Friday, August 10, 2012

Jyllian Kemsley's analysis of Prof. Harran's defense motion

I was working on a long-ish post on my point of view on the #SheriSangji case, but Jyllian Kemsley has really outdone herself with a point-by-point analysis of the chemical safety-related portion (4 pages, really) of Professor Harran's defense motion.

(For those who haven't read the defense motion, it basically says:
  • Baudendistel's report is bogus, and didn't have a factual basis for his charges that Professor Harran willfully violated health and safety standards
  • Oh, by the way, did you know he was "an admitted killer"? (not kidding, that phrase is in the motion)
  • Since the arrest warrant is based on the Baudendistel report, 
    • and since Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor Baudendistel was convicted of murder 27 years ago, and therefore he's not credible
    • and since the statute of limitations has run out, 
    • the arrest warrant should be invalidated and Professor Harran should be released.
Any mistakes in the above summary are not Dr. Kemsley's, but mine alone.) 

I can't really do it justice, so you should definitely go over there and just read the whole thing.

Interesting points for discussion from her post:
From the defense motion: "Investigator Baudendistel specifically affirmatively declares that he does not understand chemical scientific literature." (O’Leary interview, page 14) 
[Kemsley] The motion references discussion between Baudendistel and Sangji’s undergraduate research adviser, Pomona College chemistry professor Daniel O’Leary, about Sangji’s two papers published in Organic Letters and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Safety Zone readers, what say you? Do you think it is necessary for a Cal/OSHA investigator to understand that type of literature to understand the incident that injured Sangji?
So first of all, let's look at what Investigator Baudendistel actually says in his conversation with Professor O'Leary (Page 14)
B: Well, you know, you guys are a lot smarter than most of us.
O: [Laughter] No.
B: Trust me, I've read some of the literature. I don't understand it.
O: Let me see here. So you want the 2005 one? The 2005 one is "Direct Assignment of the Relative Configuration in Acyclic 1,3-diols." 
Heaven forfend that a senior Cal/OSHA investigator does not understand NMR structure elucidation papers! First of all, I think it's rather ridiculous that the Harran defense team uses this particular statement of humility (a characteristic that endears Mr. Baudendistel to myself, I confess) to indict his expertise. I would find it more convincing if the defense team noted that Mr. Baudendistel did not have a degree in chemistry or significant time at the bench (e.g. more than 5 years) or that he did not possess certification as a Chemical Hygiene Officer.

I am rather more confident that he's willing to openly admit when he's out of his zone of expertise, i.e. proper procedures when handling pyrophorics. I also note that he's consulting experts; it speaks well to the Baudendistel report that one of the people that he consulted was Mark Potyen, an Aldrich R&D chemist with 19 years experience at the bench and someone who uses tBuLi on a regular basis.

She also notes one of the most remarkable things to come out of Baudendistel's interviews with UCLA EH&S personnel, the interview of the chemical safety officer that interacted with Prof. Harran the most:
B: Do you know if there was any direct policy by UCLA that lab coats were worn while personnel are in the lab?
W [the safety officer]: No.
B: At that time, anyway.
W: No. Other than what it says in the lab safety manual, how it suggests wearing a lab coat in the lab.
B: So is it accurate to say that there was no, there was no rule that a lab coat be worn in side the lab?
W: Yeah, I don’t there there’s any rule, like major policy by the university.
Baudendistal: Was it your understanding that it was a discretionary matter?
W: Yeah.
B: And discretionary between who?
W: Discretionary between whoever’s working in the lab. It could be the PI, who makes it discretionary for the whole lab group, or the workers themselves.
B: But it was not, there was no rule that lab coats were required to be worn while in the lab.
Wheatley: No.
I think it's a pretty remarkable indictment of UCLA lab safety policy pre-Sangji that the relevant chemical safety officer would be forced to admit this, especially in front of UCLA lawyers. I'm surprised one of the lawyers didn't fake a heart attack right there to stop the questioning.

If I were to attempt to charitably summarize the Harran defense argument that's based on chemical safety, it would be this:
  • Brian Baudendistel is not a chemical safety expert. 
  • There were lab coats available to Sheri Sangji, and it's not Patrick Harran's fault that she didn't wear them. 
  • There are disputes between scientists as to what is the best means of transferring alkyllithium reagents at varying scales, whether glass or plastic syringe, or cannulation. 
  • You can't indict chemists for using "oral transfer of knowledge" when they all do it. 
  • She got some training in lab safety, when the report says she might have gotten none. 
I think that's pretty weak sauce, and not enough to put a hole in the Baudendistel report. Not that they're going to ask me, of course. 


  1. I can't understand why there is so much focus on the non-use of a lab coat. Is the lab coat really such an important safety factor in this case? If she wore the coat, unless it was made of some flame retardant material, wouldn't the burns still occur? I think that there are bigger safety concerns that led to this tragedy.

  2. Anon,

    A major part of the injuries were because of her synthetic sweater. Even a non-flame retardant coat would have been better is my understanding.

    1. Wouldn't the solvent penetrate the fabric of the lab coat and ignite on both the coat and the synthetic sweater? Sure, wearing a lab coat may have been better but there still would have been burns.

  3. Like you say, I'm amazed that UCLA apparently had no firm policy on wearing a lab coat in the lab. I've worked in plenty of labs where people don't wear lab coats, but they always always always have a sign on the door saying "lab coats must be worn" (or similar). The rule generally isn't enforced, but it seems crazy not to have a policy in the first place.

    Whether that has any impact on Harran I don't know, but I'm amazed the University has managed to settle when it seemingly didn't have the most basic of basic safety rules as a real rule.

  4. CJ,

    Remember, I warned us all (chemists) way back at the beginning of the year that the lawyers were now taking over and that the logic that we as scientists use will no longer apply.

    Sadly, this is even worse than I thought it would turn out.

  5. To Anon 8/11/12 0953

    Yes the solvent might have penetrated the lab coat but the fire would have been on the outside layer. If (or when) the burning solvent set the coat on fire the results would be the same. However, in the additional time it took to set the coat on fire the burning solvent may have been extinguished and the extent of the burns on the body may have been reduced.

    When dealing with transferring pyrophoric liquids it is best to have levels of protection between you and the material. The lab coat is just another part of those levels of protection.