Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Spring 2010 Vol. 105 No. 3 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

Web Extras

Rex Lee One-Liners

On Acting:

"You don’t need to go to drama school, you just need to know how to act."

"Can it really be that easy? It was that easy."

"It takes a lot of energy to be in the closet—to hide, to lie. [As an actor], If I’m hiding in my real life, how does that affect my work?"

"People see me as a gay guy and not an actor."

"I can be horrifically unrealistically big when asked. I’m capable of bad acting at a moment’s notice. You have to be brave enough to be bad."

"The best actors are people no one knows, doing brilliant work in community theaters in [unknown] towns."

On Acting at Oberlin:

"At Oberlin, I was lucky that people were so supportive. If not for that, I probably would have given up."

"I feel as if I made the greatest friends of my life at Oberlin

"My social life in college? Ha."

On Entourage:

"I did something slightly illegal to get the audition"

"I go to work trying to create art. I want Lloyd to be a beautiful piece of art."

"I spend most of my time with Jeremy, who plays Ari."

"I am not Jeremy’s assistant in real life."

"I am me, but I share my body with Lloyd."

"I’m not buddies with any of them (the other actors on the show). There’s respect and pleasantness. I have a great working relationship. We all get along."

"I want Lloyd to be a full-formed human being. But part of that is jiving with the text I was given."

"I’m not like Lloyd. Lloyd sticks up for himself."

"I don’t want to play a stereotype."

"[A reporter once asked], ‘How do you live with yourself?’" I live with myself pretty fine."

Faculty Advising:
A Personal Perspective

February 18, 2010

When I was a college student in the mid-1980s, advising basically meant seeing the academic adviser once a semester to select courses for the following semester. It used to happen in a large auditorium. Advisers would be scattered in the seats to hold meetings with their advisees, who would show up at appointed times clutching the course catalog. When we finished, we would head to the stage, where folks from the campus computer center would be set up to do on-site registration. Now they have an iPhone app for that. In the intervening time and in the years I have been on the Oberlin faculty, advising has become more complex and multipurpose. I roughly break it down into seven areas, all of which are holistically linked, each of which helps our students craft a more meaningful four-year college experience.

My most obvious role as the adviser is that of an experienced academic guide. During our semesterly advising meetings, students are focused on course selection for the next semester. Intentionality does not reflexively enter their thinking, which is where I come in. In addition to providing some guidance about choosing a sane, balanced courseload in keeping with the liberal arts ideal, my role is to help students take a more expansive view of their four-year experience. I encourage students to see their 8 semesters, three summers, and 4 winter terms as the large canvas of their college years – the academic transcript as a personal portrait painted one course at a time. Students are usually taken aback by the notion, and oftentimes, it helps them relax a little.

The academic guide also serves as something of a trouble spotter. I once had a new advisee, most eager to get a head start on her chemistry major. At our very first meeting during orientation week, the second sentence out of her was "Professor Mehta, I will wax the floors in the science center if I could take organic chemistry in my first semester." Sure, the student had met the prerequisite qualifications to take organic chemistry, but a closer look at her record said this would not be a good idea. In the end, she chose an introductory course, and she still struggled through it. She admitted to me later that not taking organic chemistry in her first semester was one of the best pieces of advice she got.

The Office of the Dean of Studies and the Registrar at Oberlin have made it their mission in the last several years to get students to think about progress toward graduation at all stages of their time here. Long-range planning is essential to avoiding trouble later. Some of this is automated, such as degree progress reports, yet it takes an experienced eye to spot the potential for trouble ahead. For example, in chemistry and biochemistry, it is essential that students avoid taking too many laboratory courses in one semester and that they spread out these courses. Furthermore, there is a sensible order to some of the courses with the best payoff, which the students may not be aware of. Building in room for a capstone experience, taking care of distribution requirements, leaving time for some "fun" courses and other explorations is all part of this role of spotting trouble ahead and helping students to avoid it.

