Friday, January 6, 2012

What the Sangji family is thinking

Over at The Pump Handle, a fairly detailed post on the worker safety aspects of the Sheri Sangji case. The most noteworthy thing, I feel, is a copy of the open letter from Naveen Sangji (Sheri Sangji's sister) to Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles district attorney.

This letter is one of the very few times where Naveen Sangji has spoken out about this case at an extensive length. If you want to know what she (and her family) are thinking and why the case has gotten as far as it has, you might want to read the whole thing. 

Some portions of the letter:
...What I know is that Harran as Sheri's direct supervisor and boss, and the leadership of UCLA, including safety officials Gibson and Wheatley, all had responsibility to Sheri - a legal responsibility, and a  professional, moral and social responsibility – to protect her and keep her safe.  All deliberately and knowingly violated the rules in place that would have kept her and others safe.   Nor was this the first such instance of a person being injured – a year before Sheri's death, a student was badly burned in this department.  
We believe that Harran should be held personally responsible for Sheri's death.  He admitted in his interview with UCLA Fire Marshals that he ordered Sheri to carry out an unsafe experiment, one that he himself would not do – a clear statement of how little he valued my sister's life and how willing he was to endanger students and staff researchers merely to further his own work.  He has not demonstrated the slightest bit of remorse for what he did to Sheri and for what my family has suffered.  His lab was still found to be unsafe after Sheri's horrific death, as documented by OSHA inspections. 
Failure to pursue felony criminal charges against Harran or allowing him to settle the case without our family being able to bring out what we believe occurred in front of a jury or in a report bearing on his sentence will be a grave injustice upon Sheri and upon our family...
But let me just tell you again, simply - we miss her. We miss her all the time.   We miss talking to her, laughing with her.   We miss the sound of her voice.   We miss her smile.   We miss seeing her in her favorite red T shirt that was so threadbare my mom would threaten to throw it out every time Sheri wore it - but now keeps under her pillow.   Our parents barely leave the house for anything other than work.  On Sunday mornings they go to the cemetery and weep uncontrollably at Sheri's resting place.  Each day they suffer the way only a parent can at the loss of a child.   They are mere shadows of the people they used to be.  My brother and I will never recover from this senseless loss of our sister.  He and I go through the motions, always with a heavy heart - missing her and thinking about all that she is missing. There is and always will be a sense of incompleteness in our family.  And UCLA and Harran are responsible. 
Our family feels strongly that unless you bring felony criminal charges against Harran, UCLA, and the UCLA safety officials, you will be absolving them of their roles in causing Sheri's death.  It will be an injustice to her suffering and to ours.  And other families will continue to remain at risk. 
...There is no doubt in our minds that criminal prosecution, against the university and the professor, will be the single most effective deterrent to unsafe laboratory conditions in the future at UCLA, and at other universities where right now individual professors, by virtue of the money they bring to a university or by the research they accomplish, are allowed to do whatever they want, either because they demand it or because others kow-tow to them in these academic institutions.   
You can't erase the agony and suffering Sheri endured, but you can bring about accountability and justice, and thereby save other innocent lives.  Before you make your final decision, step into any burn center and see firsthand the excruciating pain and suffering Sheri experienced -- suffering that you may be able to prevent in the future.  That is all we ask of you.  Anything less is not fair to my younger sister, who did not get the chance to live to see her 24th birthday. 
Thank you for your empathy and all your efforts, 
Naveen Sangji, on behalf of Sheri's family

13 comments:

  1. Good post, interesting letter.

    I had no idea that the safety violations were ongoing. Kinda throws a wrench into UCLA's protest that they are now a leader in safety.

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  2. He admitted in his interview with UCLA Fire Marshals that he ordered Sheri to carry out an unsafe experiment, one that he himself would not do

    Brilliant, if true.

