Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lawyer judges chemist: new facts in the UCLA / Sheri Sangji case

UCLA has put out a press release, where they withdraw the appeal of the Cal/OSHA judgment against them on the case of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, the research associate who died of burns suffered from a t-butyl lithium fire. I find the following paragraph of the release to be remarkable:
An experienced and skilled chemist, Ms. Sangji had in October 2008 safely and successfully performed the same experiment that went terribly awry two months later. Reed said Ms. Sangji’s laboratory notes were persuasive evidence of her skills: Each entry is detailed and complete, with the times, temperatures, calculations and volumes noted very carefully and consistently. Reed said the campus continues to believe that she was using an appropriate method, but the plunger on the syringe she was using came apart, spilling an air-sensitive chemical that ignited her clothing.
Really? An "experienced and skilled" chemist? Time for one of my favorite questions: compared to what? According to whom? I find this to be a eyebrow raising assertion, especially since I have a difficult time pronouncing myself an "experienced and skilled" chemist. (Ph.D., ~10 years doing organic chemistry full time -- probably about 7 years more than Sheri Sangji.) Mr. Reed, am I an experienced chemist? Do you hand out certificates for your awards? May I have one?

Now we have a date on the last time she had done a tBuLi reaction (Oct. 2008), which means that it had been nearly 3 months before she had done one again.

I am also amused to learn that "the campus" believes that she was using an appropriate method. Really? Who is "the campus"? How did this syringe passively "come apart"? Are we asserting that the syringe was faulty?

Finally, it's clear that Vice Chancellor Reed has access to Ms. Sangji's notebook. Let us see if Mr. Reed is correct -- publish the notebook page of the fatal reaction. It's the only way to introduce facts (as opposed to assertions) about what she was doing that day.

This is the worst part of any case -- the lawyers have descended (or ascended, depending on where you think they're coming from and which analogy you're using...) If Kevin Reed is now making assertions about chemistry, I doubt we'll hear much from Prof. Harran. The "lawyering up", spinning and peeing in the jury pool has begun fulltime.

3 comments:

  1. I want a certificate saying I'm a skilled and experienced Chemist?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Do you? I'm sure I could print one up for you.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have some very important things to say.

    First, I have worked in the same building as the fatally injured worker. I am very (...actually too) familiar with the building, the people in the chemistry department. Some of the folks here in the chemistry department are good.

    Second, we were told to reuse the disposbale syringes in an effort to save money. The foreign postdocs told us to do that. The syringes are cheap--about 25 cents to 1 dollar each. Everytime you reuse syringes the plunger becomes very loose and they easily pop out. I am proud to say that I disobeyed the PI's and postdocs orders to err on side of caution and safety.

    Third, the postdocs--who in effect run the laboratories--don't know about safety. On several occasions, I saved the postdocs from injuring or killing themselves. A few notables...condensation of liquid oxygen, mixing hydrogen peroxide and acetone, heating peroxides with a heat gun, mixing DMSO and acetyl chloride, cleaning vacuum pumps with pentane while the pumps are running...

    In my work at UCLA, I found that many of the undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs really do not have an understanding of safe practices. This is an institutional problem.

    Yes, I have done a lot of work at UCLA with very dangerous materials. I always had contingency plans and I always was prepared. Yes, I did have several fires and several explosions in the course of my work. I was never injured because I anticipated these problems and I planned for them. That is how chemistry is to be done.

    ReplyDelete