The Most Important Lesson from Sheri Sangji’s Death

Chemical Ed with GogglesThis post on The Safety Zone indicates that the community is already forgetting many of the details and lessons of Sheri Sangji’s tragic death. That is a shame, but not a surprise considering the high turnover in academic labs. If I had to pick the most important thing to remember from the tragedy, it is:

When you are covered in hazardous material or flames,

It does not matter if the material is pyrophoric. Just get in. Take off your clothes. Don’t rub your skin; simply let the material rinse away. Do not worry about flooding the lab—your department is going to have way bigger problems if you are seriously injured than if you flood the building. Just look at what happened to UCLA.

If you see a labmate covered in flames or hazardous material, physically help him (i.e., drag him) to a safety shower. Chances are he is panicking and not thinking clearly. Don’t think that you can extinguish the flames with a blanket or lab coat. Don’t waste time worrying about what the substance is. Just get the victim in the damn shower and pull the chain, then call for an ambulance. Help him remove his clothes. Keep him in the shower for 15 minutes. Be a good friend and find some spare clothes or a blanket so he can shield his bits and pieces from public view.

For all the time we spend talking about whether a lab coat would have saved Sangji’s life, I think using the safety shower would have made a much bigger difference.

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Strikes Deal with Prosecutors

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.

How to Use an iPad for Orgo Lectures…and Embarrass Yourself

I am not a fan of chalkboards. Chalk is messy and always ends up somewhere on my clothes by the end of class. I also regularly encounter chalkboards that don’t erase well and become unreadable as more and more dust gets smeared across the slate. When I was in grad school, Andy Myers solved this problem by having his teaching assistants clean the board with water and squeegees *during* class. While I am not afforded the benefit of a squeegee team at SLU, I suppose we could hire some adjuncts.

Though I am not a fan of chalkboards, I am a big proponent of drawing structures and working problems during class. In the fall, there were a couple of times I resorted to using transparency film and colored pens. It worked, but it was clunky. In an effort to step up my game, over winter break, I went on eBay and shelled out some cash so that I could ditch the transparencies and use my iPad instead. My tool kit now includes:

1 iPad
1 tablet stylus
1 Apple lightning-to-VGA adapter
1 VGA switch box
2 VGA cables, 6′ long
1 handsome bag for transporting everything in style


Prior to class, it usually takes me three or four minutes to turn on the projector, load my PowerPoint slide deck on the room computer, and plug my iPad into the projection system. This involves connecting the iPad to the projector through the lightning-to-VGA adapter and a VGA cable. If the room only has one input servicing the projector, you’ll need to use the VGA switch and a second VGA cable so you can toggle between your slides and the tablet.

Writing with the device is pretty simple. I use the app called Notability, which costs $4.99 and is worth every penny. Before class, I’ll upload PDF files of any quizzes or exams I want to review that day onto Google Drive, then download them into Notability on the tablet. Once you’ve done this, you can write/draw on top of the document and screencast everything through the projector. Here’s a screenshot of a typical session:


I love the number of colors to choose from and the fact that you can save the marked PDF and post it for the benefit of the class. I’m still getting the hang of drawing structures as crisply as I would like, and I think part of the problem is the thickness of my stylus. I’m also considering buying a tablet with a wider screen, because things can get kind of cramped on the iPad.

While the overall system was recognized as an improvement by the students in their course evaluations, I should mention one little slip up I had in class. On average, I used the iPad for 5–10 minutes per lecture, and the vast majority of that time, I wasn’t connected to the Internet. On March 7th (the first Friday of Lent), I forgot to load the quiz/exam onto my iPad ahead of time. But the fix was simple: I could just connect to the Internet, download the file off the cloud, and be good to go.

So, that’s exactly what I did. What I forgot to do was to shut off the wireless connection after downloading the document. As I was going over the solution to a problem, the familiar chime of a Facebook message erupted from my iPad along with the following notification:


The full message (which is truncated in the push alert) was:


Funny stuff. One of the many reasons I love my wife is her fantastic sense of humor. But at the time, all I remember seeing was “no meat” as I desperately tried to make the notification go away. The class was laughing pretty hard, but I wasn’t sure if it was at the content of the message or just the fact that a message had unexpectedly interrupted class. My worst fears were confirmed later in the day, when I had Tara re-send the message so I could see exactly how much of it showed up on the screen. I was hoping the worst of it was truncated away. Unfortunately, the worst of it was not.

I was pretty mortified, but I got over it. My main sources of solace were that (i) the students were a pretty cool group, (ii) the statement was a joke, and (iii) it could’ve been much worse considering other subjects Tara and I have discussed by text message.

At least my students were entertained by the exchange. I was able to find the Twitter accounts of a few of them by searching for my name, and sure enough, the incident made their feeds:


Anyway, the take-home message is to put your iPad in “airplane mode” or turn off push alerts (and texts) to avoid disruptions and potential embarrassment during class. Or you can just marry a prude.

Some lessons are learned the hard way.

Update: First-Year Professor Craziness

ChemBark Moving to St. LouisHello, friends.

Apologies for the continued radio silence, especially in light of the fact that several instances of data manipulation have recently been exposed through “corrections” published in a variety of journals. The beautiful thing about having a blog is that you can update it whenever you want. Sometimes, life happens and blogging takes a back seat…

I continue to fly by the seat of my pants as a first-year assistant professor. One of the main differences about moving on from life as a grad student and postdoc to life as a professor is the tremendous weight of responsibility involved. If you put something off as a grad student or postdoc, you are usually just inconveniencing yourself. But when you fall short in your duties as a professor, the problem is compounded by the multitude of students who are affected. While a variety of to-dos may arise, it is simply untenable to show up to lecture unprepared, because you’re not just wasting your time, you’re wasting the time of 30+ students. And when you delay getting something set up in the lab, you are letting your group down. I imagine the feeling of being a new professor is similar in many respects to being a new parent—there is so much to do and so little time, but if you don’t get all of your work done, bad things will happen (not to you, but to innocent young’uns for whom you care deeply).

