The Sharp Knife of a Short LifeFebruary 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.