The Sharp Knife of a Short Life

February 9th, 2012

This delightful cover of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” is hopelessly stuck in my head:


While listening to this song play on repeat for the 368th time, I was particularly taken by the stanza:

A penny for my thoughts, oh no, I’ll sell ’em for a dollar
They’re worth so much more after I’m a goner
And maybe then you’ll hear the words I been singin’
Funny when you’re dead how people start listenin’

It is interesting how it can take the death of someone young to make us address a problem that we all knew existed. In chemistry, Sheri Sangji’s accident made many people stop and think about certain specific subjects concerning lab safety. Her death sparked considerable discussion online, in print, and in person regarding procedures for dispensing pyrophoric compounds, and as I’ve stated here before, the accident had a direct impact on Caltech’s reinforcement of a policy that lab coats are mandatory for bench work. If there is any consolation to be found in the death of Ms. Sangji, it will rest with the awareness her story created about issues of safety training.

Of course, what is sad about these deaths is that we—as a community—almost always forget any “lessons learned” with the passage of time. Sangji died three years ago, and the level of attention paid to safety in academia is still atrocious. You don’t need to search far in most academic labs to find someone working with hazardous compounds without a lab coat. I was really impressed when in 2010, Caltech’s chemistry division held what it billed as its “first annual Safety Day”. Perhaps in response to the Sangji accident, the program included a breakout demonstration on “Working with Pyrophorics: Syringe, canula, quenching techniques”. Unfortunately, 2011 has come and gone and a “second annual” session never materialized. It would be nice if we could get to a place where our community didn’t need a constant stream of fresh corpses to remind it how to behave.

I have little doubt that when the Harran/UCLA case is finally resolved—most likely with a settlement that includes little more than a slap on the wrist as punishment—that the academic community will forget the episode and revert to its usual ways. This has already happened once in the Sangji story, which was an afterthought before the arrest warrant was issued for Harran.

But the world of chemistry has seen this before. When I was a freshman at NYU, my organic professor brought in an article from the New York Times titled “Lethal Chemistry at Harvard”. The story detailed the death of Jason Altom, a graduate student who committed suicide and blamed his death on pressures of graduate school specific to Harvard and his advisor. After Altom’s death, the chemistry department at Harvard vowed to improve the environment it fostered for grad students. They expanded the mental health services available, paid attention to recommendations of the students’ “Quality of Life” committee, and revamped the thesis committee structure so that students would interact with professors other than just their advisors.

I enrolled at Harvard for grad school several years later, and in my time there, the department (i) rolled back many of the mental health benefits, (ii) changed the “Quality of Life” committee to the “GPC” (Graduate student and Postdoc Committee?) and paid minimal attention to it, and (iii) did little to correct the culture of isolation. At Harvard, each research group was/is more-or-less an island physically and socially. The architecture sequesters each lab group to its own area, while the institutional culture does the same socially. The opportunities to interact with professors other than your advisor are few and far between. There are few, if any, joint students among labs, and interlab interactions are commonly limited to people who’ve met in first-year classes. The “student center” so highly touted in 1999 (actually known as the Department Center) serves not as a place for students to unwind so much as a neutral location for standard departmental events. While positive changes did come out of the Altom tragedy, they were largely ornamental and did nothing to change the culture of the organization.

And that’s the problem. Changing the culture of an institution—especially one as intractable as chemical academia—is extraordinarily difficult. But so long as we forgo meaningful changes in favor of cosmetic ones that we don’t even bother to sustain anyway, we will continue to experience frustration and tragedy. One wonders what magnitude of disruption is necessary for our community to commit itself to improvement. Apparently, it is much greater than the death of a twenty-something student.

15 Responses to “The Sharp Knife of a Short Life”

  1. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Yes, I read that piece on Altom a few years ago and found it fascinating. One paragraph in particular stood out for me:

    “Graduate study in the sciences, however, is a very unsentimental education. It requires the intellectual evolution from undergrad who can ace tests of textbook knowledge to original thinker who can initiate and execute research about which the textbooks have yet to be written. What is less often acknowledged is that this intense education involves an equally arduous psychological transition, almost a second rebellious adolescence. The passage from callow, eager-to-please first-year student in awe of an often-famous faculty adviser to confident, independent-minded researcher willing to challenge, and sometimes defy, a mentor is a requisite part of the journey.”

    Sadly, as the cutbacks in counseling at Harvard indicate, this is still a grossly under-appreciated and unrecognized part of student life. And unfortunately you are right; safety considerations will always take a backseat to the pressure to publish and the drive to excel in research, so I don’t think we can expect big changes anytime at all, especially internationally.

  2. Chemjobber Says:

    That was a great article. Loved it.

  3. bad wolf Says:

    Hear hear. Well said.

