Archive for the ‘Grad School’ Category

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Strikes Deal with Prosecutors

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

BulldoodyPatrick Harran, the UCLA professor who faced four felony counts in connection with the death of Sheri Sangji in a laboratory fire, has struck a deal with prosecutors that allows him to avoid charges in exchange for a $10,000 fine, 800 hours of community service, and running a lab free of safety violations. So long as Harran completes his end of the terms of the agreement, he will avoid trial and have an untarnished criminal record.

What a relief!

As an assistant professor in charge of a research lab, I could not be happier with this outcome. I have a lot of stuff to worry about, and ensuring the safety of my students cannot be allowed to get in the way of important things like finding consulting gigs, collecting awards, traveling to international conferences, and stealing ideas for grants. All of those OSHA rules are meant for industry, not academia. The bar for what passes as safe in academic labs is clear, and people who want to work under moderately safe conditions know better than to go to graduate school. The government simply can’t expect me to be responsible for what happens in my lab, which is well over 50 feet from my office and not even the same direction as the restroom. I’m happy to buy enough safety goggles and almost enough lab coats to outfit my students, but the rest is up to them. If Aldrich has written a technical note on their hazardous experiment, my students know not to bother me.

The most important aspect of the Harran deal is how it extends the long, proud tradition of excusing PIs of any professional responsibility for their work. Society recognizes that professors are only supposed to have good things happen to them. We get the lion’s share of credit for papers, not the students or postdocs. We get the big salaries, not the students or postdocs. We get the awards, not the students or postdocs. On the flip side, professors must be protected from negative consequences at all costs. If an accident happens in one of our labs, that’s the students’ fault. If multiple papers from one of our labs contain fabricated data, that’s the students’ fault as well. Clearly, professors are not responsible for supervising their groups for integrity or safety. We know this because Dalibor Sames and Patrick Harran are still in charge of their labs. I applaud Columbia and UCLA for recognizing that you can’t discriminate against professors for trivial things like irresponsibility and incompetence. Anyway, it’s the competent professors you need to watch—lightning never strikes twice, right?

Of course, I realize that there should be some consequences when something truly horrible happens. In these situations, professors must arrange for perfunctory punishments that allow all of the parties charged with oversight to save face. That’s what we saw here: UCLA threw some money at a scholarship in the victim’s name and at establishing a safety program it should have had in the first place. Personally, Harran was forced to donate money to the hospital where his student died. Incidentally, I think $10,000 was way too much; the man only earns $301,000 a year. How is he going to make ends meet with just $291,000? At least Harran’s lawyers were clever in how they disguised the 800 hours of community service as a major inconvenience instead of court-mandated preparation for the Broader Impacts section of Harran’s next NSF proposal. Killing two birds with one stone is exactly why good lawyers get paid the big bucks.

In all seriousness, I think the deal agreed to by prosecutors is a grave injustice, but one that comes as no surprise in today’s legal system. Without any changes to the material facts of the case, how does the DA go from charging someone with four felony counts to striking a deal that allows Harran to have a spotless record with a payment, community service, and actually doing his job of running a lab free of safety violations? Note that this was not a plea bargain; Harran pleaded guilty to nothing—not a misdemeanor, or even an infraction.

The game plan of Harran’s legal defense was quite effective: delay, delay, and delay. They gummed up the works with continuance after continuance and motion after motion. In the end, it appeared the prosecutors were willing to do anything just to clear the case. I mean, was this deal what the prosecutors were holding out for all of these years? What makes it all the more worse is that the original deal called for 400 rather than 800 hours of community service. The judge had to step in and double it.

My heart goes out to Sheri’s family for their loss. While I think our legal system has denied them justice, my hope is that the field of chemistry does not forget what happened to her. I hope UCLA’s reported new-and-improved safety culture persists, and I hope the rest of the world of academic chemistry also strives to do a much better job regarding safety than it has in the past. At the very least, I can guarantee you that Sheri’s death has had an indelible, positive effect my approach to safety and how I manage my lab and students.

