Friday, April 19, 2013

A grace note to end the week: the kindest thing any PI has done for you?

Towards the end of that Mitch Jacoby C&EN article on Professor Stang, a lovely story from a former graduate student:
One student, who completed his Ph.D. work with Stang in 1998, Bogdan Z. Olenyuk, also describes Stang as a dedicated adviser. “Peter always dropped what he was doing to make himself available, including on Saturday and Sunday mornings,” he says. 
But Olenyuk, who is a professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California, relates a personal story that characterizes Stang as an affectionate man who cares about the welfare of his students and their families, even after the students have moved on. 
As a graduate student, Olenyuk sent much of his monthly stipend to his family in Ukraine. His father died shortly before Olenyuk moved to Utah, and his mother was ill with cancer. Her condition worsened, and by 1999, a year after Olenyuk left Utah to do postdoctoral work, she needed a lung operation that was going to cost tens of thousands of dollars, which neither she nor her son could afford. 
“Peter learned about the situation and insisted on loaning me the money to pay for the medical expenses,” Olenyuk says. Stang was adamant about relieving his former student’s financial worries so that he could focus on finding a faculty position. “I’m very grateful to Peter for his help,” Olenyuk says. “This was no small gesture.”
Many, if not most, professors are more than willing to help with money, but I think we can agree that this is going above and beyond.

Looking back (and also, as I felt at the time), I had a great PI in grad school. Can't point to any one particular thing he did, but he was supportive and kind (and still is.)

What's the kindest thing a PI has ever done for you? For that matter, what's the kindest thing a boss has ever done for you?

UPDATE: From Twitter, a pretty cool one from Professor Tonks:


  1. Well, Stang is also an immigrant whose family probably lost everything and didn't have any money their first years in the United States. I doubt many other profs would feel comfortable making the relationship between grad student and adviser this 'personal'.

    It's pretty obvious he's easy to get along with though. When he came to our department and had the pizza lunch with students, and we annoyed him with questions of how to get our articles into jackass (I'm not telling; he gave some good tips actually), and someone kept asking him if he was German three times and ignoring the 'no' answer, he was still pretty good natured and entertained our foolishness.

    The best thing my PIs have done was probably hire me, tell me I did a good job on a presentation, said 'congratulations' when an article was accepted, helped write a grant that would pay for my position, and agreed to write reference letters. One of them took the group to a restaurant when I left and bought the food; and since I appreciate free food, it was a very big gesture. I did have a bit too much of the 'free beer' though, so I might have said something stupid during the 'party'. They all wanted to be like a 'typical' American adviser and keep the relationship professional.

  2. Stand out of my way when my project was working.

  3. When my twins were born, my PI gave me as much personal time as I needed, and told me repeatedly to try to get work done, but to put my family first. He has never complained about the hours I put in, and has always given good advice, both about chemistry and life in general.

  4. I've heard of several instances where PIs handed their grads small "stipend boosts" (usually $20-100, usually out of their own wallet) when the need arose. I actually watched it happen once, so I know it's not a legend.

  5. CoulombicExplosionApril 19, 2013 at 4:36 PM

    At Thanksgiving, my PI would invite into his home those students that lived too far away from their families to celebrate with their loved ones.

    My current boss similarly invited me over for Thanksgiving this year, realizing that I was living alone, the better part of a thousand miles from my family, such that I wouldn't be making the trip both at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

  6. Thanks to my PI for valuable lessons on management of associates, i.e., what doesn't work.

  7. I freaked out after my PI fired one of my labmates (a situation that could have been avoided with some management, IMHO), and wrote to one of my committee members. He was in Europe, visiting family, but took the time to video chat with me and calm me down.

  8. When I moved to Europe for a postdoc, my PI cosigned my apartment lease. When I moved back to the states for the second postdoc, my PI offered to let me stay in his home until I could arrange for my own housing.

  9. My adviser was a good guy but a story of professorial niceness that stayed with me was hearing that Jim Tour designed the Nanokids project because his grad student was losing interest in chemistry, and thinking more about art, so he tailored a project for her interests to keep her in the program. So seeing him flamed for trying to do a good turn for a student who might otherwise have dropped out always bugged me.