Friday, July 27, 2012

News from the Center for Public Integrity's #SheriSangji report

From the Center for Public Integrity's investigation of the Sheri Sangji case (reported by Jim Morris & Adithya Sambamurthy), some new details brought to light from the article and accompanying video:

The extent of Ms. Sangji's injuries (warning: graphic): While I think that we all knew that she was badly burned, Dr. Naveen Sangji (a physician) talks about the depth of her sister's injuries:
Naveen Sangji: When I arrived at the hospital, almost 50 percent of her body was severely burned. Her hands were burned down all the way to tendon. Her abdominal wall had been burned off. She had third-degree burns to her neck.
....Her parents, who lived in Toronto, flew in from the United Arab Emirates.  
“When my dad arrived, he put his hand on hers lightly through the sheet, and she screamed because it was so painful,” she said. “And we couldn’t touch her anywhere except her face.”  
Wa-wa-what? Gene Block puts his foot into it: Chancellor Block's role in the Sangji case is relatively limited, but apparently he e-mailed Naveen Sangji. Unwise move, dude (emphasis mine):
In the months afterward, Naveen Sangji pressed UCLA officials for details on the accident. She found the responses wanting. The university, she believed, was trying to make it appear that her sister had been an experienced chemist and that the fire had been her fault.  
In an email to Naveen Sangji on June 17, 2009, Block recalled the “elegant and successful way” Sheri had performed the tert-Butyllithium experiment eight months earlier. Block noted that Cal/OSHA had “found no willful violations of regulations or laws by UCLA personnel” and that “many corrective measures ordered by our inspectors were taken before the tragic accident, though they were not properly documented.”
Assuming that this e-mail is in context, I think it's amusing that a molecular biologist would be willing to comment on a vinyl lithium addition to a ketone in this manner. "Elegant and successful"? In what way?

Unsurprisingly, the UC system is getting religion: From the video:
Nino Maida (chief steward for UPTE Lab Workers Union at UC San Francisco): Before this case, it took us months, and sometimes over a year, to get any safety grievance fixed. Now it’s, “Don’t bother filing a grievance, Nino, just give me a call.” Of course, we want to do everything possible to ensure safety here at UCSF.
That's nice to hear for lab workers in the UC system, I would think.

More to come: Professor Harran is expected in court today, more from the Center for Public Integrity's team later today as well. Also, don't miss the weird gambit from the Harran defense team below. 


  1. '“When my dad arrived, he put his hand on hers lightly through the sheet, and she screamed because it was so painful,” she said. “And we couldn’t touch her anywhere except her face.”'


  2. Presumably 'elegant and successful' means no one was covered in flames. I can't imagine why someone would write something like that and I wonder if that was cleared through their legal department.
    'm still not certain that criminal charges are the most effective way to go about changing the culture of academic research though. I believe some sort of inspection done by funding agencies might be better. Perhaps as a final part of a grant review a group could be sent to inspect labs. It's possible that this would be cost prohibitive, but it provides a chance to stop unsafe practices before they go one too long. It would be important that this group include actual bench chemists as I feel that this is an area that is frequently lacking in the safety inspections I've seen. Being warned of the dangers of various solvents when far more dangerous compounds abound in the lab makes me question the knowledge some people bring to the job.

  3. no doubt the academic world needs a safety overhaul. I think this has raised some awareness, but Harran's conviction is not going to change things for schools outside the UC system (for those of you outside the UC, have you seen sweeping changes?).

    I like the above idea. Funding is the bottom line in academics and if work place safety was tied to funding I think it would be treated more like a priority and less like a sanction.

    The macro issue is safety in academic labs. The criminal issue is holding someone responsible for Ms. Sangji's death. When someone loses their life heads are going to roll. Do I believe Harran should go to jail... having working in this business this long I have to think no. This could have happened in 85% of academic labs. He won the shitty lottery. Jail is a real possibility if this goes to trial though, and I think it will. Clearly the prosecution is not coming up with a plea the UC and Harran are comfortable with. Yikes!