 

For more coverage: C&EN’s Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice have done a fantastic service for the community in covering the case, and Chemjobber has been curating links to coverage on his site.

Doctor? No.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

bracher_office_doorI generally like to be respectful of people. Toward this end, I try my best to address people properly. You’ll find that I’m pretty liberal in using “Dr.” when addressing letters and e-mails, because you never know when someone is going to get upset at being called “Mister”. In contrast, few people seem to get upset at being called a doctor when they are not. When I was applying for faculty positions last year, I am certain I conferred Ph.D. degrees on a multitude of unsuspecting departmental staffers whose job it was to assemble the applicants’ files.

On the flip side, I have a personal aversion to signing anything as “Dr.” I always check “Mr.” when filling out forms, and I cannot bear to end an e-mail with “Dr. Bracher.” As I am now a teacher, this has established a weird dynamic where students address their e-mails to “Dr. Bracher” and I return them by signing “Paul.” I know this has got to weird the students out because I remember fretting over how to address professors when I was in college. Do you call them “Professor”, “Doctor”, or by their first name? I am pretty sure I always opted for “Professor.”

In my undergrad research lab, it was always a big deal for students when the boss started signing his e-mails to you by his first name. It was an unmistakable signal that you had made it and was regarded as a rite of passage in the lab. In contrast, my graduate and postdoc advisors were pretty much known exclusively in the lab by their first names. Of course, the undergrad-professor dynamic is much different from the dynamic with grad students and postdocs, but it’s always interesting to see how these differences manifest themselves.

Some students attempt to solve the e-mail problem by using the non-direct “Hi,” “Hey,” or “Hello there” salutation. Of course, in trying to avoid any awkwardness, this device mostly just draws attention to it. Would you walk up to a professor and address her as “Hey”? Some of my colleagues sign their e-mails to students as “Dr. D” (or similar), which is an interesting compromise between formal and informal. At the same time, it makes me question what I should address these professors when we are in front of students. Can I say “John” (as I normally would), or should I say “Dr. Doe”?

While I don’t especially care what people call me and would never be offended by any of the standard choices, I prefer “Paul”. But after two months in St. Louis, it seems as if I’m going to be “Dr. Bracher” to the vast majority of students. To friends, colleagues, and those online, I will still be “Paul”, while to family at home, I have always been “P.J.” All are fine with me.

Yesterday, I found myself reconsidering whether to sign my e-mails to students as “Dr. Bracher” to make them feel more comfortable. My conclusion was not to change—signing “Dr. Bracher” would probably make me feel just as weird as if they were to address their e-mails to “Paul”. Anyway, the decision of what to call myself has got to be one of the few privileges to which I am entitled in this new job.

–Paul

Andrew Myers and Harvard Sued by Former PhD Student

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

ChemBark InvestigatesDr. Mark Charest, a chemistry PhD student who graduated from Harvard in 2004, is suing the university and Andrew Myers, his PhD advisor, over the royalties associated with a patent covering intellectual property developed during Charest’s graduate work.

In 2005, the Myers Lab published this paper in Science that described a new synthetic route to 6-deoxytetracycline antibiotics. Charest was the first author on the paper, and the work was patented by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (prior to submission for publication). A company, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals, was started to commercialize the work by licensing the tetracycline patent from the university.

According to Charest’s complaint:

