Archive for the ‘Lab Safety’ Category

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


UCLA Chemistry Professor Patrick Harran to Stand Trial

Sunday, 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.

Black Smoke

Friday, March 15th, 2013



Photo sources/credits: User “Vdp” on Wikipedia, Catholic Church (of England and Wales), Prince George’s County Fire Department (via C&EN)

Lab Accident on TV

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

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.

Making Eye Protection Fun

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013


The West Side Science Club visits a chemistry lab at Caltech. Photo credit: Carolyn Patterson

The West Side Science Club visits a chemistry lab at Caltech. Photo credit: Carolyn Patterson

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.

Kids at the West Side Science Club decorate their new safety glasses. Photo credit: Levi Simons

Kids at the West Side Science Club decorate their new safety glasses. Photo credit: Levi Simons

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.

Answers from Prof. Tom Barton, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Earlier this week, I sent a questionnaire to the two current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The first candidate to respond is Tom Barton, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Iowa State University. I have posted his responses below, in full.

Thank you, Professor Barton, for responding and engaging the online community of chemists on these matters of great importance to the society!


Response of Prof. Tom Barton, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Hi Paul,

Thanks for giving me an opportunity to take a shot at these important questions.  You will see in my responses that I don’t have the complete picture on any of them.  If elected I would plan on spending a significant portion of the first year getting that picture and probing membership on their views on these and other concerns.


1. What are your thoughts on the ACS vs. Leadscope case?  Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?

For those who are not up to date on this case, as I wasn’t when first asked about it, there is an excellent summary by Marianna Bettman, an Ohio law professor to be found at  I found it to be an excellent discussion.  As only a candidate, I do not know the intimate details of how and why ACS got into this, nor of the situation that they face at the moment.   Thus, I must reply with the general statement that I have always believed and always have acted on the principle that openness is the best policy.  In my lifetime, the most dramatic examples of the dangers of secretiveness were perhaps in the behavior of the Atomic Energy Commission, who wrongly believed and operated under the premise of “the public doesn’t need to know”, when in fact the public had a desperate need to know.  There are many more examples where secretive behavior by parts of government ultimately created situations far worse than complete openness would have produced.  Thus, as ACS president I would want to see all the history and strive to make all that was pertinent and not legally encumbered available to the entire ACS membership.  Yes, that includes legal fees.

2. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?

I have received a number of enquiries as to my views in this arena, and conclude that a lot of people feel rather strongly about this issue.   In tracking down the actual numbers I found different ones in different sources but they are all awe-inspiring.  It is important to remember that executive compensation operates within a market.  If your compensation is not competitive, there is real risk that you can lose the type of talent that you need for the organization to succeed.  That said, the membership of ACS has every right to request and get an explanation for the magnitude of these salaries.  There is an annual process by which the salaries are set and thus, the ACS can provide the rationale(s) involved and report to membership (via C&EN) why the salaries are what they are.  Said report should provide examples from similar societies, keeping in mind that ACS is not only the world’s largest scientific society, but certainly the most complex (and D.C. is hardly the least expensive place to live).  I would support a policy that in the future, salary histories of all employees making over some minimal level would be annually reported to the membership in C&EN.  Again, this is a simple matter of openness.  If one is not prepared to justify how one is spending someone else’s money, one should not spend it in that fashion.

I would add that where I have worked for the past 45 years, Iowa State University, all faculty and staff salaries are published annually in the newspaper (now on paper’s website).  The only time this has bothered me is when I was not included because my salary did not reach the minimum!

Lastly I would note that I do not see the logic in giving everyone a bonus every year.  The only reasonable justification for a bonus is that the employee exceeded your expectations.  If you are giving bonuses every year, you need to rethink your expectations.  Once again, if there are good reasons, all that is needed is to inform membership of them

3. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS publications charges companies and universities to access journals?

