Some Thoughts on the UCLA/Harran/Sangji Case

December 29th, 2011

Jyllian Kemsley has a post that summarizes all of the coverage and commentary on the UCLA/Harran news. Her blog is undoubtedly the best place to follow developments in this story. The case has so many component issues that one could easily write 20,000 words and still not feel the subject has been properly analyzed. Instead of doing that, let me start off with some preliminary thoughts:

I am not a lawyer. I am almost completely unfamiliar with California labor law and OSHA requirements for how employers must ensure safe laboratory conditions for their employees. Harran may have broken the law; he may not have. I can’t render a reliable opinion of his prospective guilt with regard to the charges.

Severity of charges. While I’m not a lawyer, I think I’m entitled to a loose opinion of what makes sense in this case. The idea that Harran faces up to 4.5 years in prison seems excessive to me, especially when you consider that Harran probably oversaw the safety of his lab in a manner typical of most top-flight professors. Is the state of California going to attempt to imprison every professor whose students don’t wear lab coats, or just the professors who happen to be at the helm when an accidental death occurs?

Punishment. While I believe that a prison term would not be warranted for a conviction in this case, there must be some serious punishment for failing to maintain a safe laboratory work environment. Lack of holding management responsible for running unsafe labs is probably one major reason the culture of academic safety is broken. For the most part, states have left schools to police themselves with regard to safety, and guess what…schools (id est, faculties…id est, professors) don’t impose any meaningful punishments on themselves. With respect to Harran, I think the charges should be “wobbled” down to misdemeanors that can draw smaller fines (in the thousands, not millions) and a shorter suspended sentence (if Harran is convicted). The (seemingly) most appropriate and meaningful punishment for a manager/PI who runs an unsafe lab is termination. While I don’t think a court could force the university to fire a professor, if the university retains a PI known for running an unsafe lab, it is sending a rotten message. At present, UCLA seems to be standing by Harran.

Prospective jurors won’t be chemists. Most of us have worked around academic labs for several years and are familiar with the element of laxity in these environments. While we accept this culture as normal, I think it will be easy for an experienced lawyer to highlight some of the aspects of life in an academic lab in a way that members of the public (including jurors) will find appalling.

Nonsensical laws. I lack the experience of a lawyer or legislator, but there are certain aspects of the law that seem silly to me. For instance, Sheri was a lab tech, and apparently, the law treats lab techs differently from grad students. Here, Sheri was doing the exact same type of work as a grad student. This disparity doesn’t make any sense to me and just illustrates that academic scientists have not been very effective at lobbying to change silly laws. You see it all the time in safety. Why does 1 gallon of isopropanol/KOH in a 5-gallon container “count” as 5 gallons of flammable solvent during fire inspections (against a 10-gallon-per-room limit)? The 1 gallon is “safer” to use in a 5-gallon container than a 1-gallon container (i.e., no splashing out of the bucket). Also, why can’t safety showers be hooked into the drainage system of a building? What, exactly, is being protected there?

Who gets the blame when everyone is to blame? This case seems headed for a tort, which means that someone is going to have to figure out how to apportion blame for Sangji’s death. While it looks like Harran didn’t have his responsibilities under control, neither did Sangji. It was her responsibility to wear a lab coat (assuming one was available), and my feeling is that even though she wasn’t a Ph.D. chemist, she most likely knew that she was working with a dangerous material in an iffy way (3 x full syringe vs. cannula). Sheri paid the ultimate price for her negligence. Now, how much will UCLA and Harran have to pay (if anything)? I have no idea how one begins to address this issue quantitatively.

Will this case result in constructive change? The culture of safety in academic labs is broken. The tragic accident that occurred at UCLA could have easily happened at hundreds of other schools around the country, because the extent to which lab workers are trained—and monitored for compliance—in academia is a joke. My dissatisfaction centers on two main issues: (i) the actual safety knowledge of lab workers in academia is poor and (ii) safety programs at universities seem focused on limiting liability rather than actually improving worker safety. I imagine there are a few exceptional departments in the United States, but I challenge anyone to mount a tenable argument against this assessment. I really don’t see the Harran charges doing much to improve the first point, and I think the second issue will be severely exacerbated by this case. It would be nice if safety officers at schools could focus more on actually training students than devising vapid PowerPoint slides that “cover all the bases”.