  • Harvard’s policy is to distribute royalties equally among all of the inventors on a patent unless the inventors agree to a different distribution.
  • Harvard OTD asked Charest and his former labmates to voluntarily accept a distribution of 50% to Myers, 15% to Charest, 15% to Dionicio Siegel, 15% to Christian Lerner, and 5% to Jason Brubaker (the five co-authors of the paper).
  • The four co-authors besides Myers agreed amongst themselves to a distribution of 18.75% to Charest, 11.25% to Siegel, 10% to Lerner, and 10% to Brubaker. Myers would not participate in this discussion and his 50% share was not open to discussion.
  • When Charest later spoke to Myers, Myers told Charest to “tread lightly”, “be careful”, and “think about [his] career”. Charest interpreted these statements as threats.
  • Charest initially refused to accept an unequal distribution of the royalties, and then engaged in a series of exchanges where Harvard’s representative threatened to directly cut Charest’s share of the royalties or to shift the distribution of licensing payments to a second patent on which Charest was not listed as an inventor. Fearful of this threat, Charest signed an agreement to accept 18.75% of the royalties for the first patent (presumably, the distribution arranged by the four postdocs/students).
  • The second patent never materialized, and Charest believes it was a ruse fabricated to force his hand to volunteer to let Myers get a 50% cut of the royalties.
  • Later, Charest describes a second act in which Harvard’s OTD did shift royalties away from Charest’s patent.
  • Myers refused to serve as a reference when Charest applied for a position at a venture capital firm, and Myers would not return phone calls when a potential employer directly contacted Myers regarding Charest.

Charest appealed to an internal review board at Harvard, but his case was unsuccessful. His lawsuit filed on Friday seeks reallocation of the royalties, punitive damages, and a bunch of other stuff that is outside my complete comprehension. Read the document for yourself.

It will be interesting to see how this story plays out, but it would seem to be yet another cautionary tale that when you are a graduate student, you are in a position of incredible weakness. As is said, your advisor holds your paycheck in one hand and your letter of recommendation in the other. And in case you are naive, the chains don’t get unshackled just because you’ve graduated. You’re still going to need that letter of recommendation for future jobs, so if your old boss wants to take 50% of the royalties, what’s to stop him?

Nothing.

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Disclosure: I went to Harvard for my graduate work and regularly came into contact with Myers, Charest, and Brubaker, as my desk was right next to the Myers Lab. I know Mark Charest and had several conversations with him over the course of my graduate career. I think I saw him one or two times after he graduated, and I’ve had no interaction with him since I graduated from Harvard.

H/T to A.D. for tipping off ChemBark

Elsewhere: Universal Hub, Chemjobber (analysis of prof-student/postdoc fiduciary relationship), Chemistry Reddit, Chemical & Engineering News, In The Pipeline, The Harvard Crimson.

Lab Manuals

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

ChemBark's Orby the InsectI’m always interested to come across instructional documents on chemistry professors’ Web sites. These documents can be great resources, because they often contain very practical advice about safety, direction on how to maintain instruments, and guidance on experimental technique from experts in the field. Taking the time to commit this information to writing also helps prevent “institutional” loss of memory when senior members of the lab graduate without having properly trained the next generation of students.

Unfortunately, you don’t come across that many lab manuals online. Perhaps this is because some of them are distributed in hard copy only. Perhaps, some professors don’t want to explicitly write procedures and safety guidelines in fear they might be used against them in court. My guess, however, is that most people can’t find the time to sit down and write out this information—or they don’t see the value in doing so.

Jim Tour’s “Guidelines for Research” is among my favorite documents. He gets very specific about some of the advice he doles out. For instance, all nitrogen bubblers left on overnight should have a flow rate of one bubble per second or less. Tour provides guidance on how he likes notebooks to be kept, and he also provides expectations about work ethic and vacations. Finally, there is the passage on personal hygiene:

Personal Hygiene: Although not customary in all countries, Americans generally bathe at least several times per week. As a result, many Americans are offended by the infrequent bathing habits of others (whether Americans or internationals). Thus, you may be leaving a negative impression of yourself without ever knowing it. Unfortunately, bad impressions are often difficult to overcome. Likewise, be sure to use an underarm deodorant since most Americans find body odor to be most offensive. I have seen people causing themselves to be ostracized by others simply because of poor personal hygiene habits.

It might seem trifling or overbearing to provide advice on this level, but the info is correct and I wish more people heeded Tour’s advice.

While the idea of writing a manual all at once seems daunting, I think that doing it in pieces seems quite reasonable. In fact, I think you can assemble some really good tidbits of advice from material that is already posted online. These documents are almost like official memoranda to members of professors’ labs. For instance:

The famous “How to Write a Scientific Paper” article in Advanced Materials had its beginnings as a type-written memo from George Whitesides to his lab.

