Monday, November 26, 2012

In case you missed it: Day 4 of the #SheriSangji hearings, Baudendistel cross-examined partially

In case you missed it, Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice of C&EN have posted their summary of Day 4 of the preliminary hearing of Professor Patrick Harran on charges stemming from the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in January 2009.

Included in the summary is Mr. Baudendistel's comments on the interactions that the postdoc assigned to Ms. Sangji had with her, regarding safety. Friends/readers, would your mentorship relationships survive such scrutiny, with regards to chemical safety?

If you want to get into the inside baseball of the legal maneuvering, there's a little bit after the jump:

The defense revealed a little more of their strategy with their questions on the differences between industry and academia. They also went on an interesting little tangent about the qualifications of Professor Harran and Ms. Sangji:

O’Brien: Mr. Baudendistel did you read any of the articles published by Professor Harran?
Baudendistel: No.
O’Brien: Is it safe to say you don’t have a deep technical understanding of the type of work that Dr. Harran does?
Baudendistel: I think it’s very safe to say that.
O’Brien: Very safe. I join you in that, sir. You understand that Professor Harran joined the faculty you said in the summer of 2008, the inaugural Donald J. Cram chair?
Baudendistel: Yes.
O’Brien: You realize that the professor was recruited by UCLA? In other words, UCLA approached the professor and not the other way around?
Baudendistel: I believe that’s correct.
O’Brien: Can you tell us what the Donald J. Cram chair is?
Baudendistel: I just know that it’s an endowed chair. I don’t know much about it.
O’Brien: Do you know who Donald J. Cram was?
Baudendistel: I believe he was a… I think he was a Nobel prize-winning chemist.
O’Brien: At UCLA?
Baudendistel: I think so.
O’Brien: You realize that the purpose of the chair was to locate one of the most outstanding organic chemists in the world…
Hum: I’m going to object at this point, I think that lauding Dr. Harran has gone on long enough, this is [unintelligible] .
Judge Lisa B. Lench: Just the legal objection, Mr. Hum. Objection sustained. 
O’Brien then turned to Sangji’s qualifications as a chemist, referring first to her resume and Pomona College transcript. Baudendistel said that Sangji spent three summers doing lab research, besides the normal chemistry curriculum at Pomona. O’Brien then started to ask Baudendistel to go through the lab classes on Sangji’s transcript. Hum objected several times as to relevance, with O’Brien arguing that it addressed the question of training. Judge Lench asked O’Brien whether he could do so solely by listing classes and not discussing what went on in the classes. Lench let O’Brien go through the transcript for a bit but eventually commented, “Going class by class and grade by grade isn’t, I don’t think, going to get you to where you want to go.” 
O’Brien moved on to asking Baudendistel briefly about Sangji’s senior thesis and a recommendation letter from her Pomona adviser to Harran. O’Brien used Pomona student personnel records to establish that Sangji worked as an organic chemistry tutor and in the stockroom. O’Brien had just gotten to the two papers on which Sangji is an author when the judge decided to break.
Again, I don't really understand the defense strategy here. Is the tack that Mr. O'Brien taking that Professor Harran is really well-qualified and therefore would not have neglected basic laboratory safety? Also, it's fairly apparent that Mr. O'Brien is attempting to snow the judge into thinking that Ms. Sangji's undergraduate training would have been enough to equip her with enough to work with tBuLi, which is an interesting and common belief (and wrong, in my opinion.)

Readers, what say you?


  1. Fortunately, CJ, it doesn't matter what any of us thinks in this matter. (I wouldn't want to be the one deciding this case). The jury of peers is likely to not include any chemists. And it will certainly not contain any chemists who have handled tBuLi. I think that the prosecution has an EASY time of convincing the jury that tBuLi is very different from molecules Sangi had handled in the past.

  2. You try convincing a jury that the aryl Grignards (pyrophoric) that the deceased had worked with as an undergraduate are substantially different than t-BuLi (pyrophoric).

    Anyway, the manner in which the entire chemistry blogging community appears to have turned against Harran is somewhat distressing. It appears to be nothing more than an unfortunate accident, and it could just as easily have been any one of you facing an overzealous district attorney.

    1. That's a very interesting comment, Anon. If I were an enterprising prosecutor, I would have a video made of the difference in pyrophoricity between (phenanthren-9-yl)magnesium bromide and tBuLi. I'll bet there's a difference.

      (Also, I do not remember if Ms. Sangji actually did any of the bench work on the TADDOL project.)

      I will speak for myself when I say that I am sensitive to comments that I've been unfair to Professor Harran. What do you think is most unfair? If you'd like, you are welcome to comment further here, or e-mail me, and I'll post your comments without editing. (chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom)

    2. Only academics think Harran is being railroaded. I'm an industrial chemist, and if I did what he did, I'd be in as much trouble as him, and my company sure as heck wouldn't have gotten off with a wrist-slap like UCLA did!

    3. I agree with Anon@929 on the industry/academic divide on this issue. (Disclaimer: I have an industrial job). If someone under my supervision were killed on the job, I would at a *minimum* be unemployed.

