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Hundreds of students savor newly minted PhDs at ceremony

Family and friends turned out in force to honor the more than 500 students who received their ceremonial doctoral degree hoods in the investiture ceremony in Rockwell Cage last Thursday.

Tradition has it that the velvet-lined hoods were once used, among other things, to collect alms. Vice President for Research and Dean for Graduate Education J. David Litster said that professors may have at one time been paid for their lectures by students depositing money into their hoods.

At MIT's hooding ceremony, graduates and their guests got an impromptu demonstration that this could actually work. On the stage before the hooding ceremony for more than 500 degree recipients, President Charles Vest tossed coins to Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education Isaac M. Colbert, who, to the delight of the audience, skillfully caught them in the pouch of his hood.

Among the doctorate recipients was Sheree L. Stokes, 26. She is the fourth African-American woman to receive a PhD in chemistry from MIT in its 123-year history.

A native of Baltimore, Dr. Stokes said she first became interested in chemistry when a dynamic high school teacher sparked her interest in the subject. She graduated from the College of Notre Dame in Maryland before joining the PhD program at MIT in 1993.

Dr. Stokes, who hopes to become a professor, said she will apply for academic appointments from a postdoc-toral position at General Electric in Schenectady, NY. She described her five-year PhD program as the end of a lot of hard work and also the beginning of a career.

"I like making things. It's a way to be creative," she said of her field of inorganic chemistry.

The previous black women PhD recipients in chemistry are Sharon Haynie (1981), Cheryl Debose (1984) and Lynda Jordan (1995), an assistant professor of chemistry at North Carolina A&T State University who is a Martin Luther King Visiting Professor in Chemistry at MIT this year.

Although Dr. Stokes didn't know the exact numbers, she said she was well aware that not many black women are in the field. "You definitely notice when there aren't a lot of people who look like you," she said.

Professor Christopher "Kit" Cummins said he considers Dr. Stokes his first graduate student because when she visited MIT for the first time as a prospective student, she told him that she wanted to work for him.

"I appreciated that, because I was a starting assistant professor -- a fact that, because of the many uncertainties, often scares students away. All the students who joined up with me were willing to take that considerable gamble.

"In Sheree's case, it seems to be paying off handsomely. While working in my group, Sheree studied the synthesis and coordination chemistry of new iron complexes. Her discovery of an N-N bond forming reaction involving nitric oxide (NO) and iron complexes was, perhaps, the highlight of her thesis.

"I have enjoyed thoroughly my association with the newly minted Dr. Stokes and expect that a person with her enthusiasm for science and skill in synthetic inorganic chemistry will go far," Professor Cummins said.

Dr. Stokes and her fianc���, fellow chemistry PhD recipient Florian J. Schattenmann, met during the second semester of their first year in the program. "We're very proud of each other," he said, as he embraced her after the ceremony. The wedding is scheduled to be held in New Jersey two weeks after graduation.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 10, 1998.

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