As the academic adviser, my role sometimes takes on shades of in loco parentis. For the students, the residential college experience is a continuum, spanning classroom learning to socializing, and everything in between. That blurring of the lines between study and play contributes to the intensity of the experience, but it also can lead to tensions, confusion, and problems in need of resolution. Sometimes, as the adviser, I am called upon to help with personal issues. In most of these instances, I am not the one to solve the problem. This is when I lean on the other members of the advising team: registrar, res life, other departments, other faculty, class deans, dean of studies, et cetera. This is where the idea of holistic advising comes into full force. I serve as a conduit between the student and the people on campus who can help them.

It is my anecdotal sense that students nowadays are under more stress than when I was a student, or perhaps they are just more vocal. This is when I become a personal coach or a cheerleader. Advisees will sometimes come to me in need of a pep talk. It is not because there is a concrete problem to be solved – it’s just that they have hit a rough patch and have temporarily lost their way. They are either stressed out or freaking out or breaking out. Sometimes I will pass an advisee in the hallway looking especially bedraggled, and I will stop to ask if things are okay. If the weather permits, I will ask the student to take a walk with me in the north quadrangle and, literally, get some distance from the science center. If it is a first year advisee, I will take advantage of the college’s generous lunch program, which pays for advisers to go to lunch with a new advisee once a semester. The adviser's larger perspective, combined with experience, can help students navigate a bout of anxiety. The student might be in need of a refresher about time management, stress management, or just life management, which I am happy to provide. Sometimes a students just needs to hear from a member of the faculty that it is going to be okay.

By the time my advisees are in their junior years, they are all pretty much majors in my department. As we anticipate life after Oberlin, our conversations usually turn toward career options. In this capacity, I resemble a career counselor. A minority of students will have a concrete idea of their post-baccalaureate plans, but most of them are uncertain. I get a mix of questions. What can I do with a chemistry major? Where should I apply to graduate schools? If I take some time off, will it affect my chances of getting into medical school? I've always been interested in patent law; can I combine my biochemistry major with law school? When should I start looking at professional schools? Do I need to have research experience? Reports we get from professionals in the field help inform these conversations. For example, colleagues in my research field who sit on chemistry admissions committees at the top graduate programs give me valuable feedback on what they are looking for in successful applications. When the time is right, I pass this on to my students.

The future – life beyond the Oberlin bubble – begins to register for most students in their junior year. When students do decide on a post-baccalaureate course of action, my role becomes that of the advocate. As chair of the faculty fellowships committee on campus, I am aware that students – even our top-achieving students – do not always include fellowship applications as part of their career planning. Our most recent Rhodes winner, Lucas Brown, did not think he was Rhodes material and required a little encouragement to apply. Oberlin’s president, Marvin Krislov, tells a similar story about his Rhodes experience, and such stories are not uncommon. In this advocacy role as an academic adviser, I steer students toward professional opportunities that are congruent with their stated interests. It could be professional programs, internships, NGO opportunities, contact with an alumnus. Sometimes, a student may not have entertained certain possibilities.

A couple of years ago, I was having a conversation with a senior biochemistry major who was considering taking a year off before applying to graduate schools. For a while, he considered moving to Chicago with the rest of his band and living by his musical wits, but he also wanted to stay engaged in science and do something about his interests in entrepreneurship. His applications for a technician job in biochemistry labs were not going anywhere. I knew a former student who had started a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts to make commercial products based on quantum dots – a field very different from biochemistry. I put the two in touch, and it led to a job offer. Alex said that working at that company for a year was one of the best decisions he made, and were it not for my making the connection, he would never have thought of it.

In an advocacy role, writing letters of recommendation is one of my biggest responsibilities, which I take seriously. These vary from a summer research gig to applications to medical, professional, and graduate schools. By the time an advisee asks me to write a letter, we have established a relationship. I tell my students that that allows me to write a more detailed, informed letter, versus a resume and a list of addresses, which invariably carries more weight.

Occasionally, an advisee joins my research lab, and in that case I become a mentor of sorts. When the advisee steps into the research operation, she steps into my professional scholarly world, and this leads to a new relationship. Students who have joined thus are usually excited by the research and, eventually, they begin thinking about advanced study, which leads to conversations about graduate programs, future mentors, and leading labs. In recent years, I have had on average one student per year go on to a top graduate program in my field of biophysical chemistry. All along the way, I take the students under my wing and introduce them to my scholarly world. This happens in the course of our research, in our surveys of the literature, in writing a manuscript for publication, by attending a professional conference and seeing the hot research topics debated, experiencing the human side of the scientific enterprise.