  4. wolfie Says:

    Before you die, Paul, a whole centenary must forgo.

  5. Joel Says:

    Well put.

    Our lab is planning a “safety day” (no lab work allowed) next month to cover the specific hazards present in our lab. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Harran case is one of the main motivators.

  6. Carmen Says:

    Thanks for this piece, Paul. I stumbled on “Lethal Chem at Harvard” the summer before my senior year, while doing research on grad schools. It really stuck with me.

  7. SpeedyGonzales Says:

    As a graduate student at Harvard, I can attest to the truth that both the article Lethal Chemistry at Harvard, and Paul’s current post hit the nail on the head (Paul was a student above me who I looked up to). As long as Harvard has the reputation as being the shit, then it will attract people who put up with a lot of shit to be here. The faculty are apathetic to the situation of the graduate students, but as long as decent students are attracted to the allure of the “Harvard Brand” the faculty will attach fresh meat and will have little impetus to change. Some (but not all) of the first year gradate students at Harvard contain some of the most arrogant specimens I have seen, but every year I have been here, it has been a lesson in Human nature to see how they are beaten down by the all knowing Faculty. I don’t really care to speculate what factors could cause a change for the better (I suspect some economic association with the graduate students’ well-being would help, as it comes down to the almighty dollar at Harvard). I do not know how things go at other “elite” grad schools. Please elaborate for me.

  8. Hap Says:

    In theory, something like Harran going up the river could affect things, if only because faculty fear for their orifices. In reality, though, there is nothing in law or in culture to prevent professors from treating their students as renewable and expendable resources. When professors don’t have any stake in the well-being of their students, then the consequences of lab accidents will just be viewed as an obstacle, with the brunt of the responsibility being offloaded onto the students and lab workers. Some advisors do care, at Harvard and elsewhere, but not caring seems to be an easy option at hand.

    For me, CW’s quote from the story about Jason Altom is key. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I went to grad school, and didn’t cope with it well. There were resources to help me, but they didn’t help me all that much. Doing research as an undergrad would have helped but I don’t know what else would have been useful to do.

  9. Friday chemical safety round-up | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] reflected on the too-short lives of chemists Sheri Sangji and Jason Altom: “so long as we forgo meaningful changes in favor of […]

  10. Anonymous Says:

    How about that one ?

  11. cookingwithsolvents Says:

    I can’t comment on the graduate student experience but I was a postdoc at Harvard (about when Paul was finishing up) and found it to be a fairly welcoming place *when I went in search of new friends and colleagues*. I HAD to seek them out since they were, well, working. I had no trouble meeting graduate students and postdocs in other groups though it’s possible the whole thing self-selected for the more outgoing(?). I really only met them by leaving my laboratory and visiting other ones. No one came by ours to meet us(my group), nor would I expect them to; I was the new person. The social events were well-attended, people watched eurocup in the lounge, and generally were HARD WORKING people. Everyone is a gunner there so you aren’t going to generally find 10 grad students hanging out across the street drinking coffee in the student center (or downstairs), but so what?

    The concrete stuff I worried about was how does the dept deal with people that aren’t making the grade, etc. and most of what I saw looked a lot like the place where I did my PhD. However, I don’t want to comment on the graduate experience, really.

    The safety committee did their very best and certainly Harvard was on top of all safety matters when I was there.

  12. Paul Says:

    Both Mr. Gonzales and Cooking make excellent points about the culture of the chemistry department at Harvard. A complete analysis and list of recommendations for the department would make an interesting post.

  13. The Sceptical Chymist: Speaking Frankly: Emotional honesty : The Sceptical Chymist Says:

    […] reading a string of emotionally honest and unapologetic pieces from Athene Donald, Rita Tojeiro, Paul Bracher, and others. This outward display of emotion was refreshing to hear from scientists, especially the […]

  14. Lila Says:

    I just saw this post for the first time after the link from the Sceptical Chymist. It’s very well said.

    I knew Jason Altom — he was the TF in Corey’s class when I took it — and I need to point out for the record that he was NOT a person that wasn’t “making the grade,” as Cooking mentions above. He was a spectacularly smart and hardworking person right on the verge of finishing his PhD. (I realize that Cooking probably was not referring to Jason, but I still feel the need to say this.)

    Paul, you and I both know about the cultural differences between the Harvard and Caltech chemistry departments. I think one of them does it well, at least for the graduate experience. (Undergrad is a whole nother matter, but I think you and I have talked about that before.) Still, the superficial and short-lived responses of both departments to the tragedies on their own and others’ campuses are highly dismaying.

    FWIW, I think the Chronicle of Higher Education did the best job covering the aftermath of Jason’s death and the chemistry department at Harvard — and this was before I even worked at the paper, so hopefully I’m not *too* biased:

  15. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Of possible interest:

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