Introduction to an Exemplary Element of Our Doctoral Program:

Supergroups and Student-led Seminars

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Department of Chemistry

Description of "Supergroups" at Wisconsin

Many (if not most) of the research groups in the Wisconsin Chemistry Department participate in supergroups. These are weekly or monthly occurrences in which several groups meet to discuss either research results or topics in the chemical literature. The advantage of these groups is that they provide graduate students with more opportunities to present their research and to interact with professors other than their advisor.

In addition to the supergroups, there are two student-led seminar series in the departments. Moreover, graduate students organize the McElvain Seminars, in which academic and industrial speakers are invited to the department to give a seminar and to meet with students.


Most supergroups meet in the evening, and the atmosphere is very causal. Snacks and refreshments are often provided. One or more students (or postdocs) from a participating group present their research, and questions are asked by both students and professors. The students are usually in at least their second year of grad school.

The supergroups are organized by fields of research. Supergroups at Wisconsin are organized around the following subjects: organometallics, catalysis, organic synthesis, biophysics, and bioinorganic chemistry.

There are two student-led seminar series in the department - one organized by organic students (the Lincoln Seminars) and another by physical chemistry students. The speakers at these talks are grad students in the respective divisions. While professors often attend these talks, the students take the lead in asking questions and setting the schedule.

Likewise, the grad students are in charge of the McElvain Seminars, which exist for all divisions within the department. Each year, students nominate and invite one academic and one industrial speaker. If they accept, the selected speaker visits the campus to deliver a seminar and to interact with the grad students. Typically, this involves a lunch and dinner in which the students freely ask questions of the guest. It is important to note that the faculty are not involved in any aspect of the McElvain Seminars.

  • Educational Goals of the Supergroups and Student Seminars

    Firstly, by providing forums in which students can present their research on numerous occasions, we believe that these events create articulate scientists that are adept at communicating their results. Moreover, the McElvain and student-led seminars empower grad students to take an active role in their education, and we hope this provides a sense of "ownership" in the department.

    Finally, but most importantly, these events foster an intellectual community within the department, since they allow for interactions between research groups that may not exist otherwise.

    Does this work?

    Although we have never performed a rigorous evaluation of our supergroups or student seminars, anecdotal evidence suggests that they are very effective. Indeed, many alumni of our program have indicated that they were better prepared for their careers after graduate school because of the many chances they had to present their research while at Wisconsin.

    There is little doubt that these events create a more collegial and cohesive department. In particular, the supergroups allow students to be mentored by professors other than their advisor. They also gain an appreciation for the research performed in other groups, which broadens their scientific horizons.

    Reflection from a faculty member

    From Professor Charles P. Casey

    "My research group works in organometallic chemistry and has broad interest in both organic and inorganic chemistry. We take part in two different supergroups, one with three other organic chemistry research groups, and the other with three inorganic chemistry groups. My students benefit from explaining organometallic chemistry to people outside their immediate research area. They have to explain the relevance and details of their research to bio-inorganic chemists one week and to physical organic chemists the following week. This is a skill that serves them very well when applying for academic or industrial chemistry positions. The supergroup meetings also stretch us to understand other areas of science. The informal nature of the group meetings and the fact that we're not all supposed to be experts in the area being discussed combine to increase the willingness of graduate students to ask questions and participate in the discussions. We all feel that we benefit from the helpful suggestions that come out of the interactions during supergroup meetings. There are always refreshments after the meetings and students hang around and discuss the evening's seminar and all sorts of things. The meetings clearly help to build a sense of community beyond the individual research group. I find the meetings very valuable in getting to know students in other groups well enough that I can provide meaningful recommendations for job applications. Try supergroup meetings, you'll like them!"

    Reflection from a student

    From Brad Steinhoff, fifth-year graduate student in the lab of Shannon Stahl:

    "The supergroups are valuable because they give me a chance to present my research to people outside of my group. You get good feedback from the other professors, and the mood of the talks is non-threatening and informal. It's also interesting to hear about research in other labs. The talks prevent you from becoming too narrowly focused on your own field."

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