Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Patrick Harran, peeing in the jury pool?

Professor Harran has released a statement about the death of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji to the LA Times. I think it's worth reading the whole thing here. The passage below, however, deserved some amount of comment:
Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab. Sheri had previous experience handling pyrophorics, chemicals that burn upon exposure to air, even before she arrived at UCLA. Her most recent position prior to joining the group involved "scale-up process safety." However, it seems evident, based on mistakes investigators tell us were made that day, I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials.
I cannot read this portion of the statement as anything other than 1) casting doubt on the public assertions and impressions that Ms. Sangji was inexperienced and 2) by doing so, attempting to affect the pool of potential jurors for any ensuing legal actions.

I say this because I am surprised at the assertion that Ms. Sangji was previously working in "scale-up process safety"; if so, this casts a different light on her level of experience.

I also believe that it is aimed towards affecting potential jury members for this reason: this is Harran's first (to my knowledge) public statement. Why not issue a three sentence statement? "I am sorry for Ms. Sangji's death. As it happened in my lab, it was my responsibility -- there is no excuse. I will do my utmost to avoid the situation in the future." His actual statement, in my opinion, will do nothing to make Professor Harran look better and will only intensify the criticism aimed at him from different quarters.

UPDATED: Emphasized that Ms. Sangji was previously working in process.

22 comments:

  1. It is probably time Harran gets a lawyer and keeps his mouth shut.

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  2. Clearly, CAL OSHA believes UCLA was at fault. Harran's comments show his cowardice and are particularly hurtful to the friends and family who lost Sheri and are still deeply devastated 4 months later.

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  3. Call me heartless, but I agree with Professor Harran's statements.

    OSHA can find a wrong in every single labs that they inspected. Your personal safety is your responsibility.

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  4. It's not about being heartless, just mis-informed. Fortunately the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 disagrees with you: worker safety is the sole legal responsibility of the employer.

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  5. There is the crux...A lab can only proactively hedge against accidents. That's why they call them accidents. There can be no absolute guarantee of safety. A well-trained student in a ideally-equipped lab can still make their own ill-advised choices. Occasionally those choices may contribute to a tragic consequence. How does one draw a 100% "hard line" on assigning responsibility to either the lab, or the student? The world is hardly ever that black & white.

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  6. I believe Dr. Harran's statement "I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials" was totally self serving. I spent much of my early years in chemistry labs and it is my experience that professors of Dr. Harran's stature would never even think about a person's safety traning. In fact, it would not surprise me that it was only after this horrible accident that Dr. Harran even looked into what safety training Sheri Sangji had.

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  7. Well, I've never read anything on this thus far that suggested that Sheri received training on the use of the safety shower. In fact, one of the first articles I read on this was from outside UCLA as an account provided by the fire department. She supposedly caught on fire and then ran in the opposite direction of the safety shower. Also, she never went into the safety shower until the fire department people came to the scene and put her in it. The person who dowsed the fire on her and put out the fire in the lab never put her in the shower either. Why not? Poor training? Poor decisions on personal privacy? Would a lab coat have helped (maybe, but this stuff catches on fire quick)? Goggles would have been a good idea instead of safety glasses. Maybe it was poor training and poor personal choices?

    Either way, it is a tragic death that should wake us up to two things:
    1) Proper personal protective equipment should be used during any chemistry experiment along with time spent prior to the experiment to identify the location of additional safetey equipment such as showers, eye washes, and fire extinguishers. Let's face it, Sheri didn't go in the shower and the person who helped her, also a lab worker, didn't put her in one either. Maybe she would be alive today if this was done.

    2) Proper training is a must. Shame on the PI that, if that traning was not done correctly or at all! You should NEVER underestimate the understanding of another when dealing with such chemicals. Be boring and explain every detail. Be repetitive. Save that part of the experiment for when there are a lot of experienced folks around not the break time.

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  8. That is Patrick's style to work with people. Being interesting just in final results he was always kind of a "slave driver". People under constant pressure and deep stress always make mistakes because of rush. Unfortunately, this is common practice for US professors.

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  9. What does "practice for US professors" mean? "US" as in you are a professor yourself, or does "US" mean something else? This part of your post is not clear.

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  10. US = United States you dumbass.

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  11. I personally know Harran. He is a person of low scruples and a general ass to people though brilliant! A dangerous mix to say the least, and I don't mean lab chemicals here.

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  12. As an industrial chemist and chemical hygiene officer, I have to say that even with proper training, a person will lose composure when he or she is the one who is involved in a chemical accident. We have to rely on our labmates to help us. The other labworkers comcern me more than Sheri, ainc neither got her to the safety shower. I have never seen a person on fire, and I fervently hope I could keep my cool in order to help.

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  13. This shouldn't even be an issue of discussion. She was hired as a research assistant in the first place, not an undergraduate or even a grad student. She was hired as a research speacialists and was expected to handle adverse situations ( which in this case escalated by her own neglect of safety and COMMON SENSE). There are a few hydrphorics out there that all chemists know require a great deal of attention. tBuLi is obviously one of them. God rest her soul but she could ahve prevented this in soo many ways.

