physical sciences stay fit
of the Division of the Physical Sciences for the past five years,
David W. Oxtoby was recently reappointed to the position for
a second term. After earning his bachelor's degree in chemistry
and physics from Harvard in 1972 and a chemistry Ph.D. from
Berkeley in 1975, Oxtoby joined the U of C faculty in 1977.
He is now the William Rainey Harper professor in the College,
the chemistry department, and the James Franck Institute.
sciences dean David Oxtoby
wants the division to live up to its past.
theoretical chemist, he also co-wrote two first-year chemistry
textbooks, Principles of Modern Chemistry and Chemistry,
Science of Change. Winner of a Quantrell Award in 1986,
Oxtoby was master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division
(1984-87) and served on the Provost's Task Force on Undergraduate
Education (1994-96). From 1992 to 1995, he directed the James
Franck Institute. The Magazine caught up with Oxtoby
to assess the state of the physical sciences:
are you most proud
of accomplishing in your first term as dean?
The most important job of a dean is to help recruit faculty.
The clearest success has been mathematics. That department's
had several major appointments at the level of the Fields Medal,
which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and also some stellar
younger faculty who are not yet household names but have the
potential to reach that level. We've certainly been strategically
repositioning chemistry. Chemistry is a department in transition:
a fair number of people are retiring or close to retiring, and
therefore it's renewing itself through new appointments. Statistics
went through that process several years ago.
you first became dean,
what were your goals for the division?
I set out five interdisciplinary areas that I wanted the division
to explore, focus on, and strengthen. Two of these areas are
ones in which we already were strong: materials science and
other three were less established. One is biophysical dynamics,
which has evolved into the Biophysical Dynamics Institute. The
BSD's Glenn Steele and I were appointed dean at the same time
and got together quite soon. We decided that the molecular-level
connection between physical and biological sciences was an important
place to start. We have faculty, the beginnings of some programs,
and the beginnings of an endowment. We don't yet have a physical
space, but we're planning on it.
second area is computer science, connecting the department to
activities in physical sciences and even the social sciences
and humanities. That is evolving into an exciting structure,
the Computation Institute. Argonne is a chief participant in
third new area is environmental science, and there we've made
less progress. There have been some excellent appointments in
the geophysical sciences. We have established a new program
in environmental science and policy jointly with the Harris
School, but it's just going to be getting off the ground next
is the job situation
for doctoral candidates in the physical sciences?
Computer scientists can get jobs immediately; they have many
choices. Other areas are a bit tighter and a bit harder; you
have to think more seriously if you want to go into a faculty
been encouraging the division to think about graduate education
in broader ways. It's not a response to a bad job market; it's
more that there are a lot of opportunities for which this training
is excellent preparation. Research is frequently a team-based
process. You have a group of people working together on an open-ended
project, and you don't know what the answer is. That happens
in the corporate world also.
of the programs that we've been involved with quite successfully
is the New Products Laboratory, where we have teams of business
students and science students working on projects. Some of the
students who have come out of these programs have discovered
lots of other skills besides science, and some of them want
to explore those new directions.
also been working closely with Career and Placement Services.
We don't want industry to be thought of as a second choice:
For many people, it's the first choice-exactly what they want
to do given their skills and interests.
are your goals for undergraduate
education in the physical sciences?
One challenge is undergraduate computer science, where we didn't
have a major until recently. The program is growing rapidly,
in terms of the number of students interested in it. The demand
for facilities is increasing, and so we're trying to figure
out how to accommodate it.
interested in getting students more involved in active learning
as opposed to sitting in a lecture and watching someone write
on the blackboard and copying it all down. I just finished teaching
first-year chemistry, which had 180 students. It's rather hard
to get engaged in discussions and have students working in groups
in that setting. But it's something I think is important and
have tried to support in the division, mostly at the level of
individual faculty initiatives.
particular interest is in teaching general chemistry from an
environmental point of view. Last year I taught the autumn quarter
and brought in the chemistry of global warming. We began with
that issue, and spent about three weeks studying it. Along the
way, the students were learning stoichiometry and traditional
keep pushing for more lab-based courses and fewer lecture-based
courses. If you look at what is special about the core in the
humanities and social sciences, it's that the courses deal with
primary materials. Sometimes people think "primary materials"
means going back and reading what Einstein wrote. My view is
that the primary materials in science are experiments: the laboratory
do you feel about the recent
changes to the College curriculum?
They allow the division to split some classes, to offer some
variants, to get students into smaller classes that are closer
to research and closer to the real world. One model might be
to teach a larger class for the first quarter and then to divide
into smaller classes in which you could have more hands-on experience
for the second and third quarters. That's better than sending
students through a rigid sequence of lectures. Sid Nagel, master
of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, has put tremendous
effort into rethinking the core. There are changes taking place
right now as a result.
does the Physical Sciences Division
need the new Interdivisional Research Building?
We are currently in the Research Institutes Building, which
is almost 50 years old. We deal daily with breakdowns that harm
the research. We have wires running around that are old and
haven't been replaced. Circuits break. If the electricity gets
shut off to certain kinds of experiments--let's say a high-vacuum
chamber--and you lose power for even a short time, that experiment
might be down for a week. Sometimes in summer we have to shut
labs down, because we can't maintain a steady level of temperature
and humidity. Because of limestone calcite deposits, some pipes
in the building only have a tiny section where water can pass.
To run a laser, you need huge amounts of water circulating through
your laser system to cool it. Also, when you bring in a new
faculty member, preparing laboratories that are usable is very
expensive. So we're spending a lot of money on an old building.
taking the most demanding research areas in the division and
putting them into the new building. When I say most demanding,
I don't mean most important or most interesting. It's simply
that there are some programs you can only carry out in state-of-the-art
we're focusing on in the new building is the development of
central facilities in magnetic resonance, mass spectroscopy,
other types of spectroscopy, and materials synthesis that will
be shared by many users. Every faculty member will have his
or her own lab and special equipment, but when you're sharing
things, you can think on a different scale. We also want to
be building the new instruments that you can't just go out and
buy--that's a traditional strength at Chicago. Instead of buying
time on a telescope, we are designing the new-generation telescope
and building it.
are your top priorities for the next five years?
One is space. The IRB will be a major development in terms of
meeting space needs, but unfortunately it will not end the process.
The big challenge is to take advantage of this opening to meet
other acute space needs in the division, areas like the Fermi
Institute, astronomy, computer science. We want to bring the
astronomy department back together, because it's spread over
quite a few buildings. Computer science as a department is getting
significantly bigger. For other departments, it's not so much
a question of growth in equipment or in faculty size but the
quality of the space.
second major area is financial and technical support for research.
To compete for the top faculty, you need start-up funding for
new faculty that is comparable to other
universities. Right now we're being stretched pretty thin with
exciting new appointments. The other part of the infrastructure
is shared equipment and technical support. The amount of computing
now compared to ten years ago is an order of magnitude difference
at least. Other technical support includes machining, designing,
maintaining large equipment, all of these sorts of things. That's
a bigger challenge all the time.
the third: computer science is a major University priority.
The way in which
computing is changing the world will have implications for the
business school, the social sciences, the humanities, the College.
Making computer science a priority doesn't just mean buying
computers. It means taking part in the intellectual changes
that are taking place in society and leading these intellectual
changes with a strong computer science department.