UCLA Chemistry Professor Patrick Harran to Stand Trial

April 28th, 2013

Chemical Ed with GogglesThe big news on Friday was that a California judge denied UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran’s motion to dismiss or reduce the charges against him relating to the death of Sheri Sangji in a tragic tert-butyllithium accident in Harran’s lab. C&EN and the LA Times both had reporters in the courtroom. Chemjobber and Jyllian Kemsley are curating lists of links.

I’ve weighed in on the subject before, and my views have not changed. There is plenty of blame to go around. Should Sangji have taken more precautions in running her experiment, the most important of which would have been wearing a lab coat? Certainly. She had to have known better, but she paid the ultimate price. Now, it’s past time to decide what responsibility Harran bears in the accident. I think the judge made the right decision in allowing the case to go to trial, and unless the sides strike a plea bargain, a jury will now decide if Harran broke the law. I don’t like Professor Harran’s chances in front of a jury. While most people who’ve been in grad school may recognize the lax oversight by Harran as “normal”, that doesn’t make it legal.

And while Harran faces the possibility of 4.5 years in prison, I still don’t think a prison sentence is warranted should Harran be convicted. The most effective and relevant punishment would be something that specifically limits Harran’s ability to run a laboratory. What I also find distressing is UCLA’s “unwavering” support of Harran. (Side note: Does that include Harran’s claim that UCLA never trained him properly?) UCLA is sending a bad message here; schools should make a point of requiring that professors take their responsibilities in managing labs and training students more seriously.

23 Responses to “UCLA Chemistry Professor Patrick Harran to Stand Trial”

  1. Glen Says:

    “The most effective and relevant punishment would be something that specifically limits Harran’s ability to run a laboratory.”

    Couldn’t agree more, Paul. If there was some way to tie any punishment with an inability to secure funding for a period of time, say five years, that would certainly get some attention. But, sadly, nothing will bring Sheri Sangji back.

  2. Chemjobber Says:

    I wonder if broader professor-university labor administration issues are represented in UCLA’s unwavering support of Professor Harran. Certainly, the UCLA faculty association thinks Prof. Harran is being unnecessarily targeted: http://uclafacultyassociation.blogspot.com/2012/11/hearing-on-ucla-chemistry-fire-case.html

    I give the Harran defense’s arguments at least a 50/50 chance in front of a jury. I could imagine a fairly strong appeal to “personal responsibility”, “why are we persecuting this professor who is working on cures for cancer?”, especially if the jury skews older/higher SES.

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    Did my comment get eaten? Oh, well.

  4. Paul Says:

    @CJ: Comment was fished out of spam filter.

    Note to all: if you post a comment and it does not appear within 30 seconds, e-mail me and I’ll check to see if it was flagged as spam. There’s no need to rewrite it all, and if you don’t alert me, it’ll probably never see the light of day. Hundreds of comments are flagged every day, about 99.9% of which are indeed spam.

  5. Patrick Harran ordered to stand trial in #SheriSangji case | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] In the chemistry blogosphere: Chemjobber first (with many comments); second; Doing Good Science; ChemBark […]

  6. Matt Says:

    Good job on bashing your fellow acadamics. Keep on doing this, you will be highly successful professor. Not.

  7. bad wolf Says:

    ♪ “The zing of the day!” ♫

  8. bad wolf Says:

    Just to clarify, i think Matt is stupid.

  9. Paul Says:

    Yes, you’re right. I should just stand up for every professor, regardless of what he/she does or says. Thanks for the advice, Matt.

  10. a Says:

    Also, matt, is acadamic a cross between academic and damn? Inquiring minds want to know

  11. Lyle Langley Says:

    “this professor who is working on a cure for cancer”…really Chemjobber? I get your point, but Harran is far from “working on a cure for cancer”.

    I think this case if fascinating on many, many fronts. First, it truly shows how dangerous lab work is – with the most terrifying result. Second, it highights something all of us already knew – at least those of us that worked in an organic chemistry graduate lab – there is NO training whatsoever. For UCLA to come away clean while Harran is going to trial is comical. And Harran blaming UCLA that he wasn’t trained is also comical. Where does that cycle end? UCLA then claims Harran’s advisor didn’t train him properly, and the advisor claiming his university didn’t train HIM properly, etc.