29 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the UCLA/Harran/Sangji Case”

  1. Chemjobber Says:

    Paul, if you were the PI, would you resign? Do you believe that’s an honorable course of action?

  2. Paul Says:

    Wow…interesting question. My initial thought upon hearing that Harran was out of town was that if he was abroad, he might just resign and never re-enter the country. He might be able to fight extradition by making a case that 4.5 years in prison is unfair and he is being railroaded.

    I view resignation as a statement that I don’t support an organization. The decision of whether that organization wants me should be left to them. Thus, I don’t think I would immediately resign in this case. I would like to think that I would throw caution to the wind regarding legal issues and come out an explain myself completely. At that point, the school could decide if it still wanted me. Of course, there are two big things limiting the flow of information in this case: (i) one key player is dead and (ii) the other players are probably trying to limit their liability. I understand and accept that UCLA and Harran want to be quiet on some issues until the legal matters (both criminal and civil) are settled. What I find truly repulsive is how they are distorting some key aspects of the case, such as painting a postbacc lab tech as a highly experienced researcher.

  3. Lewis Feuchtwanger Says:

    Your question on severity is what usually happens in drunk-driving cases. For the same alcohol level, just driving is not treated as severely as running over a few people.
    And there will definitely be a large monetary award.

    Off-topic, what struck me is that she was getting paid $46,000. Is that what starting lab techs make?

  4. Chemjobber Says:

    I agree with your sense of the experience argument — it’s disappointing (to say the least) that they’re willing to stretch the truth to save their skins. Here’s ol’ Kevin Reed’s words:

    “We’re all professionals, Larry. Sheri Sangji was an experienced chemist. You said she was a student in your intro. She actually was not a student. She was a professional chemist. She got her undergraduate degree at Claremont in chemistry, she worked in private industry before we hired her, she was chosen out of several hundred applicants because of her great skill and experience as a chemist.”

    That’s pretty laughable. I have a really, really, really hard time believing that they 1) bid out this tech position, 2) actually sifted through 200+ applications and 3) decided that this recent B.S. grad was the best of the pile.

    I think I would have considered resignation as (short of genuflecting in front of Ms. Sangji’s parents and begging forgiveness) as the first public sign of deep contrition. Rather, we’ve gotten a good bit of CYA — which, hey, is a natural response. But it’s not a very courageous one.

  5. Chemjobber Says:

    Lewis — I have a feeling that’s quite generous for a lab tech position, but I don’t know the going rate in the LA area.

  6. andre Says:

    The charges are willful failure to follow safety blah blah blah “resulting in death of an employee”, so jail time is not something that could be slapped on any professor who doesn’t enforce his students wearing lab coats. While the actual act is the same in both instances, our criminal justice system often punishes those acts harsher when the result is more severe.

    And the charges are not just to a professor who “happen[s] to be at the helm when an accidental death occurs”, but to a professor who has possibly ignored safety standards numerous times before. That’s really what has to be prosecuted or defended in this case .

    Or, more likely, that’s what will be tossed aside when a plea deal is reached where Harran avoids jail time and doesn’t have to admit guilt, but pays a hefty fine or some such. Which is kind of a shame, since a court case where we clearly define what is and is not the legal responsibility of each actor in this situation would be wonderful outcome.

  7. Gordon Says:

    Regarding the charges and the punishment, I’d say that labwork is an inherently risky activity. So is driving a motor vehicle, and most everyone is familiar with that.

    We charge people who drive without a license (or cause others to drive without one), because someone who is out on the road and doesn’t quite know the rules of traffic needlessly increases the risk for everyone out there. When we consider this angle, four years of prison for driving without a license sounds about right.

