The Robert J. Silbey Chemistry Education Office

Liz McGrath
October 25, 2013

Oct. 22 was a special day for the Department of Chemistry. On that day, the Chemistry Education Office was named for the late dean of science and professor of chemistry at MIT, Robert J. Silbey.

Not by coincidence, it was also the day the first of two A.D. Little Lectures in Physical Chemistry was delivered by Bruce Berne, the Higgins Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University — as Berne is a lifelong friend of the Silbey family.

Silbey and Berne attended school together in Brooklyn, and later carried out their graduate studies at the University of Chicago. They remained close friends up until Silbey’s death in 2011.

Before delivering his lecture, “The Role of Water in Molecular Recognition and in the Kinetics of Hydrophobic Assembly,” Berne spoke about Silbey’s illustrious career.

Berne described Silbey’s scientific accomplishments in electronic energy transfer in condensed phases, radiative properties of molecules near surfaces, and the physical origin of polymer conductivity. (He also shared his enjoyment of Silbey’s witty sense of humor.)

The lecture was held in Room 6-120, which was filled to capacity with current students and postdocs, along with Silbey’s former colleagues, students and postdocs, as well as friends and family.

At the conclusion of Berne’s lecture, the crowd gathered outside the recently refurbished and newly named Robert J. Silbey Chemistry Education Office, located in Room 6-205, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Presiding over the event were Sylvia T. Ceyer, the John C. Sheehan Professor of Chemistry and head of the chemistry department; Susan S. Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Silbey’s widow; and Theresa C. Kavanaugh, a former graduate student of Silbey’s and a partner at the Goodwin Procter law firm.  

Ceyer described how appropriate it was to dedicate the education office in Silbey’s name because of his extraordinary teaching talent, his devotion to his students, and the wonderful relationship he had with his colleagues.
 Kavanaugh, expressing enormous affection for her former advisor, referred to an amusing sign Silbey kept in his office that read, “Stop whining,” and his advice to act like an adult — “words of wisdom,” she said, “I draw on anytime I feel a whine coming on.”

Susan Silbey said her late husband would not approve of the honor of a dedicated office, but said it was a fitting tribute to a man who was so devoted to science and education. “The honor of the naming of this office is not for Bob,” she said, “it is for all his children — his academic children — and his daughters and grandchildren — who now know his memory will be honored in perpetuity.”

The education office is officially named The Robert J. Silbey Chemistry Education Office.