    When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of this, it comes back to personal responsiblity. If the student didn’t feel comfortable with the reagent, then they should not have performed the experiment. If, however, the culture in the lab was of fear and if they didn’t do the experiment there would have been consequences, then Harran is at fault. If he’s found guilty, I don’t believe he should be allowed to have a research group again – this isn’t some lack of oversight, this is someone’s life and not allowing funding for 5 years is not enough. I know, 5 years of inability to get funding will, in effect, doom his career it still isn’t enough.

  12. Chemjobber Says:

    Lyle. A quote from the Harran defense document:

    “A felony conviction would likely obliterate the prores he and his collaborators have made towards finding cures from diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s, which impact far too many across the globe.”

    (page 32)


  13. Chemjobber Says:

    uh, er, that’s “progress”

  14. Paul Says:

    The way that this case is pitched to a jury—from both sides—will seem like a farce to most chemists.

  15. Hap Says:

    1) If I were the prosecution, I would try to defuse the “you’re hindering our cure for cancer” argument by pointing out the safety requirements drug companies that actually are working on cures for cancer have for their workers. It would indicate that 1) safety and progress are not mutually incompatible and 2) there are and have been ways to perform novel research while taking into account the potential hazards of the unknowns you work with, and Harran (and pretty much everyone else in academic chemical research) didn’t care enough to implement them.

    2) The problem is that no outcome for this case is really just. Harran deserves to pay a lot, but he is not alone. He wasn’t trained to care about safety because it hasn’t been a priority (almost) anywhere in academics, and there have always been plenty of grad students, and you can’t make a corporation or institution (unlike a real person) pay for its negligence (even when the negligence is probably murder – the Ford Pinto fiasco). If he doesn’t get any significant penalty, academia will roll over and go back to sleep and pretend that (despite what they say to Congress when it’s time for money) that training is not part of their mission. If he does, then the blame will rest on Harran and he will be branded as an as an outlier so that others can ignore the implications of the conviction and hope it doesn’t happen to them.

  16. Patrick Harran ordered to stand trial in #SheriSangji case | The Usual Sources Says:

    […] chemistry blogosphere: Chemjobber first & second (with many comments); Doing Good Science; ChemBark (also with many […]

  17. Postdoc Says:

    Here is a suggestion. How about Universities hire a safety consultant (from industry probably) to work with each new hire when setting up his/her lab? In this way the University in question reduces their liability and over time (optimistically) the general safety culture of a department is improved. This also negates the “but I was never trained by MY boss” argument.

  18. Lyle Langley Says:

    Chemjobber….ha ha ha ha ha. Good one. Right from the mouths of the unbiased. I’m sure everyday he went to work thinking about drug discovery – from his academic lab, teaching organic chemistry. Should have a comedy page on your blog

    Postdoc…that would require a University to 1.) care, and 2.) spend money. More than likely they would tie any hire to grant monies which then makes the said hire tied to the professors that bring in grant money. As long as UCLA is off the hook, unfortunately, they will not see the need to make actual reforms.

  19. Chemjobber Says:

    I’m not quite sure if I’m in on the joke, Lyle, which speaks to my overall mental density.

    I predicted what the Harran defense would say in front of a jury, using their words from a document that they produced. I think it is clear (and if it is not, let me make it clear) that I believe the Harran defense is exaggerating Harran’s importance to the overall US biomedical science effort.

    If you find this part of the Harran defense’s explanation risible, then we are in agreement.

  20. RB Woodweird Says:

    Harran’s lawyers better exclude any graduate students from the jury if they want to avoid the death penalty.

  21. bad wolf Says:

    I like Postdoc’s suggestion. Get the people who actually know how to run safe labs to show you how.

    Ages ago i helped a new prof set up a lab at a UC and there was a lot of consulting with senior faculty, who advised her on proper waste disposal and other issues. I would have assumed safety to be part of that, but maybe times have changed, or it is just considered to be part of the individual lab’s mandate.

    And if you’re going to name yourself after a comedy character, people are going to expect a better sense of humor out of you.

  22. Auntie Markovnikov Says:

    I have to say- I know this guy. I worked around him for several years – prior to him becoming a professor.

    Back then, he was irresponsible and very arrogant. His opinion of “lab safety” was that it was “stupid” and reserved for other people. He was more of a bully than anything else and most certainly guilty of simply not caring. Sad to see the cost of blind ambition.

    @RB Woodweird – agree. If they call people that knew him from that time before “Professor” I don’t think he will fare too well

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