Recent University of Chicago Chemistry Graduate Confesses She Turned to Arson.--

There has been an arrest of a suspect, Julita Groszko, in a recent string of fires in my neighborhood. Groszko is a recent University of Chicago college graduate, who repotedly confessed to setting fires mostly to math and science buildings at the University. The possible motives could have been her difficulties in completing her studies and in getting a job after graduation:

Chicago police say 31-year-old Julita Groszko, a former student who graduated last spring has been charged with aggravated arson, aggravated attempted arson, and criminal damage to property. They also say she admitted her role in setting the fires: one on Monday and three on Tuesday. Those were primarily in Math and Science buildings -- Groszko's field of study.

According to officers, witnesses talked about seeing a woman behave erratically in the buildings and gave a pretty good description of her.

On Wednesday a University of Chicago officer who kept his eyes open saw a woman who matched the description and he smelled accelerant as she passed by. When he stopped her, investigators say she had a gasoline can with what appeared to be an accelerant.

As for motive, police say she was stressed out about not finding a job and about the workload that went into her undergraduate chemistry degree.

"She was having a rough time getting through. She actually did end up graduating. Apparently maybe after she graduated she realized that maybe she shouldn't 've had as rough of a time as she had and she took it out on somebody," Detective Kevin Flanigan of the Chicago Police Department Bomb and Arson Squad said.

Another story on her motive:

Bomb and Arson detective said Kevin Flanigan said Groszko set the fires because she was "upset with the university" in general.

NBC5's Darren Kramer reported that the woman told police she was "overworked" as a student and unable to find a job as a graduate.

"She struggled" with her workload during her time at the university and the act was like getting "revenge" for the university's failure to go easy on her, Flanigan said.

Groszko enrolled in the fall of 1993, and left the university in the spring of 1996, according to Larry Arbeiter, director of communications for the university. She returned in the fall of 2004 and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry in the spring of 2005, Arbeiter said.

Well, my wife is a Chemistry graduate of the University of Chicago--and it was harder than my being a Poli-Sci student at Yale.

Perhaps it's just as well that I lit the fire in our fireplace last night.

Chemistry at U of C is harder than poli-sci at Yale? Now there's a shocker...
11.18.2005 2:58pm
tefta (mail):
Jim, perhaps your courses seemed harder because you were swimming against the tide of the received wisdom of your department.
11.18.2005 3:05pm
Cornellian (mail):
Geez, come on, I know chemistry is a real subject where you actually have to learn something (as opposed to, e.g. "diversity studies") but we are talking an undergrad degree, not a Ph.D., not even a Master's degree. I'm having a hard time seeing how her workload would have been a causus belli. And if she thinks arson is going to enhance her job prospects, well let's just say that kind of logic might explain why should found chemistry to be such a challenging undergrad major.
11.18.2005 3:11pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I think she's just a patsy, that it was really Drezner, more bitter than he lets on about the whole tenure thing. He just picked science and math to throw people off the scent.
11.18.2005 3:12pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
And yes, that was a joke.

I'm guessing that if she took a decade off before finishing, it's probably indicative of more personal problems than merely finding chemistry difficult.
11.18.2005 3:13pm
John Armstrong (mail):
I agree heartily. I always find myself laughing when undergrads complain about academic stress or job prospects.

Let them try working for minimum wage (if you keep yourself to only 40 hours a week, which nobody does) at the risk of being kicked out for any number of reasons, having to think up something essentially new and being able to prove that it is. Then let them have to find a job with little to no support or training in any of the real-world skills involved in said job.
11.18.2005 3:27pm
I understand:
I'd venture to say that the level of intellectual competition, academic rigor, correlation of grades with future career prospects, and general stress is (on average) higher in the natural sciences than in any other department, even on the undergraduate level.

As as far as education v. real world - yeah, I hear the argument all the time that it's tougher in the real world. And it is. But let's be real: I see a lot of people, including successful business persons, putzing around a lot. The real world can be bad, but for most people, most of the time, it isn't pull-your-hair-out-bad. Stop the pity party.
11.18.2005 3:38pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

I'd venture to say that the level of intellectual competition, academic rigor, correlation of grades with future career prospects, and general stress is (on average) higher in the natural sciences than in any other department, even on the undergraduate level.
Yeah, way higher. I originally majored in chemistry, before I ran out of money and had to drop out.

When I went back to college some years later (since I was now making enough money to afford to get an education), I was majoring in computer science, because that's what I did for a living.