These are the varied roles of the faculty adviser. It has been my experience that the faculty adviser occupies a unique perch from which to guide students. In the end, it is about reason and wisdom, and as far as I know, there isn’t an iPhone app for that. It is a professional truth that while I keep getting older, my students steadfastly remain 18-22; and they will always face those universal, timeless struggles that 18-22 year olds have always faced. It is one of the great privileges of the job to interact with young people. As I spend more time on the faculty here at Oberlin, I have come to appreciate the critical role of academic advising in the success of our students. Indeed, I now see it as an integral part of my professorship, and one of the most rewarding parts of my post.

Norm Craig’s Shoes

First Contact
My first conversation with Norman Craig happened over the phone on Friday, March 5, 1993. I was in Toronto doing a postdoctoral fellowship in theoretical physics, my second, having followed my curiosities and strayed a little too far from my doctoral training in physical chemistry. My efforts to find a tenure-track position in a chemistry department at a liberal arts college in the U.S. were going nowhere. Hiring committees in both departments of chemistry and physics were rightly skeptical of my true colors. Suspending long-term possibilities for the time being, I had decided to apply for visiting positions at various colleges in the U.S., with the thought that it would help me get back in the good graces of chemistry. Oberlin was advertising for a one-year visiting position to fill in for a physical chemist on sabbatical leave, so I applied.

Not having heard back from any of my applications, I broke down and called a few places to inquire about the status of the searches. Norm happened to be the chair of the chemistry department at Oberlin then and, just as I was leaving a message on the department’s answering machine, he took my call. He said the search was in progress but couldn’t give me any more details. Three days later, on Monday, he called to invite me for an interview that Friday. One week after my initial phone call, I would be on the Oberlin campus, in the thick of an interview. Oddly, I had never interviewed for a professional position until then. All my appointments up to that point had been secured by paper application and some emails. The prospect of putting together a presentation about my distant doctoral research, accessible to undergraduates, was nothing short of daunting. I dropped everything I was doing and somehow I pulled it together.

That Thursday Norm met me at the airport in Cleveland. He and Ann, his wife, took me to dinner at Stevenson Hall, in part to introduce me to undergraduate residential life. Afterwards he invited me to his house for a glass of sherry. We made further conversation about chemistry, Oberlin, Toronto, and much else. Was he checking me out to see if I could function outside of the Kettering building? I will never know, but in the midst of a stressful interview visit, these little kindnesses made their mark. Whatever preconceived notions I may have had about life in a small college town in Ohio, especially coming from one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America, probably were straightened out during the that trip.

The next day I had my full interview. At the end of my research seminar, I read a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, "I will put chaos into fourteen lines." The sonnet is in the forward to my dissertation and it is especially apt for the work I had done in graduate school on chaotic dynamics and non-linear systems. I left open the possibility of reading it going into the talk, since it is an uncommon thing in a formal scientific presentation. Somehow, from what I had seen that day, it felt like Oberlin is the sort of place where a sonnet at the end of a science talk would not be out of place. So, I took a chance and read it at the end. Several people commented on it afterwards, including a few students. Norm and the rest of the department made a very good impression on me during that visit. Oberlin seemed like the sort of place where my eclectic interests, scientific and otherwise, would fit right in. My flight was the last to leave the Cleveland airport, as the famous 1993 Storm of the Century made its way up the Atlantic seaboard and paralyzed the eastern half of the U.S. for several days.

After a week of silence, I called Norm again. He said the department was favorably impressed with me, especially he, and that the search process was in progress. I took it to mean that an offer had gone to another candidate. Norm went out of his way to say that, regardless of how things turned out, he would be happy to give me advice in the future. He even offered to look over my job application materials to help make me more marketable to Oberlin-like schools. In hindsight, that was an extraordinary offer. In the end, I did get the job, came for the 1993-94 academic year, and had one of the best years of my life in Oberlin. I worked harder than I had ever worked, and in turn I was rewarded with that feeling of satisfaction that comes with fully engaged teaching. I could see myself settling in a place like Oberlin for the long haul. In May 1994, I saw Oberlin disappear in the rearview mirror of my little hatchback as I set off on a cross-country journey to start a postdoc at the University of Washington in Seattle, forgetting for the moment that all roads do (eventually) lead to Oberlin.

