Low Plaza

Twenty-something Scholars Enjoy Early Success, Are Distinct Part of Columbia's History

By Jo Kadlecek

When 27-year-old Cory Cates goes each morning to work, he hugs his wife and two-year-old son good bye and walks a block from his apartment to the basement lab of Mudd Hall. There, the father, husband, church leader and former football player throws down his backpack and leaves his otherwise typical American lifestyle to join a small team of distinguished physicists searching for a new form of energy.

Cates is one of fewer than 2,000 physicists in the world who specialize in plasma fusion research. He spends his days ionizing gas, spinning it in the strong magnetic fields of a device called a tokamak, and hoping that within his son's lifetime, it will produce an abundant and clean source of energy with the potential to last for thousands of years. In fact, he and colleague Mikhail Shilo -- both Ph.D. candidates under the direction of professors Gerald Navratil and Michael Mauel of applied physics and mathematics -- were the first to demonstrate that the unstable high-pressure plasmas required for an efficient fusion reactor can be stabilized with a metal wall and active feedback.

Not bad for a guy who hasn't even reached his 30th birthday.

At a time in their lives when many young people are visiting career service centers to decide what to do, Cates is part of what the Chronicle of Higher Education reports as only nine percent of the United States population who have earned graduate degrees. He is also part of an even smaller number of other 20-something scholars in the University's history who -- like historian Jacques Barzun -- attained early success in their academic careers and went on to make valuable contributions throughout their lives.

Cates knew by the time he graduated from college in Oklahoma what he wanted -- and didn't want -- to do. "I chose this because I wasn't really interested in astrophysics or trying to figure out how a black hole works," Cates says. "I wanted tangible applications, and was interested in fusion. Columbia's program under Professors Navratil and Mauel offered that. They're really good scientists and being here [in a smaller program], we get a broader scope of the experiment that makes it easier in the future to cross over into other sub-specialties of plasma research."

Other young scholars did not come to Columbia with such specific interests but after taking particular courses, soon discovered them.

Lauren F. Winner, for instance, was excelling in her history and religion courses as an undergraduate student so much so that Randall Balmer, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religion at Barnard and Columbia, later asked Winner to co-author a book for the Contemporary American Religion series published by Columbia University Press. When Winner agreed, she became the youngest contracted author in the publishing history of CU Press.

Now the 25-year-old Ph.D. candidate from Virginia will see her first academic book, "Protestantism in America," published even before her dissertation is completed. Winner, whose memoir also will be published in the fall by Algonquin Press, hopes to continue her academic work in religion and history, largely because of her experiences with Columbia and with Balmer.

"It's exciting for me to be a part of this series on religion," Winner says. "Randall is a model of a scholar who's managed to write for a much broader audience without sacrificing the academic or intellectual integrity of his work. I've hoped to do the same by learning from him."

Such academic commitment can also be found in 20-something scholars across disciplines. When Mathematics Assistant Professor Linda Chen received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago at 26 years old, she was the first person in her family to earn such a degree. Though she had been accepted to law school, she decided instead to "try the math thing."

Shortly after finishing her doctoral work, she landed her first teaching job at Columbia as part of the Vertical Integration of Research and Education program (VIGRE) funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation. VIGRE's goal is to offer mathematical training that is better aligned with contemporary scientific needs and job opportunities for mathematicians at all levels.

The 28-year-old mathematician believes her success, however, has come not because she set out to teach at an Ivy League school but simply because she likes math.

"If you have exterior goals, you might not get that far, especially in math," Chen says. "If my goal is to prove this or publish that, it's usually counterproductive. But if you just decide to work on something to see what will happen, I think that's what brings success. Math is not about numbers; it's a creative process."

Chen hopes in five years she'll be doing the same thing she's doing now: teaching and research. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

"I don't want to jinx anything," Chen says. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing and if you like what you're doing, the goal isn't the thing."

Chen is one of 41 full-time faculty under age 30 currently employed by Columbia, according to Stephen Rittenberg, vice provost for academic administration. Though the average age for Columbia's faculty is 47, the appointments of 20-something scholars reflect a range of expertise: two in humanities, five in social sciences, 10 in natural sciences, seven in business, five in engineering, seven in clinical health sciences, two in nursing, and one each in law, dental and oral surgery, and the American Language Program, respectively. Barnard also has three full time faculty still in their 20s, one in political science, one in chemistry and another in French.

University officials, however, have never made a formal policy of hiring young scholars. "Our commitment is to appointing the best faculty talent, regardless of age," said Rittenberg.

"We don't have a specific commitment to hiring younger professors," says David Cohen, vice president of Arts and Sciences. "What we are looking for is a sound balance in each department. Some departments have too high a proportion of tenured faculty, and in those cases we stress junior, untenured hiring. Other departments have insufficient representation of young seniors, the next leaders, and in those cases we focus on that group. Still others need to recruit highly visible, established seniors."

Regardless of such departmental diversity, young scholars like Chen are in good company in Columbia's history. Ann Douglas, Parr Professor of Comparative Literature, for instance, was 28-years old when she became the first woman ever to teach in the English department at Princeton. Four years later in 1974 she received a Bicentennial Preceptorship from Princeton for distinguished teaching the same year she joined Columbia's faculty where she's taught ever since. Douglas's sincere love for learning has kept her scholarship youthful and vigorous, making her courses arguably some of the most popular on campus.

Another popular legend among 20-something scholars is cultural historian and University Professor Emeritus, Jacques Barzun, now 95, who began teaching at Columbia the same year he graduated -- 1927 -- when he was 20 years old. He earned his PhD in 1932, served as dean of faculties and provost from 1958 to 1967 and has authored 30 books over the past 65 years. Though he recently moved to San Antonio, Texas, Barzun continues to lecture today.

When he was only 25 years old, Michael I. Sovern, President Emeritus and Kent Professor in the School of Law, joined the Law School faculty and in 1960, at the age of 28, became the youngest full professor in the modern history of Columbia. Though he was proud of his scholarship and achievements, Sovern found turning 30 a bit intimidating and wondered if he would be able to continue the measure of success he had already achieved.

"I had a sense [at 30] that now is when it really begins to count," Sovern admits. "Then I realized that if I just kept doing what I was doing, I'd be fine. And what I was doing was what I really enjoyed."

Consequently, Sovern distinguishes between recognition and the achievement that leads to recognition, noting that the achievements are what matter most. He believes that most young people who achieve early success were likely to have attained success regardless of when it happened.

Such accomplishments might also be linked to particular academic fields, suggests Barnard President Judith Shapiro who earned her Ph.D. from Columbia in anthropology and then became the first woman hired in the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago when she was 28-years old.

Shapiro considers her own experience merely a "normal progression" on the academic track. In today's world, however, she suggests that on the one hand, dynamics for young scholars have changed, referring specifically to the thinning job market, and the time taken between degree programs. On the other hand, Shapiro wonders why we should be trying to "front-load our lives and consolidate our careers early" since medical advances are prolonging our lives.

"Maybe the better question is to think what we can contribute in our longer lives, and realize that we don't have to cram an entire life into a single decade," she says.

Regardless of what drives young scholars like Cates and these others to become experts in their fields, "aging prodigies" like Sovern -- as he calls himself -- advises them to keep enjoying what they're doing.

"The best years are still ahead," he says.

Published: Apr 26, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002


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