Holiday? Humbug!: I found it funny to watch a professor squirm when the UCLA fire marshals questioned why they were there during the winter break:
Aplin: Can you tell me why she was on campus during shutdown? UCLA has a shutdown period of time towards the end of the year -- turn of the year -- and all personnel are supposed to be off campus unless you are critical or central, and we are wondering why she was on campus during shutdown?Harran: Oh, in research I think our vacation schedules may be a little different. I didn't realize there was some sort of mandatory - I treated Chari [sic] like a student. You know, she was classified as a full-time employee, but she was part of the group just like a graduate student and we work year-round pretty much. I was there then and two of my postdoctoral fellows were here. We were treating it like a - it was after the Christmas holiday - it was the week after that.Aplin: Did anybody from the Chemistry Department or any of your colleagues say "hey, listen, it's shutdown period, we need to be off campus"?Harran: No. And I hope they don't institute that as a - that would be bad.
I find this section really kinda hilarious, because it memorializes the must-work-all-the-time attitude of the academic world. Yes, yes, I've been in the lab on Christmas night and New Year's Eve, too -- but it's pretty darn funny to read it in print from a reasonably prominent professor (and after such a gruesome incident, as well.)
Sheri Sangji's statement: Los Angeles Fire Department investigators spoke to Sheri Sangji at the hospital; because they were "sworn peace officers", they are "allowed to take third-party hearsay testimony and admit it as evidence in a court." Her statement to the investigators is key in that she says three important things: 1) she was using a 60-mL syringe, 2) she said that she pulled the plunger out too far and 3) she said a container of hexane[s] spilled on her and exacerbated the fire.
With respect to the hexanes container, the fire marshals proceed to thoroughly interrogate Harran as to whether there was a container of hexanes. Ms. Sangji's statement is that there was -- Professor Harran says there was not. I suspect that the D.A.'s decision to prosecute in this case may hinge on this missing(?) beaker.
Questions of scale (sigh): In three separate places, I find I disagree with Professor Harran's assessments of the scale of the reaction Ms. Sangji was attempting to perform. To wit:
"And we do, we use both methods [CJ:i.e. syringe and cannulation.] I believe - yeah, [co-worker's name] had certanily done the cannulation technique. I don't know if she had done the cannulation technique previously, so she may have been repeating the procedure that she had done simply on a larger scale. (page 10, transcript numbering)She was replicating an experiment. She had done this exact procedure with the same substrates several times. She was making more of something that she had made previously. (page 10)...She was still on the pretty small end... It was a few grams of potential product... I would call it moderate scale. (page 32)"
I fundamentally disagree. While scale is all relative (there's always that annoying pilot plant gal who insists that your 200 liter reaction is penny-ante and she's drank more THF than you've ever seen), that's a pretty big amount of tBuLi. The facts speak for themselves on this point, but I'm sure that there have been many others who've handled more, safer.
Heartbreakers: Among the heartbreaking things in this transcript is the statement by Prof. Harran about PPE:
Jurado: Okay. Another element here that we have to address is personal protective equipment. It's my - we don't know whether or not she was using eye protection. We do have statements that she was wearing nitrile gloves. And we also know that she was not wearing a lab coat. (page 18)Harran: Which is, which is, in my opinion, that's the real tragedy. I mean, I think just a simple cotton lab coat - I encourage everyone to wear eyeglasses and a lab coat. And I encourage it repeatedly. But yeah - I've done this, these are young people. They got lots of energy, they don't think anything's gonna happen to them, right? They don't, right? And, um, if I don't go in every single day-
Another heartbreaking moment: Professor Harran was asked by the fire department officials to complete Ms. Sangji's experiment. I can't imagine what that must have been like -- I'd be interested to know if he actually completed the reaction or just quenched it.
Professors, you do not want this to be you: During this 1 hour interview, it's pretty clear that Professor Harran is uncomfortable with his position. He's got these two fire marshals asking him very pointed questions about his lab's operations. He has to answer questions about his employee's experiments, they want to know about this missing bottle of hexanes, he has to face up to the fact that he had his postdocs* and him clean up the lab (against the wishes of a UCLA fire marshal) and then he has to answer more questions about how the lab appeared to have been tampered with (during the night.)
Professors, you don't want this to be you -- pound PPE into your underling's heads, pound common sense about the dangers of the lab (and the dangers of scale-up) into their heads and you will probably avoid all of this.
*Anyone think that this part of the story would have been different if the two postdocs were US nationals? Yeah, I think so, too.