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  3. I don't really see any evidence of this in the transcripts, but maybe I'm wrong.

    http://pubs.acs.org/cen/_img/87/i31/UCLA_Fire_Marshal_Harran_interview_2009-02-05.pdf

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  4. This letter is very painful and sad to read, but I really think we need to take that statement by Harran in context. I think most PIs, especially after they have been out of the lab for a few years, would say they would not do at least a few of the experiments that their students are doing because of lack of practice. That does not mean that they are willfully putting their students in harm's way. No matter how emotionally grueling this case is (and for the family it undoubtedly is), we still need to maintain perspective and think of the other side of the argument.

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  5. "Those events that day in Patrick Harran’s lab at UCLA are unbearable
    to think about. None of them were accidents."

    Seriously? If they're that disconnected from reality, I'm surprised they're settling for anything short of first-degree murder charges.

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  6. @Chemist - I agree that PIs might not want to do some of the experiments due to being out of the lab for too long. But I disagree that this gives an alternative side here. The PI may be cognizant of their own rusty skills, but that is still coupled with an appreciation that the experiment is hazardous - they would still probably be happy to go into the lab and do an EDC peptide coupling? If they know it is hazardous, and that the person attempting the experiment also has a lower skill level - and from inexperience, rather than rustiness, which will often lead to a lack of appreciation for the danger - they have an increased responsibility to educate, protect, supervise

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  7. A9:23a:

    You're getting at my (unspoken) point about this letter. They're furious, they think that somebody really screwed up, they want heads to roll and they're one of the primary drivers of the LA district attorney's machinations. Does anyone doubt that, if the family wasn't angry at Harran/UCLA and they publicly forgave them, that the DA's office would have backed off significantly?

    We may not agree with their point of view; I certainly don't see any of Harran or UCLA's actions as intentionally malicious. But now we all know how they feel. As disconnected from reality as they might be, they're affecting Harran/UCLA's reality significantly.

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  8. I think that sometimes we forget that we chemists are the ones who live in the alternate reality. There are few other professions (and this is certainly true for chemists in an academic setting) where your own personal safety, with regards to what your work "is", falls primarily under your responsibility. You are responsible for knowing what you work with. You are responsible for knowing how to handle those materials. You are responsible for understanding their safety. It is a bit of a marvel that these accidents don't happen more often. In fact, I think that it is a great testament, overall, to the ability of our advisors to educate us on the steps you need to take to understand what you are working with. But, what happens when that training doesn't sink in? What happens if that training never really occurred? What happens if there are no real regulations put in place?
    There may be some benefits and obvious reasoning why people should be put in primary charge of their personal safety. But there are few other professions where this expectation is on you. Especially for the chemist's reality, where the materials and conditions that you work with can change and do change daily. We are the ones who live in the alternate reality, and we shouldn't pretend otherwise.

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  9. Maybe it's just me, but I found it troubling that in the fire marshal report that UCPD were unable to interview one Wei Fang due to a language barrier. Is it really safe to have people working in a dangerous environment who can't communicate?

    Really tragic.

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  10. boo:

    I think that the postdocs were able to communicate in English, but decided to use Mandarin translators to be very sure of their words:

    http://pubs.acs.org/cen/_img/87/i31/Cal-OSHA_Chen%20statement_2009-01-22.pdf

    http://pubs.acs.org/cen/_img/87/i31/Cal-OSHA_Ding_statement_2009-01-22.pdf

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  11. A lot of people seem to think Harran is being railroaded for doing the same things everyone else does. I don't think what the D.A. is doing is any different than what happens to an unlucky driver who kills someone - most people who drive drunk are never caught, and certainly don't mean to kill someone, but if a tragic accident happens because of someone's negligence, jail time can be warranted.

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  12. Meant to say "drunk driver" not "driver."

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  13. Anon @10:01

    He may well be railroaded, and I don't have a problem with that. Judging by my own experience no one give a c**p about the safety in the academic labs, and we need to send a tenured professor to jail for 5 years every 5 years to change that attitude it is worth it to me.

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