  8. RB Woodweird Says:

    This case shows again that the traditional safety shower should be radically redesigned. As it is, even in industrial settings where safety is taken way more seriously than in graduate school, it is sad but true that if you burst into flame right next to a safety shower, you are going to hesitate to pull the chain because a) there is going to be a lot of water on the floor and b) your coworkers are going to see you naked.

    Several times we have seen that females, especially, will not use the shower because of b).

  9. Aaron Rowe Says:

    In my opinion, you can’t expect a student who only has a bachelor’s degree to understand the safety risks of their work.

    Most undergrads never get proper safety training. As a grad student, my undergrad assistant did not know the basics of adding acid to water vs water to acid, nor did she know that mixing acid and water could be exothermic.

    Part of what the world needs is some really grotesque, Red Asphalt caliber, safety videos on YouTube that show what has happened in worst case scenarios and also go over the basics that everyone should know.

    In every formal safety training class I’ve taken, there is far too much emphasis on gloves, goggles and lab coats and not enough on the specific risks of individual materials.

  10. Captain Pegleg Says:

    Everything Aaron Rowe said.

    Specific hazard communication is lacking in academia AND industry.

  11. More on the Sangji case, with key factors in the incident | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] @ChemBark – Some thoughts on the UCLA/Harran/Sangji case […]

  12. UC Grad Student Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this case for a while now, and some of the comments I’ve seen puzzle me. When I was an inexperienced chemist, the first thing I did when dealing with a new reagent was ask around to see who had used it before and what they could tell me about it. I remember treating a bottle of 2M DIBAL like a touch sensative high-explosive the first time I used it. I still ask around before I try a new prep/reagent. I sympathize with the feelings of Sangji’s family and I’m not arguing that Harran shouldn’t shoulder some small portion of the blame, but I feel like it was Sangji’s carelessness and/or outright stupidity that escalated this from a mild lab accident to a tradgedy.

  13. B.A. Brown Says:

    If this PI is facing criminal charges, then what should befall the PI in the Texas Tech incident, where a graduate student lost three fingers, burned his hands, and damaged his eyes due to poor handling of a high-energy compound? As presented in CEN (V. 89; I. 43; p. 25) it wasn’t just the PI that was held responsible, but the graduate student, the department, and the department of homeland security. As far as I know, no criminal charges were laid, but as a result, a dramatic change in the view of academic safety was made. Is this case different because there was a death involved? Or the fact that it was an employee not a graduate student (which, as a graduate student, I have to say that is a poor message-that we are more expendable than techs)? I guess I am not familiar enough with American laws. Why is that all of us who work with tBuLi (or similar compounds) are all cringing at the manner in which this poor girl was handling the chemical and yet she didn’t know better? I don’t think you can expect anyone to inherently know the potential risks of every chemical they are going to come across in their career, but is it reasonable to expect, as a manager or PI, that your employees will take the time to learn all hazardous properties associated with a particular experiment before starting it? Isn’t that part of the job? It makes me sad that this tragedy happened; no one should have this happen.

    I am all for changing the sometime careless attitude towards safety that numerous academics hold. Perhaps it is time to use these forums to stop placing blame, and start cooperating to build better practices in our laboratories.

  14. Chem Prof Says:

    As a faculty member at a research university, I have to say that it makes perfect sense to treat grad students differently from research techs. Grad students, and in particular Ph.D. students, should be expert learners, who can find out whatever they need to know, whether about the safety of a particular procedure or the potential incompatibility of reagents. A research tech is hired to do a particular job. There is a reasonable expectation for both that they will not be asked to do anything unsafe, and there is a responsibility in both cases to provide proper training. But there is a reasonable expectation that a Ph.D. student will be THINKING about the experiments he or she is running. The same is not necessarily true for a lab tech.

