What have graduate students created?
February 23, 2017 10:09 AM   Subscribe

What wouldn't exist now, if not for grad students? I would like to compile a massive list of high-profile or notable creations -- from inventions, to ideas, to works of art -- that were conceptualized or created by Masters/JD/MD/Ph.D seekers during their graduate education.

What wouldn't exist now, if not for graduate and professional students? I would like to compile a list of high-profile or notable inventions, algorithms, companies, insights, policies, treatments, and works of art that were conceptualized or created by Masters/Ph.D seekers during graduate school. If possible, I would like to know what state/country this happened. Any additional context about metrics about the impact of these works -- whether that impact is financial, political, etc. -- would be gravy.

One example I can come up with off the top of my head: Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both Ph.D candidates, who met and developed the idea that would eventually become Google.
posted by nicodine to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I believe Dirac proposed antimatter in his dissertation, which is pretty foundational to modern physics, and by transfer a whole lot of 20th century science and technology.

(edited to correct "thesis" to "dissertation," which I think is more correct)
posted by the phlegmatic king at 10:16 AM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Claude Shannon's master's thesis was his really world-changing work, not his Ph.D. work in genetics (although there is a theory that this is because we just aren't advanced enough to understand it yet).
posted by nonane at 10:18 AM on February 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The human genome was first assembled and published by a team at UCSC, the work primarily done by graduate student Jim Kent.
posted by procrastination at 10:45 AM on February 23, 2017

Freenet was started as a student project.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:47 AM on February 23, 2017

Best answer: I'm not sure if they wouldn't have been discovered without her, but Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars while a graduate student at Cambridge. It was really important work in Astrophysics for which a Nobel Prize was awarded.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:47 AM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Timely since he just died, but Kenneth Arrow is widely known (and ultimately awarded a Nobel Prize) for the "Impossibility Theorem" results of his PhD thesis.
posted by El_Marto at 10:47 AM on February 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mike Bostock created the D3.js ('Data Driven Documents') library whilst a grad student supervised by Jeff Heer at Stanford; he then dropped out to work at the New York Times. D3 is the dominant tool for creating interactive information visualisations on the web.

Hadley Wickham created the reshape and ggplot2 libraries for R whilst a graduate student at Iowa State University.

The impact of D3 and ggplot2 as tools to increase the productivity of other researchers has been huge.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 10:49 AM on February 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Turing introduced ordinal logic in his PhD dissertation.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:49 AM on February 23, 2017

The Hellmann-Feynman theorem was proved in a student work.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:54 AM on February 23, 2017

Bill Labov basically founded the modern field of sociolinguistics with his dissertation, which looked at variation in New York City English.

He showed that language variation within communities is not random, but systematic, and more importantly, that this variation reflects larger social categories like race, gender, class, etc.
posted by damayanti at 11:00 AM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Nash equilibrium was developed as a graduate student.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:02 AM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Usenet ... "A Piece of Internet History: Duke to shut Usenet server, home to the first electronic newsgroups" explains the role played by two Duke grad students, though it barely mentions the UNC grad student.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:17 AM on February 23, 2017

On a large scale continuing basis, virtually all of the legal scholarship being done today, and historically, is published by student-run law journals at law schools. Law review articles, including student-written "notes", are cited regularly in Supreme Court and other opinions.
posted by janey47 at 11:32 AM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another example from quantum mechanics: Louis de Broglie extended the idea of wave-particle duality (previously applied to photons to explain phenomena such as the spectrum of blackbody radiation and the photoelectric effect) to apply to matter in his Ph.D. thesis.
posted by egregious theorem at 11:48 AM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

From the arts side, most MFA programs that I know of require the student to produce a substantive piece (or pieces) of work in order to get the degree. Example: For an MFA in creative writing, I was required to produce a book-length manuscript of poems. The fiction writers in our program had to put together a book-length collection of short stories.

The exact requirements vary depending on the university and the discipline. But there would be requirements for visual arts, theater (acting, writing, directing), film, dance, etc. of similar weight in terms of time spent.
posted by tuesdayschild at 12:23 PM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A grad student recently discovered a lost novel by Walt Whitman. I was irritated that the New York Times didn't give his name - just said "a grad student" - then quoted a professor who was a Whitman scholar. But NPR named him.
posted by FencingGal at 12:36 PM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a grad student at Harvard, Stan Tabor cloned a mutated DNA polymerise in the 80s that was the fist enzyme marketed commercially for high fidelity DNA sequencing (Sequenase). He is now on the faculty at Harvard and continues to publish with his PhD advisor Dr. Richardson. They both were advisors to the company that sold Sequenase, US Biochemical, and made millions.
posted by waving at 12:39 PM on February 23, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far! To clarify, I'd like to emphasize the "high profile, notable" things that would be generally valued by a person without a degree, who's just going about their everyday lives and has paid attention to the news now and then. The first assembling of the human genome is a particularly great example.

My goal is to justify graduate education for the sake of graduate education to the public. I'd like to demonstrate how the public benefits from investing in graduate work itself. I'm a science Ph.D myself, and am fully aware that we do necessary and original work in the pursuit of our degrees! I just know that my grad work won't form the basis of the next Uber for Google, so I want other examples of things others have done that are over-the-top astounding in their impact.
posted by nicodine at 12:49 PM on February 23, 2017

Best answer: The Atlanta Beltline, an urban planning/transit project, was originally Ryan Gravel's graduate thesis.
posted by fifthpocket at 12:51 PM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Marc Andreessen was a mere undergraduate research assistant at UIUC when he and Eric Bina developed Mosaic, the first graphical web browser to gain popularity and which played a role in the move toward the Web as we understand it today.
posted by drlith at 1:04 PM on February 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd urge caution here.

Gates dropped out of school, so did many other tech icons. We have a zillion paths to making new computer toys, hundreds of ultra-rich corporations dumping billions into R&D, and we'd have still make plenty of gee-wiz inventions and awesome consumer goods if all grad students magically died tomorrow.

Utilitarianism is a dangerous path to take for justifying academic endeavors. Sure, lots of academics have made lots of cool shit that uncle Joe has heard of, but most of them never will. The problem is, you can't know ahead of time how productive or useful to the general public a certain line of research might be.

And as soon as you bring a strong utilitarian approach to the table, you open the door to "What has Classics ever done for me, personally? Nothing? We should disband the classics department. What are these cosmologists up to? They will certainly never make anything cool for me to use! While we're at it, nobody needs paleontologists either, they don't make anything useful" I think you see what I'm getting at.

If our reasons for supporting graduate school were to get things like Google or Uber, then the conclusion of this analysis would be to shut them all down, immediately.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:23 PM on February 23, 2017 [10 favorites]

There are lots of stories about MBA students who created some novel idea for project, had it rejected or declared unsound by a professor, and who then used that idea to create a successful business.I think there was one about aircraft leasing, and perhaps one about shared aircraft ownership, NetJets-style.

One example I found online was Roger MacGregor of MacGregor Yacht Corporation.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:32 PM on February 23, 2017

Best answer: Maya Lin was a grad Art student when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.
posted by evenolderthanshelooks at 8:06 PM on February 23, 2017

The basic ideas behind Sergey Brin and Larry Page's PageRank algorithm, on which Google was based, were developed by them when they were working on their PhDs at Stanford.
posted by forza at 1:08 AM on February 24, 2017

omg I just realised you mentioned Brin and Page IN YOUR QUESTION. yes I'm an idiot
posted by forza at 1:09 AM on February 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

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