There’s also Ken Suslick’s cool presentation on how to give a talk.

And I like how some professors provide specific instructions on how to ask them for letters of recommendation.

Anyway, before I go writing similar stuff in the future, I wanted to know if you all had come across any great lab manuals or memos. Leave them in the comments, and I’ll compile a list below.

Lab Manuals

Jim Tour’s “Guidelines for Research
Melanie Sanford’s “Group Welcome Kit
Dave Collum’s site
Bart Bartlett’s “Standard Operating Procedures
Turro Group’s site
Watson Group Manual
Tolman Lab’s “Standard Operating Procedures
Armen Zakarian’s site

 

An Interesting Position at Columbia

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

I don’t know why I find myself writing so many posts about happenings at Columbia, but I do. And the trend continues, thanks to this ad I found on page 84 of the March 18th edition of Chemical & Engineering News:

 IMG_2756

The ad begins:

THE DEPARTMENT OF CHEMISTRY seeks to appoint an Associate in Discipline beginning July 1, 2013, for our busy undergraduate laboratory programs. This is a full-time special instructional faculty position with multiyear renewals contingent on successful review…

An Associate in Discipline, you say? Great. I can think of a few chemists at Columbia who need to be disciplined (1 2)…

Food for Pessimists Regarding Careers in Academia

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Here are some nice reads to get you depressed about a career in academia.

1) Last week, The Crimson published a wonderfully deep look into the process of getting tenure at Harvard.

“The ad hoc process is greatly shrouded in mystery; remarkably little is written about it,” says current Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Development Judith D. Singer. She smirks wryly as she swigs coffee from her mug, as if this is something she’s explained a hundred times before.

“What the ad hoc process does is it takes a recommendation that has come up out of a department, been through a dean, and says, ‘Let’s look at this with a fresh set of eyes. Let’s look at the totality of the evidence and make a dispassionate decision about whether the recommendations that have come up are really in the best interest of the University,’” says Singer.

In addition to the dossiers and area experts, the committee brings in a set of witnesses from the candidate’s department, typically the department chair and the chair of the committee that did the promotion review, among others. As the witnesses arrive at half-hour intervals, they see the membership of the committee for the first time. Until that point, the identities of the panel—except, of course, those who are ex officio—are kept confidential to prevent advance solicitation.

and…

The cases are rarely cut and dry. Negative witnesses are often called in to dissent the promotion. “Even in a canonization there’s a devil’s advocate,” says Singer, “and that’s part of what the ad hoc process is designed to do: to raise all of the questions and say, ‘Are they of sufficient concern to not make a tenure appointment?’”

The ad hoc is the mostly anonymous end to Harvard’s tenure process—when the dozens of classes and published papers boil down to a single decision. Many tenured and tenure-track professors say the process is unfair, that it is too subjective, too anonymous, and too unpredictable. But fairness may be beside the point. Those familiar with the process say Harvard is not interested in promoting good junior faculty, but rather in making sure it has the very best.

Quite a few very successful chemists were formerly assistant professors of chemistry at Harvard (who left for a variety of reasons). Steve Benner is one of my favorites.

2) Earlier this month, Slate published an essay by a humanities graduate student about how going to grad school was a huge mistake for her.

Don’t do it. Just don’t. I deeply regret going to graduate school, but not, Ron Rosenbaum, because my doctorate ruined books and made me obnoxious. (Granted, maybe it did: My dissertation involved subjecting the work of Franz Kafka to first-order logic.) No, I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.

I know the situation is different for students in the sciences, but I think some of her experience is still applicable. Here’s a more charitable assessment of going to graduate school in the sciences from last year, also in Slate.

3) Finally, an oldie but goodie from 1999: “Don’t Become a Scientist!

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.

While I like Professor Katz’s piece, it should be noted that the man certainly has some strange opinions.