\Schneider, Alison. "Harvard Faces the Aftermath of a Graduate Student's Suicide," The

 

\Schneider, Alison. "Harvard Faces the Aftermath of a Graduate Student's Suicide," The
Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 October 1998, pp. A12-A14.\

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. No one ever expected Jason D. Altom to kill himself, least of all beause
of his relationship with his graduate-school adviser. But in August, by everyone's estimation one
best graduate students in Harvard University's chemistry department, swallowed cyanide and left
behind three letters blaming his Nobel Prize-winning adviser for his death.

A month after the suicide, the chemistry department approved nine changes in its system -
changes that everyone agrees are a positive response to an otherwise tragic situation.

Many people at Harvard think that that is where the story should end. The suicide was an
irrational act; it's impossible, they to try to make sense of it.

Ir. Altom's death has raised questions about graduate-student advising that other observers at
Harvard believe need to be aired. The suicide is symptomatic of the pressures and the skewed
power relationships infecting graduate studies, they say - problems that exist at most universities
hat loom large at elite ones like Harvard and are particularly corrosive in competitive
departments like chemistry.

DEPRESSION AND GRIM ENDURANCE

Too often, some students fear, suicides get written off as tragic flukes, but that sort of thinking is
flawed, they say. For every Ph.D. candidate who kills himself, there hundreds who become
clinically depressed, drop out, or grimly endure bad situations in silence because of poor
relationships with their advisers. This year, it was Mr. Altom; next year, it could be someone
else, the argument goes.

In factt, it has been. Mr. Altom, who was enter his sixth year at Harvard, was not the first
chemistry student to kill himself. There have been eight graduate-student suicides at Harvard
since 1980. Four of the students were in the chemistry Department, and three of the four,
including Altom, worked for the same research adviser: Elias J. Corey.

Last year, Fung Lam, a first-year graduate in chemistry, was found dead in his lab 10 days after
joining the Corey research team . And in 1987, Felix Chau,a third-year student, took his life as
well.

Fans of Mr. Corey, of which there are many get upset when the other suicides are mentioned.
There's no evidence that advising bore any connection to the deaths, particularly that of a student
who was only in Mr. Corey's group for two weeks, they say. Mr. Corey is getting tarred for
tragedies that are not his fault.

The professor agrees: "What I'm sensitive tois innuendo, McCarthylike smears that can be
brought to bear on me as a person and on the people in my group. The last thing I want to see
someone do is concoct a specious argument that there was something wrong with the relationship
that I had with this graduate student."

Mr. Altom's suicide notes tell a different story. His parents, who declined to discuss their son's
death with The Chronicle, released one of his letters to The Harvard Crimson. According to the
campus newspaper, the letter, written to James G. Anderson, chairman of the chemistry
department, opened simply: "This event could have been avoided."

"Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students," the letter continued.
Having a committee of professors involved earlier in the evaluation of a student's work would
"provide protection for graduate students from abusive research advisers," Mr. Altom wrote. "If I
had such a committee now I know things would be different."

‘ARTISTIC' MOLECULES

Just how different is uncertain. Remorse over Mr. Altom's suicide is universal; consensus is not.
But some facts are clear.

Mr. Corey is widely viewed as the greatest organic chemist in the world. In 1990, he won the
Nobel Prize. His theory of "retrosynthetic analysis" changed the way scientists think about
molecules by teaching them to work backward, breaking down structures, one bond at a time,
into their simplest components. He is also a master at creating small, complex molecules -
structures chemists routinely call "artistic" and "beautiful."

The list of the nearly 600 people who've passed through his research group, known in some
circles as "the Corey School," reads like a Who's Who of chemists. Many of the finest chemists
in industry Al academe learned their science at his side. Some 150 of them are professors.

By all accounts, Mr. Altom was poise|dto become one of them. He was considered the finest
student in the Corey group - the one who bore the closest resemblance to his adviser: talented,
meticulous, relentlessly hard-working.

Everyone concurs that Mr. Altom, seemed to have the kind of relationship with his adviser that
other students envied. The two men conferred constantly. And Mr. Altom helped teach Mr.
Corey's advanced chemistry course, an honor that most graduate students covet.

VIGOROUS AND DEMANDING .

Opinions about what went wrong differ radically. Of the nearly three dozen sources for this story,
many individuals, worried about damaging their careers, would speak only on the condition of
anonymity.

Mr. Corey's defenders say his research group is one of the most intellectually vigorous and
demanding in the world. They work with him because they're hungry for the challenge and the
unparalleled rewards that go with it. As for Mr. Corey, they add, he's an outstanding mentor - the
kind of man who turns down speaking engaged meets so he can spend time with his students. To
his face, most students call him Professor Corey, but among themselves. he is "E. J."

"There are a lot of faculty members who| couldn't tell people on a month-to-month basis what
you're working on," one of his former students says. E. J. could tell people on a week-to-week
basis."

