This is how chemistry demos are going to get banned in high schools:
Archive for the ‘Accidents’ Category
The 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.
Some people just can’t handle the excitement of chemistry:
It seems that this is from a show named “Školski sat”. I think they’re Croatian. A Facebook page for the show is here. I wish there were more clips on YouTube of their doing chemistry.
This summer, our NSF-funded center for solar-energy research joined forces with a local high school and a local science club to create a new program for informal science education in western Los Angeles. I serve as the coordinator for Caltech’s participation in the program, which involves helping to plan and run science club meetings every other Saturday for 8-to-14 year-olds at a housing unit on the west side of Los Angeles. We structure our meetings less like a class and more like a club by favoring the use of hands-on activities where the kids can actively discover the concepts we wish to teach (and have lots of fun at the same time).
As you might expect, one of my primary concerns has been making sure the kids run these activities safely. When designing experiments, there are a number of top-level considerations that go into addressing safety. First, we avoid designing any experiments with serious hazards—we don’t use especially toxic chemicals and we limit the scale of our activities to small volumes. Second, we have a fabulous team of “near-peer” mentors from the high school and Caltech who make sure that the kids aren’t performing any unauthorized experiments (like tasting the chemicals we use). Finally, we are actively working on building good habits with respect to personal protective equipment (PPE).
Before Caltech joined the program, the kids already had a shared set of goggles for general use when activities warranted. One of the first events we organized for the club was a field trip to Caltech to tour the school and see what we “real scientists” do in the lab. Before they came into my room to see a few demonstrations, I gave them a quick version of my lab accident story along with the requisite speech on the importance of wearing goggles when in laboratory. With this story freshly in mind, they all lowered their goggles over their eyes and marched in (see photo, above).
Sadly, despite my impassioned plea, it took all of two minutes before some of them started moving their goggles up to their foreheads. Two minutes! I know goggles are a drag—they can feel tight, fog up, and block your vision—but I was hoping for a little more after my attempt to scare them straight.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from my involvement in the new program is that it is really, really hard to get kids to pay attention to you. If you try to lecture them about a concept, you’ve got about ten seconds before their eyes start wandering across the room. It’s far better to get them learning concepts by running experiments and/or having them ask and answer questions. Kids at this age are not especially concerned about what you want them to do—they seem to do what they want to do.
And I think that was part of the problem with the goggles. We wanted the kids to wear them, but that missed the point. What would make the kids want to wear them? Obviously, a cautionary tale about preserving their eyesight in the unlikely event of an accident was not enough.
I thought we needed to do a better job of making eye protection cool/fun, so first, we ordered them some safety glasses like “real scientists” wear (for general use) in lab. I bought three varieties of glasses from my favorite safety company. Each pair was only about $2—well worth the investment. At the next club meeting, we let the students choose what model and color they wanted. (To my surprise, the boys all wanted red frames while the girls opted for the black or clear frames.) Finally, in order to let the kids establish a personal connection to their PPE, we brought some knickknacks to let them personalize their glasses. These included rolls of colored tape and packets of jewel stickers that the kids could use to “bling out” their frames. This model had particularly wide frames that gave the kids a bunch of space to decorate.
Right after the decoration activity, we performed our most demanding (and fun) activity to date: making glow sticks from scratch. I don’t think I saw a single kid remove his/her glasses during the experiment. We’ll keep monitoring the situation in the future, but I think we’ve made some headway.
I was away last week, and I’m still processing all of the recent developments in the Patrick Harran case. Harran, a chemistry professor at UCLA, is facing three felony charges in the wake of the death of Sheri Sangji in a lab accident involving t-butyllithum. Last week, the Los Angeles district attorney dropped charges against UCLA in exchange for its acceptance of responsibility for the safety conditions in the Harran lab and the establishment of an improved safety program. The agreement does not immediately affect the case against Harran, whose legal team filed a seperate motion to quash the charges against him because the state safety investigator allegedly committed murder as a juvenile (WTF?!). The court will rule on the motion next month.
I started drafting this post by jotting down a list of thoughts on the case, but they were too muddled to be of value. The situation is a mess, and what trumps my frustration in our legal system is my frustration in the culture of our profession.
You’d have hoped that the academic community would have straightened up in the wake of such a tragic accident. The circumstances of how Sangji died are horrifying: the fire covered 50% of her body in burns; the flesh in her hands burned off leaving exposed tendons; her abdominal wall was destroyed; she took 18 agonizing days to die. It was brutal:
If you watch that video, produced by California Watch and The Center for Public Integrity, you’ll find this statement from Jim Kaufman of The Laboratory Safety Institute:
This was a tsunami throughout academia that criminal charges were being filed against the university. I think that good things are going to come as a result of this and that Sheri Sangji’s death will not be in vain.
Allow me to preface my next statement by apologizing to the Sangji family for my lack of tact, but I am afraid that Sheri did die in vain. Harran can be punished to the fullest extent of the law and UCLA can throw all sorts of money at safety initiatives, but those actions are not solutions to the underlying problem here. The most important issue is that thousands of young, inexperienced researchers in university labs are performing chemical research with a gross lack of understanding of the hazards of their work. And, to me, it appears that the Sangji story has done little to change that.
Earlier this week, I took an informal survey of some of my colleagues by posing the following question:
t-butyllithium reacts violently with air. The guy in the hood next to you spills a solution of it on himself and catches on fire. What should you do?
The majority of people I asked responded they should find a fire blanket and smother the flames. (Recall, this is roughly what the first labmate to treat Sangji did.) If a person said to “use the safety shower”, in about half of cases I could knock them off this (correct) idea by saying “but tBuLi reacts violently with water.” Just a couple of people had the confidence to insist that while it might seem counter-intuitive, the shower is the best option because the tBuLi will react quickly (probably before you even reach the shower) and the large volume of water will suppress the fire and dissipate the heat.
The extent of our systemic ignorance floored me given the relatively high level of news coverage devoted to Sangji’s accident. I realized that while I (personally) have been exposed to a lot of information about the case through paying attention to C&EN and blogs, the majority of people around here seem to know little or nothing about the accident. In spite of the extensive news coverage and publicity, we (as a community) have largely failed to effectively incorporate any “lessons learned” from the accident into our training.
We’ve got a lot of work to do to fix the culture of safety in academia. It’s a shame we never seized the opportunity presented by Sheri Sangji’s death.