(Photo by Jason Smith)

Years of cheers

For five decades, Stuart Rice and his doctoral students have had great chemistry.

Crowded onto two high shelves in Stuart Rice’s Gordon Center office, above textbooks on physical chemistry and the kinetic theory of dynamic fluids, sit 107 empty champagne bottles, one for each student whose dissertation Rice has advised in his 54 years at Chicago. Names and dates, some sun bleached, are carefully written across the labels: J. Wenzel, Aug. 19, 1975; Hui Tang, Oct. 28, 1997; Derek Frydel, July 22, 2005. The oldest bottle on the shelf belongs to Robert Harris, SM’59, PhD’60, a chemistry professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who finished his doctorate in a year and a half. Rice’s most recent graduate is Alice Sheu, SM’03, PhD’08, a pianist who went on to earn a degree from Massachusetts’s Longy School of Music.

Rice, the Frank Hixson distinguished service professor emeritus in chemistry, displays the bottles as mementos of the parties that follow final PhD exams. After the corks are popped and the champagne poured—he prefers his dry—he keeps one bottle for himself and gives another to the graduating student. “So there are 107 bottles scattered around the world,” he says. They belong to named professors, physicists at national laboratories, experts in motion perception and heart arrhythmias and geothermal energy. Many are also Rice’s lifelong friends. “Graduate education is very much like creating a new family,” he says. The relationship between mentor and student “is not an abstract exercise in which someone goes through a set of steps following a set of rules. It’s much more intense, much more diverse, much more fluctuating than that.”

In the decades since Harris  graduated and Rice saved a champagne bottle with his name on it, the collection has become kind of a living chronicle. Each bottle is a story: Michael Lipkin, PhD’84, who became a floor trader on the American Stock Exchange and a bridge-playing expert; Oleh Weres, SB’72, PhD’72, who took the PhD candidacy exam as a College third-year and “came out on top of the whole field.” He received his graduate and undergraduate degrees on the same day, and “bless his heart,” Rice says, “a private ceremony was arranged in the president’s office, to give him his bachelor’s degree before his PhD.”

For Rice, the bottles denote achievement, both his students’ and his own. For those working toward their doctorates, they offer “a visual reminder,” he says, “that there has been a history of students here.”