Problems with his mentor didn't push Mr. Altom over the edge; his own ambitions did, Mr.
Corey's defenders say. When Mr. Altom joined the group, Mr. Corey says he suggested three
different projects at three different levels of difficulty. Mr. Altom chose the most rigorous one -
the synthesis of a molecule so complex that some people have dubbed it chemistry's version of
"the Holy Grail."

Mr. Corey suggested that Mr. Altom work with another student, but he opted to go it alone. The
project proceeded spectacularly. He built the most difficult half of the molecule. Then, he built
the other half. All he had to do was link the two halves.

His adviser told him that he could stop working and start writing his thesis. The "total synthesis"
of the molecule could be done in a postdoctoral fellowship, Mr. Corey says. But Mr. Altom was
convinced that he needed to synthesize the molecule as part of his Ph.D., if he wanted to win a
top academic post, his friends say.

The synthesis eluded him, and the failures mounted. Shortly before his death, he thought he had
succeeded. He was wrong.

Several students in the Corey group say that their adviser was nothing but supportive in the face
of Mr. Altom's failures. A few weeks before the suicide, the two men met to discuss Mr. Altom's
future. "Jason came out of the meeting on cloud nine," says Brian Stoltz, a postdoc in the Corey
group and Mr. Altom's lab mate. "The tone was that if he wanted an academic job, E. J. would
support him. If that's not clear support from your adviser, what is?"

Something evidently changed. In August, Mr. Altom took a day off from his lab work to write up
his research report, something graduate students do every six months to assess their progress. The
next day, he was found dead in his apartment. He left behind notes for his family, his department
chairman, and his adviser.

The letter he left for Mr. Corey indicated that he thought his adviser had lost respect for him,
sources say. They say the letter noted that Mr. Corey had recently told Mr. Altom that he had
made "no intellectual contribution" to his project.

STYMIED AND SHATTERED

His adviser is stymied and shattered by the letters. He says he never questioned Mr. Altom's
intellectual contributions. "I did my best to guide Jason as a mountain guide would to guide
someone climbing a mountain. I did my best every step of the way," Mr. Corey says. "My
conscience is clear. Everything Jason did came out of our partnership. We never had the slightest
disagreement. "

Tom Gant, a former postdoc in the group who shared a lab with Mr. Altom, agrees. There isn't a
doubt in Mr. Gant's mind that "what killed him was that molecule." Mr. Altom's mile-high
expectations set him up for crushing disappointment, his friend explains. "He should have done
what the rest of us do, bear down and say, ‘I'm not going to let this molecule whip me.' "

Instead, Mr. Altom blamed his adviser for his setbacks, Mr. Gant says: "I'm angry. I didn't know
Jason was going to bow out with a Pyrrhic victory speech, but that's what his suicide note was.
He took out others when he took out himself."

Blaming Mr. Corey for Mr. Altom's pain compounds the tragedy, Mr. Gant says.

Mr. Corey thinks he has been unfairly maligned, too: "That letter doesn't make sense. At the end,
Jason must have been delusional or irrational in the extreme."

More than a few observers suggest that it's Mr. Corey and his supporters who are deluding
themselves. People are blaming Mr. Altom's suicide on mental illness instead of using it as an
opportunity to assess the cutthroat culture of top-flight graduate programs and the potentially
dangerous climate of the Corey group, they say.

Andrew Black, a graduate student in chemistry who lived with Mr. Altom, doesn't blame Mr.
Corey for his friend's death, but he also doesn't think his room-

mate was delusional: "Anyone who's going to take his own life is obviously in some way
mentally ill, but to say he's delusional is to write it off without thinking."

"Corey has a reputation for being mean," Mr. Black says. "It's a reputation that's never been
dispelled. He's also revered. He must on some level know it, but he doesn't do anything to stop
it."

More than most students, he adds, Mr. Altom feared and revered his adviser. But he wasn't the
only student who felt this way. "There was so much fear in the lab," says Brian Lawrence, a
Ph.D. student in chemistry and a member of its student-run Quality of Life Committee. He left
the Corey group to work with another professor. "People have a perception that Corey can make
or break your career."

That fear is not unfounded, students insist, and it's not limited to Mr. Corey or to the chemistry
department. Good jobs, prestigious grants, even tenure depend on strong letters of
recommendation. For many students, the only letter they have is from their adviser. That leaves
many of them feeling that their fate hinges on the whims of a single person. Those worries are
magnified in close-knit communities like chemistry, where the wrong word in the right ear can
ruin a career.

Much of the pressure stems from the culture of high-stakes chemistry, where people care more
about the science being produced than the people producing it. "There's a religious fervor to the
way science is carried out here," explains Paul Nghiem, a chemistry postdoc. "What's unsaid
here is that people put in a Herculean effort and put the other aspects of life far down on the list
of important things."

The result: Many students work seven days a week until the wee hours of the morning. Their
vacations are few; their outside activities nil. Working 70 hours a week or more turns the lab into
your life, students say. And when your science turns sour, there's nothing to fall back on.