    Nonetheless, even grad students need explicit training in safety issues, taught by someone who actually knows chemistry. I am especially saddened by the events at UCLA, because UCLA used to have such a course, that all new chemistry Ph.D. students took. I wonder if that course still exists. I have not seen anything as extensive anywhere else.

  15. Onyx Says:

    Very interesting read!

  16. Paul Says:

    @Chem Prof: I would hope there exists a “reasonable expectation” that both Ph.D. students and lab techs are thinking about the experiments they are running.

    While I agree that lab techs and students usually have different jobs in a lab, in this case, it seemed (to me) like Sangji was not doing routine work. I look at her more as a postbacc researcher (as opposed to postdoc) than a lab tech. My initial impression is that OSHA law should treat parties similarly when they are doing similar tasks, working in the same physical space, and being exposed to the same hazards.

  17. Chem Prof Says:


    Sangji was being paid a fairly generous salary, suggesting that she was doing work for hire, not getting training as a postbac. Most postbacs work for free, or very little in the way of wages, because they are gaining experience. However, I do not mean to imply that we have more responsibility toward those we pay large salaries than toward those who are working as volunteers. The distinction lies between Ph.D. students or postdoctoral researchers and the less experienced postbac or undergraduate researchers and research techs.

    We SHOULD expect more of someone who has set out to gain a Ph.D. Earning a Ph.D. means becoming an independent researcher who can design and carry out new research projects. Beginning Ph.D. students may not have sufficient experience for such independence, but the goal is to get them there.

    Research techs, on the other hand, should not be expected to design their own experiments. They should be expected to carry out instructions. Whether they use the same reagents or equipment as the grad students or not, they should not be responsible for deciding what is safe and what is not. If those decisions are left to the research tech, the PI is not doing his or her job.

  18. Hap Says:

    1) We hold people working at private industry liable for problems, even when the mistakes of the people involved helped to create them (since that’s true most of the time). Why should academics be treated any differently? If anything, the caution involved in exploring unknown areas should be greater, not lesser, than that of performing known tasks with (mostly) known hazards.

    2) Grad school is supposed to be a teaching environment – that’s how schools justify the low pay involved with most of the positions contained within. Safety would figure to be the most important item on any syllabus of things to be taught in lab, and yet it is generally the least important. It generally has very few people with significant experience, and little emphasis on not doing unsafe things, so people who (unknowingly) do unsafe things don’t have many places to go to find out, and don’t have the enforcement checks present in industry (mostly – see the TMSdiazomethane fatality in Canada). I don’t know if this is the way to change that, but that set of conditions was present in this case, as in many others, and they cost an awful lot.

    3) I know it’s in TX and not CA, but the Preston Brown case would seem to be perfect for this treatment. A grad student with a history of doing stupid things with potential explosives and a lab that seemed to be missing many of the safety checks that labs dealing with such materials had would seem to have been tailor-made for a “reckless endangerment” claim against everyone involved.

  19. CR Says:

    So…Paul…just to clarify….you’re not a lawyer?

    “I am not a lawyer.”
    “While I’m not a lawyer,..”
    ” I lack the experience of a lawyer or legislator,…”

    Hmmm…and here I thought I was reading a law blog all along.

  20. deadender Says:

    If you read the detailed reports, it’s clear that Sangji was being extremely unsafe. I am sympathetic to the view that only a negligent supervisor could be in charge of such a lab environment. However, I’m also sympathetic to the view (held by my research supervisor, for one) that she was so negligent that she caused her own death (with due respects). Ultimately, though, Harran is in charge of his lab, and if he spoke to her the very morning of the accident and paid no mind to technique whatsoever, he, in my mind, is negligent. Combined with the lab-wide disregard for safety on display, criminally negligent. I doubt the law is interested in “everybody does it,” or “I’m busy” either.

    When I think about this case, what comes to mind is not primarily the safety issues, but the sheer number of young people entering the academic research area. If each supervisor had only a few (ie, less than five) students/postdocs at a time, such incidents would be much, much less likely. This is all regardless of the fact that Sangji herself was not a student, because the environment she worked in was the same. And again, reading the details of what she was doing, her incompetence must have been pretty obvious to any experienced chemist.

