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The physical sciences stay fit

image: Campus NewsDean 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.

image: David Oxtoby (photo by Dan Dry)
Physical sciences dean David Oxtoby wants the division to live up to its past.

A 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:

What 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.

When 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 particle astrophysics.

The 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.

A 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 that.

The 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 year.

What 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 position.

I've 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.

One 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.

We've 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.

What 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.

I'm 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.

My 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 chemical topics.

I 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 or fieldwork.

How 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.

Why 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.

We're 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 research facilities.

What 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.

What 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.

A 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.

Then 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.

  APRIL 2000
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