Eventually, I changed my major to history, because I could take two history classes, get an A in both--and it would take about 1/2 the time of a single computer science class.

The natural sciences and math are hard--because they involve verifiable truths. History, political science, and the rest of the mush subjects are really, really easy.
11.18.2005 4:11pm
Houston Lawyer:
There seems to be a fairly steady stream of disillusioned grad student types going postal over the years. Seems like an opportunity for another doctoral thesis describing (or at least an attempt at naming) this syndrome.
11.18.2005 4:21pm
E S Cioe (mail) (www):
I had a class cancelled on Tuesday because Ryerson Hall was on fire (or, more precisely, had a fire in it).

We didn't really laugh much when we found out it was one of our own that did it. I mean, even as a freshman here, I have friends that are in four classes, two of which have four or five hour labs for them. I guess we just thought it was typical and very ironic.

What the police report left out - and this is the scariest part - was that a door in a building of our Div School was aflame. The religious imagery is frightening.

As to the real-world v. academic world argument - I shelve books at D'Angelo Law Library at the Chicago Law School. I look forward to my ten hours of work each week, because it is ten hours of something that I am good at. Being good at classes, especially at this school, is pretty difficult.
11.18.2005 4:28pm
Anthony (mail):
Houston Lawyer - what adviser would support that, given the risk that a grad student having difficulties would have lots of documentation from which to choose copycat crimes?
11.18.2005 4:38pm
Good point, ESC -- I was in GenChem, and I didn't find the subject inherently any harder than my Syntax classes or having to memorise a metric assload of Chinese characters. I dropped out because, well, it was fucking boring -- too much work for too little personal gain. I know I ought to be interested in what makes the physical world go 'round, but let's face it: nowing that something is "interesting" and being interested in it are two different stories. The difficulty of a subject (and consequently, how good you are at it) is based on more than the amount of memorization required or level of mental abstraction or obtuseness. You have to factor in whether you have a personal interest and motivation, if you're inclined to think you can or can't do it, and whether or not you have the wherewithal to put in the amount of time. Thing is, I know alot of people here who really love chemistry -- and chem classes kill them, because all the people who take their sweet time learning shit make the professors think that three 45 min lectures, one 30 min discussion section, a 3-5 hour lab, and an insane amount of homework are necessary to learn the material. Make a guy who loves chem feel obligated to be in my sytax class, and they'd probably take that much time to do the work too.

jesus, that was off-topic.

But yeah, I was working a conference last year, and this nutty 50-something crossdressing former undergrad was walking around with a teddybear sweatshirt on scaring all the linguists... It's something about this place, man. Just so dark and falling apart and intense... *shudders*. Still, I wouldn't trade it for the world. Maybe that makes me crazy.
11.18.2005 4:49pm
Half Canadian (mail):
Sheesh. I'm mad at my alma matter too, but I just refuse to send contributions.
Ya think that if I set a few fires that I could get back some of my tuition? You'd think a chem major could follow that kind of logic.
11.18.2005 5:02pm
Michael Patrick Gibson (mail):
[2 sentences deleted by Moderator.] U of C has such a strange campus. On the one hand, a quad of gothic grandure. On the other, a library and other science buildings in the style of "brutalism" because it brutalizes your bourgois expectations of beauty. Instead, I always thought they looked like plastics factory buildings. Or the upside down cement Ziggaurat that is the library. It's probably flame resistant though.
11.18.2005 6:39pm
Splunge (mail):
In case anyone gives a damn, the reason chemistry, especially undergraduate chemistry, is unusually difficult is that it consists of teaching a host of deceptively simple effects that stem from fiendishly sophisticated causes, e.g. even basic chemical bonding principles are a direct reflection of the restrictions imposed by quantum mechanics. Hybridization, that bizarre neither fish nor fowl, stems from the formal equivalence of all basis sets spanning a Hilbert space. But you can't say that.

If it's any consolation, I promise you it's even harder to teach, at least, to teach well. One is driven sometimes almost to a fugue state, because there is no way to explain why even a fairly simple result obtains except as the curiously simple end result of an absurdly complex chain of concepts.

For example, the reason why salt crystals dissolve in water, and more salt dissolves the hotter the water is. You can't really understand why, in the usual way we want to understand things, without some kind of decent understanding of how microscopic reversibility might become macroscopic irreversibility, a topic which kept even Ludwig Boltzmann up nights, scowling.