  21. Joe Says:

    There are workers compensation laws in the United States that limit the liability of employers when employees are injured at work. Employees are not allowed to sue employers if there are injured on the job and are generally compensated on the severity of their injury and there are not punitive damages allowed. Unless of course the employers are found negligent in creating a hazardous work place (which is extremely difficult and rarely ever proven in court). In conjunction with limiting the recourse of employees against employers, the government requires employers to provide safe work environments and to enforce safe work practices. These are labor laws so only apply when there is an employer employee relationship. (grad students don’t count, unless of course they are getting paid).

    There is a separate California law which avoids the negligence agrument by stipulating that any employer cited with a willful violation where a death occurs is liable for criminal penalties as well as 1.5M fines. I assume UCLA will fight very hard to have the citation reduced to something below “willful”. It will be interesting to see what happens after the OSHA case is settled. If the OSHA case is upheld I see a big wrongful death suit coming for UCLA.

    I’m not a lawyer and don’t live in California, so please correct me if I’ve misspoken.

  22. Paul Says:

    Regarding whether Shari was doing the work expected of a tech or of a student, I think Harran’s interview with the fire marshal backs up my general impression of what was going on:

    Harran: I treated [Shari] like a student. You know, she was classified as a full-time employee, but she was part of the group just like a graduate student and we work year-round pretty much.

  23. Former UCLA postdoc Says:

    Was a postdoc in an organic group at UCLA in the last 5 years. Safety there was more or less exactly the same as several other highly regarded chemistry departments in the US (mediocre). Interestingly, I was chastised by the departmental safety officer for being in the lab without a lab coat during a routine and random safety inspection. I was not performing an experiment at the time – had just come into the lab to look at a coworker’s TLC plate. PPE compliance was high in our lab.

    Talk of Sangji as an experienced chemist are almost certainly off the mark. She was essentially operating at the level of an experienced undergraduate researcher – probably equivalent to the typical incoming 1st year grad student at UCLA. Should such a student be scaling up a tBuLi procedure? From my perspective as a PI, no. Should she be doing so during a holiday week? Definitely not. I blame her personally for not wearing a lab coat. I blame Harran for being out to lunch as to her performing the experiment poorly (plastic syringe technique) and her doing that experiment on that scale at that time of year. Criminal neglect? Not in my opinion. Worthy of losing one’s job? Definitely.

  24. bad wolf Says:

    The next couple of statements after the one Paul highlights:

    Aplin: Did anybody from the Chemistry Department or any of your colleagues say “hey, listen, it’s shutdown period, we need to be off campus”?

    Harran: No. And I hope they don’t institute that as a – that would be bad.

    Dude sounds more worried about shutting his research lab for a week than, say, burning to death.

  25. Paul Says:

    Yeah…I think that both this interview of Harran and the infamous “Dear Guido” letter authored by Carreira serve as fantastic primary, on-the-record sources of what it truly expected of lab workers (students, postdocs, postbaccs) in academic labs.

  26. Paul Says:

    This post/comments thread was indirectly mentioned in this week’s editorial in C&EN by editor-in-chief Rudy Baum.

    Baum advocates that prison is too harsh a punishment for Harran with regard to the Sheri Sangji case. I share his opinion.

  27. bad wolf Says:

    I didn’t realize it at first but Harran was on vacation at Christmas time when the charges were filed, even though he mandates people working for him come in then.

    Paul is absolutely right about publicizing these documents… a modern update on Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist perhaps.

  28. Chemjobber Says:

    Perhaps he had an idea that the charges were coming and wanted some time before his annus horribilis?

  29. UCLA Chemistry Professor Patrick Harran to Stand Trial | ChemBark Says:

    […] weighed in on the subject before, and my views have not changed. There is plenty of blame to go around. Should Sangji have taken […]

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