    1. I disagree. I think the Harran trial, if it goes forward, will change academic chemistry. For one, PIs would make sure that any and all training was documented. So they'd actually have to have formalized training. Plus, the safety department will have a lot more power. I think it might also limit the types of experiments done in the lab, at least by newer students.

    2. I think this whole ordeal has already accomplished that much. What PI at a major university is not paying attention to this and going into CYA (cover your ass) mode?

      The real question is will this change the way we do things 10 years from now? I don't know.

      Also, tBuLi and related reagents (KH, ZnMe2, etc) are to be respected, not feared. They have their place in O-chem and students shouldn't be encouraged to avoid them at all costs. They should be trained how/when to use them properly. Don't you think every PhD chemist should have used/been trained to handle reactive and dangerous compounds?

    3. I am outside of the UC, and I have not seen sweeping changes. The mindset at my institution, if I read it correctly, is "Severe lab accidents are rare, so we'll just take our chances." I've seen undergrads, even high schools students, perform labwork without any safety training.

  4. Inspections are only one part. You also need punitive action when the rules are broken outside those inspections. It is easy to label all your reagents and toss the safety glasses on once a year to avoid the OSHA fines. Anyone can clean up a lab and make an impressive show for the inspectors. It is entirely different thing to wear your safety equipment all the time and properly train all lab personnel. You need a cultural shift.

    This type of criminal proceeding is something that any PI running a lab can relate to. "I better make sure all my students/employees/postdocs/etc know what the F they're doing, or I could end up in jail." Fines just get paid out of the grants/departmental soft money pool anyway, so nobody has a strong, vested, personal interest in avoiding them. Jail, on the other hand, smart people tend to avoid that.

    1. You make a good point, but how do you enforce the rules 24/7? You and I both know some students just don't care. Do you have a zero tolerance rule, where if you are caught w/o proper safety attire you're fired? That seems a bit extreme. I think safety is a real challenge in academics where your job isn't on the line. We're talking about a diverse group of young professionals, some who take grad school more seriously than others. While jailing Harran will bring this topic into the limelight in the short term, I don't know if it will have the lasting effect we're hoping for.

      Unfortunately, I have no ideas as to a great solution to this problem. As long as people work with chemicals there are going to be accidents, although I agree that we should be doing our best to make sure those accidents are limited and people are safe. It's a complex issue.

    2. Agreed. You can't really fire a student, especially if they aren't even getting paid (work study?).

      How about instead, you enforce lab safety like any other rules on a university campus? Got caught downloading movies on your campus Internet connection? Cheated on an exam? Under 21 and caught with some EtOH-based beverages? Every university I've ever attended or taught at has some sort of punitive system setup already. How well each works is up for debate, but generally the more studious the person is, the more likely they respond to the threat of academic punishment. If I knew my funding/scholarships/fellowships would be suspended for a semester, I'd think twice before I did something lazy/stupid in the lab. Heck, make students go do another round of safety training for each infraction. Nobody wants to sit through that more than they have to.

  5. Unstable IsotopeJuly 27, 2012 at 1:57 PM

    What a shock, postponed again.

    1. The perhaps-shocking part is how deftly (I'm saying this in the context of super-fast-breaking-news-mode) the UC system has extricated itself from this with just the use of money.

    2. $ talks ... UC walks ...
      That is really the appearance here. I mean, it's complete speculation on our part here. We don't know what other efforts were made privately to the Sangji family with respect to UC's culpability. But, at the moment, I don't have a very high opinion of UC. But, I guess, and I think this is the point, that most of us will forget how UC let this blow past them a few years down the road.

  6. I'm not making any accusations/suggestions about Sheri and this situation, I've just been thinking about it recently.

    There was a guy at my university who believed he knew how to do everything. He did not listen to a thing that was told to him, even by his PI. He wasn't unique either, but he was the worst of the people I knew like him. Since then, I've found that there are people like him in the working world too, and they probably acted the same way in grad school. These are people who just won't do what they're told, whether it's not throwing solvents in the sink or the proper way to use a pyrophoric material. In an ideal world, they'd be kicked out of programs and fired from jobs. But the degree to which people resist instruction varies, and where do you draw the line? It's easy in some cases, where the person won't even listen to their boss. But what if they do 85% of what they're told? 90%?