Monday, November 28, 2011

Reform in the Hope-Weeks lab?

As probably the most prominent critic of the professors involved in the Texas Tech case, I should note Jyllian Kemsley's article in this week's issue of C&EN:
An explosion in a Texas Tech University laboratory last year resulted in a chemistry graduate student losing three fingers on one hand and injuring his eyes. The incident was one of several in recent years that have put a spotlight on lab safety; it also resulted in an investigation by the federal Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (C&EN, Oct. 24, page 25). The explosion and its aftermath led the project’s principal investigators, Texas Tech chemistry professor Louisa J. Hope-Weeks and her spouse, chemical engineering professor Brandon L. Weeks, to find ways to more closely supervise and document their interactions with their lab groups.
“After the accident, what became clear to me was that oral communication with students was never enough to ensure they understood” what they were supposed to do or not do, Hope-Weeks says. Now, both Hope-Weeks and Weeks require anyone working in their labs to discuss experiments with their adviser and then write protocols for what they will do. Having a literature protocol in hand is not enough, though: Students must rewrite it in their own words. They must also write their own instrument-use protocols rather than referring to a lab document. The professors review the protocols before work can proceed in the lab.
[snip] As she reads the documents, Hope-Weeks also tries to be conscious of the line between appropriate oversight and allowing her students room to learn in the lab. If she reads a protocol that says a reaction will reflux for two hours and she thinks it will need 24, she’ll let the student proceed as long as there’s not a safety concern. “As long as it’s not unsafe, I’ll let them try it their way,” she says. “I think that’s the only way they can learn.”
[snip] And members of both labs now have to sign a contract agreeing to follow the lab rules and report any unsafe practices or unauthorized workers in the lab. The penalty for not following the rules is dismissal from the lab, a punishment that makes Weeks somewhat uncomfortable. “I don’t know that that’s the best way to deal with safety,” he says, noting that the threat of dismissal may encourage people to hide things. At the same time, Weeks doesn’t know of a better way to promote safe laboratory behavior. He’d like to see more of a dialogue in the academic community about positive ways to encourage safe conduct. 
Trying to walk the line between appropriate supervision and micromanagement of their lab members is tough, both professors say. On the one hand, the people working in the labs are all adults, and “there has to be some trust in the lab because you can’t be in there all the time,” Weeks says. He notes that trust is not just a safety issue; faculty also have to trust that students aren’t fabricating data, for example. 
On the other hand, Hope-Weeks adds, “if you think you’re providing enough vigilance and oversight, double it, because it is amazing what students will do when your back is turned.”
In one sense, I'm encouraged by their increased oversight of their students. That said, it is (was?) an energetic materials laboratory. Increased oversight, one would think, would be the norm. (The professors mention making random visits to the lab to ensure good laboratory practices.)

In another sense, I'm terribly curious to know if any of the issues I found obvious (lack of specialized training in best practices in energetic materials, lack of proper safety equipment (blast shields, etc)) have been addressed.

Finally, there's an obvious elephant in the room: Preston Brown, the student who had the accident. I note that there is no offer of any sort of direct culpability on the part of the professors for the incident or the environment that allowed it. Obviously, part of that is whatever legal machinations are taking place behind the scenes. I'd be interested in whatever they'd have to say about him, but that's not happening any time soon. Too bad.

5 comments:

  1. In situation like this the default position of the institution is "how do we avoid getting sued/fined?" The outcome of the accident plus alibism is often new unreasonably strict blame-shifting safety rules that are then nearly impossible to follow (you shall disobey them at your own peril). I hope they don't get into that trap, all it takes is a cover my ass jerk for a safety officer boss who hides behind a regulation book and cover my ass dean that does not care about the research, to make everybody's life there miserable.

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  2. Although, true that perhaps there is a concern for student hiding unsafe practices for fear of being dismissed in the lab, but perhaps there should be a tiered approach to safety misconduct, rather than immediate dismissal. I find this type of policy as having the view of: "its not our fault" mentality coming from the professors. In that they will just fire students for poor safety practices rather than insure that students are learning them and finding a way to be both productive and safe.

    I'm with you asking: What about Brown?

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  3. What's remarkable is that even after a student recklessly blew up the lab, brought scrutiny onto the university, and probably hurt the PI's chance at getting some grants, they're still hesitant to threaten to kick people out of the program. If it's not obvious that some dumbass who thinks he can grind explosive material in a mortar and pestle doesn't belong in grad school, you really aren't paying attention.

    And yet, neither of these professors probably has any clue how tight the job market is and that they should be restricting admissions anyways to ease the glut of PhD chemists. Some guy blowing his hand apart was the wake-up call they needed to consider kicking people out of the lab. Unbelievable.

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  4. I also recall in a former report, that explosives were also found at the residence of Preston Brown's home. Why wasn't he prosecuted? I know that if he was an international student there would have been severe criminal consequences. And the last I heard, Mr. Brown was granted access back into the lab and completed a PhD and is currently working as a professor in a community college. How is this possible??? What an ironic situation.

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  5. Perhaps because the old maxim of "shit happens" applies. One error in judgement does not mean everyone involved should be academically crucified as the current safety culture dogma dictates. Preston fucked up. He lost fingers. Lesson learned.

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