Chemical Bonding: Happy hour in Havenmeyer

by Paul Hond
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Lee’s presentation was the semester’s final installment of the student-organized Chemical Synthesis Research Symposium, which Owen created last fall as a way for the department’s 20-odd faculty-led lab groups to introduce their work to their colleagues. There’s a speaker series on Tuesdays for physical chemistry, and organic chemistry has its long-established “problem session” on Thursdays, but only the synthetic-chemistry seminar is followed by experiments in the benefits of fermentation. For Owen, connecting the symposium to the traditional Friday happy hour in Havemeyer is a way to “celebrate the talk and give the speaker a chance to socialize with the audience,” and to provide an informal setting for people to share ideas about science.

Around the same time that Lee concluded her talk, Nick Anderson, a second-year student in the Owen Group (“I work on quantum dots”) and one of the seminar’s organizers, was in Havemeyer Lounge, under the gray skylight, setting up a table with bags of potato chips and zero-calorie soft drinks. On the walls were old photographs of the School of Mines and giants like Nobel-winning chemist Harold Urey (1934, deuterium), who while at Columbia helped develop the atomic bomb.

There were bottles of wine, too, and the red plastic cups that one associates with cheap beer, and now, after a long week, and a long year, they trickled in, a full third, at least, of the 150-strong department. Among the crowd was Lee, who looked happy and relieved from her trial in room 209. She called her talk “good practice” for her upcoming postdoc interview at UC San Francisco.

Owen agrees. “Science is social,” he says. “If you can’t communicate effectively, your ideas won’t hit people.”

As students from different labs talked, ate, and pumped the squat metal keg, a contest broke out in the adjoining room. There, on a long table, red cups filled with beer were set up at either end, and two teams consisting of men in shorts and T-shirts took turns flinging ping-pong balls into the opposition’s cups, or trying to. If a ball landed in your cup, you had to drink.

“At our first talk,” said Anderson, with a nod toward the beer pong table, “a lot of professors came and got involved in a little athletic competition.” Anderson, wearing a “Galway Drinking Team” T-shirt, is a Guinness man himself.

Nearby, another student organizer, Ashley Zuzek, a second year from Dartmouth, said, “We’re often stuck in our labs, so it’s good to come together like this.” Zuzek is part of the Parkin Group, whose namesake, professor Gerard Parkin, had recently visited the White House to receive his 2011 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. As Zuzek spoke of her work, which involves the processes by which impurities like sulfur and nitrogen are removed from crude oil, the skylight’s hue changed from milky to golden, and for what must have been the first time that week, solar photons entered Havemeyer Lounge.

More students arrived.

“People tend to get caught up in their own little space,” Owen says. “Integration leads to happier students and more productivity.”

As the party went on, the rest of Havemeyer Hall grew quieter. Under the display case, Chandler’s milk-testing equipment slept beside his apparatus for measuring sewer gas. Room 209 was dark. Outside, the evening sun dried the droplets on the metal bleachers, and dried the campus generally.

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