July 30, 2006


In 1998 as it is now, Nobel laureate E. J. Corey's lab at Harvard was the most productive synthetic organic chemistry lab in the world. There is not a single academic or industrial laboratory in the world that does not use the chemistry developed in his group. He has trained more than 600 post docs and 200 graduate students, an astonishing number, who carry on his tradition in their labs on every continent. The entire pharmaceutical industry survives on chemistry that he has sometime invented. And that was how it was in 1998.

Then, Jason Altom, a highly promising graduate student in his group, committed suicide by drinking a cocktail laced with cyanide from his own lab. The memory remains as painful as the possible explanation, which is vague. Is modern graduate study in the United States an exercise in harsh and unforgiving ascetic living? Is the demand for excellence and productivity finally overriding the emotional capacity of fledgling graduate students? Who is to blame?

Lethal Chemistry at Harvard explores in detail Altom's tragedy, its possible reasons, and the whole framework of academic research and its strains. It hits the nail on its head, when it elucidates what graduate study really is:

"Graduate study in the sciences, however, is a very unsentimental education. It requires the intellectual evolution from undergrad who can ace tests of textbook knowledge to original thinker who can initiate and execute research about which the textbooks have yet to be written. What is less often acknowledged is that this intense education involves an equally arduous psychological transition, almost a second rebellious adolescence. The passage from callow, eager-to-please first-year student in awe of an often-famous faculty adviser to confident, independent-minded researcher willing to challenge, and sometimes defy, a mentor is a requisite part of the journey."

The article's long, but sobering and worth reading. Very well written.

Especially after reading this article, I thanked my lucky stars that my two research advisors are almost too laid back. But more importantly, I realised the importance of having interests other than your work, including hobbies and family. Because then, even if you fail in your work, you can fall back on your other interests (and I can emphatically say this based on personal experience). But if your world is only your work, then when you fail in your work, your whole world collapses, just like it did for poor Jason, and the consequences can be devastating.

What I think is this: Some of us are inherently made out of the kind of stern stuff that's needed to live cheerfully in the high-pressure environment of graduate research. But I believe that most of us are not. Especially those of us who come from India are used to living with their parents, so that the emotional support structure exists. It's not like we don't face pressure, but there are a lot of fall-back-upons, and the kind of pressure we face does not involve coming up with new ideas so that our career depends on it. Now, we suddenly are plunged into a totally different environment when we come to the US. No family, few if any existing friends, and an environment that demands creativity and total dedication with few if any excuses. We have to radically change our attitudes and personality for this. And that is difficult. There is no official way that allows us to handle this change. Someone needs to understand this to ease the transition, to give us the time to gradually mould ourselves and adapt. The only person who can do this is our research advisor, because our work is connected to his demands. But he is also running against a tight schedule of grants and tenure. He too does not have the luxury of letting us take our sweet time to emotionally adapt ourselves at the cost of less productivity? So what to do?

I think that one way out of this dilemma is the time tested technique of giving each student a project that seems to be commensurate with both his intellectual abilities and his emotional capabilities. This will challenge him, but not so much that his emotional state struggles to catch up with the intellectual demands. Then, after he has warmed up his emotional capacity to handle the pressure, the advisor can give him a tougher research project, possibly one for his thesis. At any rate, I do think that it will often create problems if all graduate students are dunked into the same high-pressure research environment, irrespective of their personality, without giving them time to emotionally adapt. And of course, the part in the article about having someone to talk to is a must. Most of us don't have family here. People like me are reluctant to always discuss their problems with their family, largely because the emotional trouble is often related to the exact details of the research problem. For me luckily, my advisor can serve in the twin capacity of someone who can understand emotional problems arising from intellectual problems and research problems (on the other hand, he is hardly around!). But at least one such person is a must. There needs to be at least someone around you who can understand both your science as well as you. You are really stuck if neither your advisor nor a close friend can do this.
The unfortunate question that still remains is, even if such resources are available, will students like Jason Altom avail of them? Or should every research advisor also have another degree in psychology?
The problem does not have a definite solution as of now, but the one definite conclusion I can reach is that every research advisor needs to make at least some efforts to fine tune his senses in understanding what kind of an emotional person his graduate student is.

Corey's work of course continues at full speed. Even today at the age of 80, he publishes at least one paper in a top chemistry journal almost every week (his total paper count being more than a thousand), and has secured his place as one of the greatest organic chemists in history. The science goes on. It's the humans we have to care about.


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