    Dr. Harran should be in the clear

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  14. I assume Harran meant "I OVERESTIMATED".

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  15. Yes, it's probable that the laboratory should have done more in training Sheri. But as someone with a BS in Chemical Engineering, I know that Sheri should have been wearing a fire-proof or flame-retardant lab coat, a blast shield, and different gloves at the very least. The fact that there was a flask of hexane loose in the same hood as her pyrophoric compound is also questionable. Researchers are responsible for their own safety, regardless of what the law says. Moreover, to the person who said she'd obviously not received training on the use of the safety shower: I'm sure she did, at least as an undergrad if not in that particular lab. But it's awfully hard to think about such things when you're on fire. I would imagine that abject panic is the first response to finding yourself going up in flames.

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  16. I have been following the sad story for over a year, and lately reading it all again, and catching up with the newer stuff, since Texas Tech accident happened. Jan 26 Anonymous is not wrong, although I'm not at all clear on what Pomona College Chem E majors get. I know what Purdue Chem E majors get and I am not sure a Chem E degree is the right prep for org suynthsis. IN ANY CASE it is true that the responsibility was Harran's and UCLA's to do a lot more training and supervision than they apparently did to make sure Sheri was not hurt. It's the way it works now, seriously. Nowadays "well trained" means that she will do it right, do it the way she was trained. It's in the definition. "Training" doesn't mean that you just show her how to do it, and send her off to get it done by some deadline. And it was UCLA's and Harran's responsibility to make sure she was adequately supervised if she was not adequately trained to work without close supervision. I'm not saying I totally approve of this, but it's the way it is here/now. And this looks very much like she was not well trained and not adequately supervised. If she had been well trained and also as bright and driven as everyone says, it would have played out differently.

    And Anonymous Nov 30 is correct, it should have been overestimated. Duh.

    Linda (PhD Organic Chemistry 1989)

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  17. Let's keep simple and clear. Follow the logic.
    1. Most people associate chemical with dangerous.
    2. T-butyllithium is extremely dangerous and widely used.
    3. It is impossible for a chem grad student to not know the extent of danger t-butyl lithium provides.
    4. You shouldn't be handling dangerous chemicals in the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. Especially when you are sleep-deprived, you are more prone to accident.
    5. If you treat something to be bullshit, then it practically is bullshit. Sheri obviously underestimated safety training, unfortunately, but factually.
    6. Legally does not always mean correctly. You can legally sue McDonalds for making their coffee too hot, but I think that type of litigation is prone to be the butt of US lawyer jokes for decades to come.
    7. A teacher can only guide you, but in order to learn you have to do it yourself. This philosophy is very important to understand and one of the few differences between a so-called "genius" and a mediocre student.
    8. Grades do not reflect everything. Yes she is bright, but that does not mean she is qualified to handle dangerous chemicals. And unfortunately in this case, it did not qualify her.

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  18. I worked in the same department where Harran worked before he left for UCLA. He was cited several times for ignoring chemical safety issues at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He was famouly quoted for the way the he addressed to the enviromental safety personel, "I don't think you should tell me how to run my own lab". Interestingly, he was not afffected by these inccidents because the department chair liked him very much. He was promoted at very fast track. I think the chair at UT Southwestern is partially responsible for his behavior.

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  19. Sad to hear that Harran was charged today. The student bears some responsibility in this matter. Harran needs to be reprimanded, but not persecuted to this extent. If OSHA wants to enforce rules, then go ahead, just be consistent. This seems like an unnecessary witch hunt.

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    1. Well she is dead and when dead how much more responsibility could one take on?

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  20. Either way, his career is toast.

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  21. I am just in disbelief with respect to the comments about the appropriate decisions that should have been made by the people who tried to help the student. I would hope that if I got t-BuLi on me, no one would throw water on me!!! Please consult an MSDS before you comment!

    You should be held accountable for your resume. The student had experience with work on scale, had been trained to run the experiment before, made the horrible choice to work alone, on scale, with a horribly dangerous chemical late at night, without a partner watching over her. What's worse, this was done without proper protection of any sort. This of course, doesn't begin to address the issues of bad technique. At some point people are trained, and left/expected to execute experiments properly. While the Harran lab is clearly extremely lax/negligent in it's mandate for safety, unfortunately this young woman died due to several very unfortunate personal choices upon conducting her research. She definitely, definitely had the level of experience necessary to know the danger level of the chemical/experiment she was using/conducting. I feel this is tragic for all parties involved, especially the victim paying the ultimate price for bad choices made that night. However, to indite Harran for this, in my opinion, is the DA's office wanting to punish someone for a tragic accident. As for UCLA, that will be much more intriguing to see what happens, as to whether they have the proper documentation to defend their training/safety programs.

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