      In my own experience, as an undergraduate, I did a lot of work with n-BuLi. While I think it trained me reasonably well on safely handling alkyl lithium reagents, I was still a little sloppy when working with t-BuLi later on. I ended up having a "small" fire when a single drop from the syringe I just emptied into a reaction hit a paper towel on my benchtop. Luckily for me, it was easily extinguished by a pat with my gloved hand. It could have been much worse, and clearly demonstrated the difference in reactivity to me.

      Any synthesis that requires t-BuLi, I try to find a way around it. (It's a whole lot easier now that I'm out of academics...and synthesis in general). That chemical is in another class of dangerous than even the "lesser" lithium reagents (n-, s-), and should require special oversight even when someone is familiar with pyrophorics.

    4. I think it would be easy to teach a jury the difference between a Grignard and tBuLi. All you'd have to do is show a video of a syringe of tBuLi catching on fire in air.

      I've worked with many Grignards, nBuLi and tBuLi. tBuLi is a totally different beast.

    5. Let me get that for you.... "It appears to be nothing more than an unfortunate accident that could have been prevented, and it could just as easily have been any one of you facing an overzealous district attorney" dying in a hospital of 3rd degree burns.

      I don't think i'm biased but believe me, i have not yet begun to criticize Harran.

    6. Watch-out! Bad Wolf is taking the gloves off!!!

      Seems to me this whole case boils down to personal responsibility vs proper training. It's hard to convince me that Ms. Sangji was completely unaware that 1) t-BuLi was flammable (she worked with it at least once before, kinda hard to miss the reactivity of this reagent) and 2) a lab coat is require in lab. I kick undergrads out of gen. chem. lab on a weekly basis for wearing shorts and open toed shoes. Basic lab attire is common sense.

      Did she have the proper training for t-BuLi. nope. Do 90% of grad students get any better training from their advisor? nope. So I guess the plan is to martyr Professor Harran in the name of saving accidents in the future? I bet $1 billion dollars I could walk into any academic department in the USA right now and find a grad student w/o proper PPE using crap technique during an experiment that no one told him/her how to properly carry out.

      The sad truth is, this case isn't going to do much to prevent that.

    7. I remember a news story when in Moscow everyone used to give bribes to the traffic cops if they were caught speeding or with a DUI. Then they started a campaign targeting bribing of cops and one driver was caught and put in jail. There was a big story and he wrote in the news how he was being 'martyred' in the name of the new law when 'everyone else was still bribing and there weren't enough of these undercover anti-bribing cops to make a difference'. I guess he was right and everyone felt bad for him. Also felt bad about the bribing of cops as well.

      I guess it would suck if my student died. But before this incident happened, I worked with litres of tBuLi and when I was training a new graduate student to take over my project, I specifically set up two reactions with large batches of it even though we didn't need the starting material from it at the time and made sure to show him how to do everything properly from adding, to quenching it and explaining all the things that can go wrong and what he can do. I probably didn't train him properly with other reagents, but you can't really cover everything in a few months. tBuLi was just a pretty important part of the project.

  3. @Anon 9:07,
    Who has turned against Harran? The great majority of us are interested in two things, which are pertinent here.
    1) What is a jury going to think of this? It doesn't matter one single little bit what any experienced chemist thinks of this (and there are chemists on both sides of this fence). So getting at this entails understanding how the prosecution and defense plan to proceed. CJ and Jyllian and Michael have done a great job of keeping us updated on this. Anything extra is armchair quarterbacking, which I am very guilty of. I think that the general mistrust of chemicals and chemistry enables the prosecution to play up and exploit differences in her undergraduate and UCLA experiences. I think that a substantive judgement based on the SOPs for qualifications for using these molecules (and quantities) is not really going to sway the jury as much as their subconscious opinions on chemicals. This is my opinion.
    2) How do we change training and education in an academic setting such that this doesn't happen again. You can read the disdain from both Baudendistel and Langerman against academic safety in either of their testimonies. And I think that their testimonies will be critical (armchair QBing). What does the academic community have to do in order to illustrate effective safety training and student qualification?

    I'll also speak broadly for other PIs in that we are scared that this could have happened to any of us because of the practices that are engrained in academic chemistry. That wouldn't make any of us any less guilty if a jury found us to be so.

  4. As a senior undergraduate- I have never worked with something like t-Buli, and if I were to do so in a research setting, I would ask my grad student mentor to be next to me every step of the way for at the very least the first time, if not more.

  5. Harran was wildly irresponsible in my opinion. Even in my academic lab, things weren't half that crazy, and new researchers were hand-held through everything for the first few months, and goggles and labcoats were mandatory.

    In a proper setting like every industrial lab I have ever worked in, using ANY amount of tbutylLi would require a safety review, including the creation of a written procedure to be signed off on by your supervisor. At the scale Sangji was working at, it would easily trigger higher level reviews that would involve 4-5 people, including at least a couple managers and an engineer, most of whom would have PhDs. It would be doubtful that such a reaction would be even allowed to be handled by a new researcher until a senior chemist had established everything and run the reaction a few times. The reaction would likely be monitored in several ways, and of course, Nomex lab coats, long gloves, face shield, etc.

    Sangji wasn't even in the ballpark of doing it right....and this was Harran's fault.