Second Time Around
In 1996, Norm announced his retirement. I had kept in touch with several members of the department by e-mail, and when the position was advertised, Mike Nee, then chair, sent me the official announcement along with a note encouraging me to apply. It was good timing and I did apply. I had changed direction in my scholarship toward a more experimental direction, which landed me several campus interviews at comparable liberal arts colleges. Since the one-year visiting position had made such a positive impression me, I was hoping to land a tenure-track position at a place like Oberlin, but Oberlin itself seemed like a long shot. Why would a nationally recognized chemistry department want to take a chance on an oddball like me with an unconventional professional trajectory when there were likely many more compelling applicants? Of course, the department had gotten to know me during the one-year stint, and perhaps that gave my application a slight edge. Still, I felt fortunate when Oberlin invited me back for a campus interview. This time they put me through a more rigorous scrutiny. Plans for my scholarship were thoroughly examined and I closely questioned. The interview went well, I felt. After a period of waiting, then-dean Clayton Koppes called with the offer. During the negotiation phase, I put forward the idea of deferring the start of my position for one year, which would have allowed me to finish some important experiments in my postdoc lab. Not being fully privy to the departmental teaching needs and the anticipated timetable of Norm’s phased retirement, my proposal led to an impasse. After some deliberation, the department put forward a compromise wherein I would start mid-year, in January 1998. I was not too keen on the idea. It was then that Norm wrote me a lengthy e-mail explaining why this was a reasonable, win-win situation for all parties. He ended his e-mail with the following:

"On a personal note, my decision to make a definite plan to retire and open the possibility of appointing a physical chemist to a tenure-track position starting next year was triggered by knowing of your availability. Thus, I remain hopeful this will all work out."

Needless to say, these last lines stopped me dead in my tracks, now fully aware of Norm’s stature within the department and the College. I readily accepted the compromise and agreed to the offer. Nearly a year later, I took the road back to Oberlin in that same hatchback to begin my tenure-track appointment in the department, full of nervous excitement.

There’s an Oberlin Connection
I got to experience Norm’s encyclopedic knowledge about the extended Oberlin family early on. It came out in conversation one day that my graduate mentor’s postdoc mentor, my academic grandfather of sorts, is Eric Heller, now at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Theoretical Astrophysics. Norm immediately said, "Did you know there is an Oberlin connection?" I had no idea, though at first, I thought it was just Norm being Norm. It turns out that Rick Heller’s brother went to Oberlin and their father served on the Board of Trustees. Fascinating. Did you know there is an Oberlin connection with the origins of CalTech? Over the years, I have come to rely on Norm’s extensive knowledge of alumni and the institution, and I have tried to emulate some of the practices myself. Every time we have one of those small-world Oberlin stories, I realize that the "All Roads Lead to Oberlin" line has a ring of truth to it. It also makes me proud to be a part of the extended Oberlin family. Of course, it helps to have Norm’s depth of recall. I am beginning to fully appreciate now why Norm received the alumni medal in 2007. It is one thing to remember, but quite another to actively nurture connections with people. The care and thoughtfulness with which Norm and my other colleagues have stayed in touch with alumni have contributed to the foundation of the larger Oberlin family. I have taken advantage of the ObieWeb myself to put current students in contact with alumni for everything from career advice to internship opportunities.

Phi Beta Kappa
I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in my senior year at Wabash College. Back then, in addition to the induction ceremony, the ritual involved an audience with a professor emeritus of classics who oversaw the Wabash chapter. I recall walking into his dimly lit, cavernous office, which seemed more like a hall of knowledge. This soft spoken, most learned man shook my hand and told me a little about the society and the chapter and what election meant. At the end of the conversation, he gave me some advice. Even though I did not understand it at the time, I still remember it. He said, "There are people whose surface you scratch and discover an entire world. Strive to become one of those people." In my adult life I have met a few people like that, and Norm is one of them. I keep discovering new facets of the man, usually triggered by a casual question. These dimensions are not plainly obvious, which makes their discovery all the more interesting and surprising – an altogether inspiring thing to have in a mentor.