I don’t have the data to take a reasoned stance on this at this time.  I’ll have to get it, however, as I have had a couple of interesting emails about this in the past few days, which have caused me to have some potential concerns.  It is hardly unreasonable for users to be concerned about the costs of necessary materials, and ACS needs to be sensitive to the real fiscal constraints in the budgets of their members/subscribers.  Using profits resulting from ACS publications to fund other parts of the operations, considered to be of significant value, up to a point seems reasonable to me.  I can see no reason not to inform membership of the details, specifics and magnitudes, and then try to get feedback via the local sections.  Once again it is a simple matter of openness.  If you are not proud to tell people what you are doing with the money, you need to rethink what you are doing with the money.  Actually I imagine that ACS has an admirable story to tell here.  As I said, I don’t have enough information to provide a detailed answer at this time, and that is largely because such information is difficult to obtain.  There clearly is considerable concern about pricing out there (e.g. and ) but “tiered pricing”, “value-based pricing” and confidential negotiations with individual institutions have made it difficult to see a clearly defined pricing picture.  One group truly stands out as having serious problems and that is small liberal-arts colleges with quite small chemistry departments, who have to pay what to them are very large sums of money to subscribe to the number of credible chemistry journals required for ACS accreditation.  With the fiscal situations of these institutions being often dire, it has become difficult if not impossible for them to comply.  I strongly believe that we need to work on a solution to this problem.  I also believe that there must be solutions, as our reason for existence is to serve our members.

A question I have, and have not yet found an answer, is has there been an accounting of the actual costs of publication now versus the pre”technology-revolutionized” costs.  Surely the costs have been lowered by electronic publishing, and one might have expected that to be reflected in subscription costs.  Maybe it has been, or perhaps the loss of revenue from individual subscriptions has more than offset any savings.  I don’t know, and I’m sure many members would like to see a C&EN article addressing this situation.

4. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?

I would prepare a series of profound video vignettes of the great successes of chemistry which have benefitted the world (and the U.S. economy) to be shown via every possible media outlet, and to be used for workshops for Congressional legislative staffs.   The purpose is to help the general public, and quite importantly, lawmakers understand that support of chemistry is an investment with a long history of success.  This is of course not a new idea, but is the best one of which I know.  A key will be how to find affordable ways to get the message out.  Purchasing commercial broadcast time is very expensive, so leveraging new media like social media and the blogosphere would have to part of the answer.  While I don’t consider the public’s perception of chemistry to be quite the problem that once was the case, this effort to get the word out that ours is an enabling science will always be with us.

5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?

I realize that it is comforting to hope that there is one silver bullet or some magic pill that will make everything alright again, but it just isn’t going to happen.  In recent months I have spoken and written about my belief that it is entrepreneurship which has the best chance of building a new employment base for chemistry in America.  However, for this narrowly focused question I would try to address the issues that have caused and are still causing our jobs to depart our country.  Although I am usually loath to address a problem with a meeting, I would propose a summit meeting of the industrial leaders of chemistry to develop a list of factors that make leaving America attractive; kiss off the ones we really can’t deal with (e.g. lower wages elsewhere) and get to work on the ones we can.  Understand that lower labor costs are not the only issues in this game.  As I discussed a bit on my website, there is no surer route to moving jobs out of America than to impose unreasonable regulations on American industry.  This may be an unpopular subject to raise, and I am sure will engender some cries of anguish, but if there is anything within the bounds of ethical behavior that can be done to produce and protect jobs for American chemists, we must do it.  The health of the American chemical industry is of utmost importance to us and we must not forget this.

6. What is your favorite element and why? 

Hey! I thought the softball question is supposed to come at the beginning of an interview.  That having been said, I’ll answer it.  Silicon.  Why?  Because it is so close to carbon, yet so far away in its behavior.  I am particularly enchanted by the richness of its thermochemistry as compared to that of carbon.  For example, the isomerization of the carbene analog, R2Si:, to a silene analog of an olefin, RHSi=C<, is essentially isothermal!  Or that SiH4 thermally decomposes to H2  +  :SiH2  in a single concerted step.  Compare these observations with the drastically different cases in organic chemistry.


Note: Any response provided by Prof. Barton’s opponent in this election, Prof. Luis Echegoyen, will be posted within a day of its receipt.