Because of the necessity for teaching all these effects, and *some* understanding of their origin, but avoiding any serious examination of the complex and interlinking causes, teaching or learning chemistry early on is a lot like trying to understand the plot and characters of a movie by jumping in at some random midpoint, and then scanning back and forth rapidly to try to piece together the action. It can be very frustrating to people who are smart but like nice orderly structures built one brick upon another. They feel like it is somehow unnecessarily hard to grasp, like if only it could be turned inside out or upside down, it would be more straightforward.

This may be why (caution: Larry Summers moment comin' up) women do unusually well in it, by the comparison to other "hard" natural sciences like physics or math. The nonlinearity of chemistry does not seem to bollix up their brains as much as it does those of the men.
11.18.2005 7:35pm
Not too surprising, the UofC's chem department has always been very hard. My undergrad experience with Chem was brutal - back in those days it was seen as a way to reduce the number of would-be pre-meds. As a school also used to boast that we had the highest number of suicide's per capita.

I did notice she was 31 and had just gotten her undergraduate chem degree - there may be more "life events" involved in this story than just bitterness at school.
11.18.2005 7:47pm
Been There Done That:
I took organic chemistry as an undergraduate, and now, in law school, I LAUGH at people who think that law is hard.
11.18.2005 10:33pm
Justin (mail):
Al Queda does much worse. This clearly isn't criminal. We should give her a medal.

Oh wait, wrong thread.
11.18.2005 11:28pm
Although chem here is a bit hard, it's not worth setting Kent or Ryerson on fire... I fail to see the logic in what she did, it's not like arson is something that will boost your resume. It's probably a combination of personal problems and the ridiculous stress at UofC. But like NDK said (haha I actually wrote your name in here but I figured you included only your initials for a reason), I wouldn't trade it for the world either. Insanity, that's what it is. God bless the UofC, where everyone's an atheist... haha, irony *snickers*. OK, well it was nice writing incoherent comments but I've got to get started on my chem homework. Oops I just dropped my lighter...
11.19.2005 12:17am
I'm with David M. Nieporent: You don't do something like this unless a lot more is wrong with you than academic stress.
11.19.2005 5:13am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I enjoyed the comments here about chemistry, esp. those from someone actually teaching the subject. Of all the natural sciences, I disliked Biology because of dissection. I still have bad memories from pithing a frog in high school. But Chemistry was almost as bad. As pointed out, it involved serious memorization without learning really the why of it, plus a lot of labs that I was never that good at. In short, a lot of work, and little actual understanding.

I much preferred Physics and Math. Both are conceptual. Learning the why is what is important, and if you can do that, neither is that much work, esp. in comparison with Chemistry. The labs in Physics always seemed more like they were there because you had to have labs in a physical science, and not because you really were learning anything. And, indeed, a friend of mine who taught Physics at a major university for a decade before becoming bored and moving to CS says that Experimental Physicists were those who couldn't get jobs in Theory. (He obviously considered himself in the later category).

As for Clayton's comments about CS, I never found the homework to be a problem. Yes, if you are taking a full load of CS courses, you can expect to work 12-16 hours a day. But that has been my hobby for 35 years now, and it never seemed that bad. After Chemistry though, my least favorite courses were engineering. Not the theory, of course, but rather, the mind numbing drudgery of the homework. At least in CS classes, I was creating something. Software is really where my creative urges are satisfied. Not so in EE, running another circuit analysis. And another. And another, with just different parameters (And the computer programs that I wrote to do it didn't count).
11.19.2005 10:52am
Zargon (mail):
When he stopped her, investigators say she had a gasoline can with what appeared to be an accelerant.

Are we sure she wasn't just persuing an applied reseach grant?
11.19.2005 2:08pm
Carl (mail):
I think this was faked by university officials to keep our street cred up. It's been about 3 years since our last suicide, and without some form of mental instablility at Chicago in the news we will look like we are losing our edge.

Seriously though, maybe some of you were 20 at some point, but Chicago is a really stressful place if you are something other than a history or polisci major. It's non-stop work, crappy weather, bad grades, and an area without much to do. It gets to you after a while.
11.19.2005 3:40pm
I just finished my BA in Economics after a 25 year hiatus. I started out as a biochemistry major. Physical Chemistry blew that idea right out of the water; my math wasn't good enough. Oddly enough, when I was there in the late 70's, I worked in the Library as a fire marshall to keep watch for fires an arsonist was setting in the stacks. Nothing changes I guess. Well, the mascot is a Phoenix, after all.

And students now complain about the UC work load and "conservative" grade point averages just as they did 25 years ago.
11.20.2005 2:41pm