A House Inside a Cheesecake
One of the nice traditions in our department is for one of the faculty to host a dessert social for visiting seminar speakers. After dinner at a local restaurant with a few colleagues, we repair to one of our homes for casual conversation. Many a visitor has commented on that personal touch. Gathering over dessert and wine in a home setting offers a chance to continue conversations started earlier in the day. Word has it that Norm never met a dessert he didn’t like. Given the chance to sample some sweets in collegial company, Norm is a regular at these socials, occasionally hosting them as well. In fall 1999, at one such social, I let on that I was starting to look for a house in Oberlin. Life was especially busy in those early years of teaching, thus I had seen only a few houses around town. Between swift bites of cheesecake, Norm asked me about my requirements. After patiently taking them in, along with a second helping, he said, "the house next to ours is going to be coming on the market, and it just might fit your needs." I saw the house a few weeks later, and sure enough, it fit the bill. I closed on it in January 2000, and we have been next-door neighbors since.

New Orleans
Back in 1996, Norm won the award, given annually by the American Chemical Society (ACS), for outstanding research at an undergraduate institution. I was finishing my postdoc in Seattle at the time, though I heard all about it when I came back on tenure track two years later. Most of the department went to the New Orleans meeting of the ACS to be there for the award ceremony. That season, Norm gave an address at Clemson University reflecting on his experiences, titled "The Joys and Trials of Doing Research with Undergraduates." An edited version of the address was reprinted in the Journal of Chemical Education, and since then, it has become a valuable reference for me. His hard earned lessons in the lab, with section titles such as "Seize the Summers," "Damn the Loose Ends," "Prefer the Lab," "Seek First Class Instrumentation," "Carve out Niches," and "Honor Your Students," have become guiding principles in my research efforts. The segment about instrumentation, pitched as an encouragement to go the extra mile to raise funds for first class instruments and not settle for hand-me-down units, helped fuel my decision to reach for a 600 MHz NMR instrument and to lead the effort to garner an NSF grant for the supercomputer. The advantages of having modern instruments in the building are obvious, yet they take extra effort on part of the faculty to seek outside funding. One of the many impressive things about Oberlin is the sustained effort of colleagues across the science division to bring cutting edge instruments to campus. The immediate beneficiaries, of course, are our students, who gain hands-on experience with modern techniques in their courses and in the research they do with the faculty.

Team Teaching
In Spring 2000, I team taught Chemistry 102 with Norm in the last semester of his 43-year-long teaching career. Back in those days, the introductory chemistry courses were team-taught, with one senior member as the anchor. The differential in our teaching experience made for an intimidating semester; however, I learned an immense amount about chemistry pedagogy. These days in the science center, we have moved away from the team teaching model, in favor of smaller sections with a single instructor. I miss those daily conversations about the subject material, the historical threads, the students, the curriculum, the labs, grading, assessment, and much more. Others who team-taught with Norm, including my friend and colleague Sarah Stoll, always remarked on his detailed observations and his gentle, constructive criticism. Last year, in April 2009, Norm generously offered to take over my Chem 102 section for two weeks while my wife and I traveled to India to meet our adopted daughter. In a most fitting twist, it was a special occasion for my students to be taught by the eponymous professor of the lecture hall in which the class met. In typical Norm fashion, even though he had taught that course for decades, he took nothing for granted. He began sitting in on the class a week before my departure to make sure the transition would be as smooth as possible. The irony of handing back the reins to my predecessor was not lost on me. I knew the students were in good hands.

Norm’s retirement symposium in Spring 2000 provided a rare opportunity for alumni and faculty across two generations to reflect on Norm’s influence. It was a memorable occasion. At the dinner, the department presented Norm with a book of letters from colleagues, alumni, and friends, which ran to three volumes. In my letter to Norm, I said:

"I can say with confidence that I would not be at Oberlin were it not for you. Back in 1993, when I began looking at a career at a small college, I was quite unsure of what faculty life would be like in a chemistry department. You were instrumental in bringing me to Oberlin when you were Chair in 1993 and when you announced your retirement in 1996. Through you I have seen scholarship at its very best, encompassing all dimensions, from teaching and research to dedication to the institution, department, colleagues, and to the students. I owe my presence at Oberlin to you.