A lot of the pressure comes from peers, says Megan Pratt, a graduate student who left chemistry
for neuroscience. "People would brag, ‘I slept in the group room last night because I was
working so hard.' There's a mindset that if you leave the lab at 6 p.m., it means that your project
is not the most important thing in your life."

AUTONOMY IS THE NORM

Critics suggest that much of the pressure comes from advisers, albeit implicitly. Advisers control
when Ph.D.'s graduate, and they answer to no one, students complain. In a decentralized
university like Harvard, autonomy is the norm; accountability is not, observers say. And the
chemistry department is infamous for being one of the most independent departments of all. The
stakes are perhaps the highest in the Corey group, where people work for a man whose reach is
600 students long.

"Corey has a larger-than-life reputation," a department colleague says. "With that, a cult of
personality has developed that isn't always fair or healthy. I think his students worry a lot about
how to please him and how to do the right thing."

Mr. Altom certainly did. In part, that was because of his own drive, but people familiar with the
Corey group insist that he also had very real and rational reasons to fear that, despite his status as
the favored son, his adviser might turn on him and dash his hopes for an academic career. It had
happened to others before, they say.

"If your chemistry was going well, life was good," says a former member of the Corey group. "If
it was going poorly, your life was poor. And effort seemed to be a moot point. Mistakes weren't
tolerated."

To stay in Mr. Corey's good graces, it's said that his students try to create the illusion that they
never leave the lab. Several people confirm that his group members frequently bring two jackets
to work so that when they head out the door, it still looks like they haven't left the building.

Those who had fallen from grace with Mr. Corey were sometimes subjected to the silent
treatment for months on end, sources say, and several students were kicked out in their fifth or
sixth year.

Several former students say they heard far more criticism than compliments, a tactic they say Mr.
Corey uses to push them on to greater heights. "Corey said to one guy, ‘A competent chemist
wouldn't have this problem,' " Mr. Lawrence recalls.

"If you didn't care about your chemistry, he'd lose interest," says a former student. "But if you
cared, he'd push you and the chemistry as far as he could. That's Corey's greatest fault when it
comes to pushing. He doesn't know when to stop."

People familiar with the situation say he unintentionally pushed Mr. Altom too far. A student
who had more perspective on his project and less reverence for his adviser might have shrugged
offremarks about the intellectual contribution he'd made to his research, Mr. Altom's friends say.
For Mr. Altom, it wasn't so easy.

What's troubling, says a former chemistry student, is that other professors in the department
knew Mr. Corey could be harsh to students, but looked the other way because the science
produced was so good, and the adviser's status so stellar.

Mr. Corey and his many supporters disagree. He says he does not give students the silent
treatment, and believes his criticism is constructive, not destructive.

Hundreds of his former students contributed glowing letters about their time in his lab to a
commemorative book put together for his 70th birthday last July, Mr. Corey proudly points out.
But two of them, who spoke anonymously to The Chronicle, had very different stories to tell
about what it was like to work for him.

Their stories are similar to ones told in other departments at Harvard. Last year, Hailei Ge, a
first-year graduate student in computer science, jumped from a campus library to his death. His
suicide sparked a campuswide debate about advising.

Harvard's Graduate Student Council asked Ph.D. candidates to fill out a survey on advising.
People complained about advisers who didn't read theses or only met with their students every
two years. Others bemoaned grueling work schedules.

The council drafted advising guidelines and a bill of graduate-student rights. But the proposals
have not been implemented.

"I'll graduate in a year and a half," says J. Paul Callan, a Ph.D. student in physics involved in the
advising debate. "The chances these changes will happen by then are less than 1 per cent. The
chances of it happening in 10 years aren't much better. The political will to do it isn't there."

Harvard has sought to improve counseling and services for Ph.D.'s, says Paul Martin, a physicist
who was dean of the engineering school when Mr. Ge killed himself. But he thinks it's hard to
legislate faculty-student relationships. "To try to find a formula or rule that will help people is a
little bit simplistic," he says.

The fact that the chemistry department did find the will to make changes gives some students
hope. The department, known for being more competitive than collegial, will be holding monthly
dinners so students can get together informally with the chemistry chairman. There will be
colloquia exploring alternative careers to academe, an annual lecture on how to deal with the
stresses of graduate education, and confidential channels set up for students who need
psychological counseling.

The centerpiece of the plan involves pre-thesis committees - a group of three professors,
including the student's adviser, who will meet individually with the Ph.D. candidate on a yearly
basis to discuss his or her research and career goals. The underlying hope: to increase contact
with other professors so that no one person will have total control over a student's future.

Members of the department's Quality of Life Committee proposed that change three years ago,
but professors rejected it. They feared the time commitment would be too great. Last month, the
professors gave the proposal their unanimous support. No one questions whether Mr. Altom's
suicide had anything to do with it, but everyone says they wish it hadn't.

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* To join a debate on the issues raised in this article, visit the Colloquy section of The
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