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Graduate Education


Celebrating eccentric chemistry graduation traditions

by Andrea Widener
June 3, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 23


A green uranium glass elephant given by Anne Gordon to her student Charmaine Tutson for her graduation.
Credit: Phoenicia Robinson
Special surprise: Gorden’s student got a uranium glass elephant for her graduation.

Ah, graduation season. The caps and gowns, the seemingly endless ceremonies, the backyard celebrations for family and friends.

For Ph.D. chemists, there are different graduation traditions that unite people who spent many—maybe too many—hours in the lab together. A Twitter query from @cenmag in December asked what traditions chemists have to celebrate this momentous occasion.

Three bottles of beer with special lables made as a graduation gift.
Credit: Kyle Plunkett
Beer memories: Plunkett makes his students their own batch of home-brewed beer.

Not surprisingly, alcohol featured in many of the festivities. Several labs ask graduates to sign commemorative champagne bottles—after they consumed the contents, of course. Mark Lorch of the University of Hull remembers that his graduate lab would allow everyone to fire a champagne cork at the ceiling and then sign the mark it left behind.

“During the duller moments of the post-grad degree one would gaze upwards and select the spot you wanted on the ceiling,” he says.

It’s a lucky student who graduates from Kyle Plunkett’s lab at Southern Illinois University. Plunkett is an amateur brewmaster, and he makes a batch of beer to honor each freshly minted graduate. He and his student each get a bottle with a custom label featuring their picture together and the date. But don’t worry: The remaining beer doesn’t go to waste. “The rest is for a departmental kegger/graduation party,” he says.

Graduates from Steven Wheeler’s group at the University of Georgia get a glass from a local bar, signed by everyone in the group. In a generous gesture, “we usually wash it before we give it to the student,” he says.

Eric Schelter and student Lukman Solola, who is holding a piece of vintage uranium glass.
Credit: Eric Schelter
Radiating love: Schelter and his student Lukman Solola with his vintage uranium glass prize

C&EN’s own social media maven, Dorea Reeser, says that those moving on from her graduate school group received an engraved mug. But worse, they had to sing a solo—in public!

Humiliation isn’t uncommon with graduation traditions. In the lab of Marcel Swart at the University of Girona, each new diploma holder receives funny posters mocking the lucky graduate. One featured a student in the role of Walter White on “Breaking Bad.” For his part, Swart gifts them a copy of his book, “Spin States in Biochemisty and Inorganic Chemistry.”

Research-themed gifts are particularly popular. Among the uranium-studies crowd, radioactive gifts are chosen to show that special glow of pride. University of Pennsylvania professor Eric Schelter gives his students a piece of vintage uranium glass. Auburn University’s Anne Gorden lets her students select either green uranium glass or a piece of radioactive orange Fiestaware. A recent graduate, Charmaine Tutson, got a “hot” elephant because she likes the animals and they’re her sorority’s symbol.

At Boston University, Sean Elliott gifts each student a book wrapped with festive paper featuring beautiful ribbon structures of his or her work. Geoff Hutchison’s graduates at the University of Pittsburgh also get a physical representation of their research­—a 3-D-printed molecule that they worked on. Oh, and champagne. And cake. What is a graduation without cake?

A 3D printed rendering of a substituted [6]helicene.
Credit: Geoffrey Hutchison
Plastic pride: Hutchison gave student Christopher Marvin this 3-D-printed molecule.

Andrea Widener wrote this week’s column. Please send comments, suggestions, and graduation traditions to

CORRECTION: This article was updated on June 6, 2018, to correct the spelling of Anne Gorden’s name.


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