"I thank you and admire you for leading by example. Your seriousness of purpose, unrelenting focus in both teaching and research, your sense of duty, curiosity, grace, and your belief in the educational process have been an inspiration to me all along. From the beginning, I have also appreciated the fact that you have made me feel included in the department’s activities. In your presence, I feel at once part of a long tradition and part of a future where I have the room to become the scholar I want to be.

"I have learned many things from you – too numerous to list here. Some have come from our many conversations, others from quietly watching you go about doing what you do so well. I feel, however, that I have only begun to scratch the surface of all that you know and all that you have to offer as a mentor. I have much more to learn from you. I feel deeply indebted and humbled in the knowledge that I am your successor in the Department. I can only hope that I will live up to the challenge.

"I wish you and Ann all the very best in your retirement, though please don’t be too far, because I am counting on you being around. Radhika and I are also looking forward to having you and Ann as our neighbors for a good many years."

When we speak of Norm’s retirement, we qualify it by saying that he has retired from teaching. In many other respects, especially in research, he is as active as ever. He continues to mentor students, publish papers at a prolific pace, present posters and talks at conferences, participate in national and international collaborations, garner external grants, and serve as a reviewer for scholarly journals. Norm has won more grants in the Dreyfus Foundation’s Senior Scientist Mentor Program than anyone else, including Nobel Prize winners. Though a coincidence, it was a special thrill for me to receive the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in the same year as Norm receiving his most recent Dreyfus grant. Norm’s research continues to adapt and evolve. In fact, since his retirement, Norm and his students have developed a whole new body of work in the area of semi-experimental equilibrium structures of substituted butadienes and hexatrienes. When the supercomputer was installed in summer 2005, Norm and his collaborators began using it to perform very high-level quantum chemical calculations using state-of-the-art techniques, as part of his research to determine equilibrium structures of molecules in the gas phase to an unprecedented level of accuracy. At that ultrahigh resolution, many subtle effects on molecular structure come to light. Norm continues to pursue active collaborations with scientists in Russia and Scotland, Washington State and Kent State, among other places.

This May, Norm received the Morley Medal, which is given annually by the Cleveland Section of the American Chemical Society. The award recognizes significant contributions to chemistry, for work performed in the vicinity of northeast Ohio. In the 45 years the award has been given, Norm will be its first recipient from a liberal arts college. Though the award is for an oeuvre over a scholarly career, I cannot help speculate that the body of work developed since his retirement may have contributed strongly to the award.

Drag Ball
A few years ago, a pair of shoes triggered my decision to attend drag ball. My wife and I were at a discount shoe outlet, and I happened to walk down an aisle of women’s shoes to take a short cut across the store. For some reason, a pair of shoes caught my eye, and I stopped to take a glance. I have been known to help my women friends buy shoes from time to time. By chance, not only did they look good and were in my size – but, they were marked down to a dollar! My wife knew that drag ball was coming up, and she convinced me to get the pair and a few accessories to go with it. That year, I walked the runway at Drag Ball, looking like an utter drag amateur, basking in the looks of shock among the students who managed to recognize me. In a moment of realization on the runway in Wilder Main, it hit me: "where else…but, where else?" The next day in lab, I blushed more than once at the smiles of affection from my students.

Compared with those early days on the faculty, my plate is now piled higher with greater responsibilities. I have served on elected faculty committees. I will become the chair of my department this summer. I teach and do research with Oberlin students. I am a husband, a father, a homeowner. I have finally come to accept the transition from goof to grownup. One day, my daughter will ask me to retell the tale of the drag ball for the hundredth time, and I will humor her yet again. As those heady, early years fade into memory, the serious day-to-day work of educating Oberlin students continues as vigorously as ever, punctuated by a little fun, inspired by the likes of Norm.

The not-so-ironic fact is that I wear men’s size 11 shoes and Norm size 13.