I’m teaching Organic Chemistry II this semester, which is proving to be enjoyable. Once again, it is somewhat stressful to have to create a brand new lecture every 48 hours, but I’ve got a great group of students to keep me going. In lab, my research group is growing and things are continuing to take flight. Outside of lab, I got married a month ago and that was splendid. As luck would have it, a few days after we returned to St. Louis, our high-rise apartment building experienced a massive flood because some genius left his window open over the winter break and the sprinkler lines in his room froze. The water damaged seven floors and knocked out all of the elevators in the building. Unfortunately, my wife and I live on the 11th floor. It is also unfortunate that I have a spinal cord injury that makes it difficult for me to climb stairs. So, since January 7th, I’ve been practically homeless. Some nights I sleep in my office, some nights I sleep in a hotel, some nights I invest the 90 minutes it takes for me to crawl up the 10 flights of stairs. My wife and our dog have been real troopers in this ordeal, and it sounds like one elevator might be working by the end of the week—though after four weeks of this crap, I am not holding my breath.

I hope to return to blogging more regularly soon. In parting, please enjoy a scan of a letter from my property management company to the tenants of our building. I want to vomit every time I read it.



Some Fantastic Christmas Presents

Bethany Halford and the crew at C&EN‘s Newscripts blog run an annual holiday gift guide with some cool gift ideas for chemists, but sometimes it’s more exciting to be surprised by the creativity of your family.

I got a few great chemistry presents for Christmas. The first was a Periodic Table of Magnets that I’ll put on my office door. Next, from one of my new brothers-in-law, I received a fail button in the colors of SLU that plays the sad trombone sound. I’m not sure if all of my students will appreciate this gift, so maybe I’ll keep it in an inconspicuous location. My orgo lab instructor at NYU used to have a bullseye taped to his wall captioned “hit head here”. He would point to it when students realized a silly mistake they made on a exam. I thought the sign was hilarious, but some of my classmates thought it was obnoxious.

From my other new brother-in-law, I received a copy of “How to Live Longer and Feel Better” signed by Linus Pauling. Very, very cool. Apparently, signed chemistry texts by Pauling command a much higher price tag, but I would much rather have something signed relating to Pauling’s medical quackery than chemical bonding or crystallography.

Finally, from my lovely fiancée wife, I received this:


That, my friends, is total victory: a stuffed animal version of ChemBark’s mascot, Ed the Dog. I am a very lucky boy.

That’s it for the chemistry presents, but I got a bunch of other great gifts and had a wonderful wedding three days later (that will be the subject of another post). I hope everyone had as good a holiday break as I did, and best wishes for a happy and productive 2014!

The Pauper Professor’s Orgo Library

chembarkfc_kit_200Well, it looks like I’ve been ignoring the blog again. Sorry about that.

We are in finals week here at SLU, and the end-of-the-semester crunch has definitely crunched me (with a lot of help from lab stuff, two chemistry “business” trips within the last month, and the fact that I will be getting married in two weeks (!).

I’m teaching Organic 1 this semester, and it has consumed an inordinate amount of time. But the experience has also been a lot of fun and a good training ground for figuring out how to run a class efficiently.

Like many orgo teachers, I began the year by insisting to the students that the best way to do well in the class is to work practice problems (and lots of them). When I was a wee lad taking orgo at NYU, I walked uptown to the fantastic Barnes & Noble at 5th and 18th and bought copies of Vollhardt and Streitwieser to supplement the problems in Jones. My weekly routine was to read through the Jones chapter in two nights while also making index cards that cataloged each reaction along the way. The rest of my week would be spent doing all the problems in Jones, then as many in Streitwieser and Vollhardt as I could stomach.

But textbooks aren’t cheap, and I feel icky about asking students to shell out extra money for supplemental problems after they’ve already forked over $260 (!) for the class’s required textbook. Of course, the used-book market is flooded with cheap, old editions of organic textbooks.

Over the course of this semester, I undertook a mini-project that involved scouring for deals and assembling a small library of textbooks and solutions manuals as a resource for my sophomore organic students. The last volume arrived two weeks ago, and now my collection occupies almost an entire bookshelf in my office:


There are 16 books there: 8 sets of texts and solutions manuals. Here’s what I paid for each book + manual:

Bruice: $3.43 + $0.75
Carey: $3.26 + $0.75
Heathcock/Kosower/Streitwieser: $1.05 + $1.18
Jones: $0.75 + $0.75
Loudon: $4.07 +$4.12
Smith: $0.00 + $0.00 (this is the one SLU uses)
Vollhardt/Schore: $1.05 + $0.75
Wade: $2.22 + $0.75

Those costs are steals compared to the prices listed on Amazon. The shipping on each item ranged from $1.89 to $3.99 and was always more than the cost of each book. In total, my little collection set me back $74.14. The plan for next semester is to cart them over to the main library where they can be kept on short-circulation reserve. Students can check out the books for a day at a time—long enough to work or copy the problems in a chapter, but not long enough to hog the resource. Anyway, with eight texts as options, I’m hoping the market for orgo practice problems at SLU is now saturated. I should never again hear wailing about there not being enough practice problems available.

Anyway, the final exam for my class is this Friday—the 13th. I expect the only students who will encounter bad luck are those who haven’t been working enough practice problems.