Monday, August 26, 2013

A chemist offers a different opinion on the #SheriSangji case

From the defense motion to attempt to dismiss the charges against Professor Harran, a very interesting little side detail about the Los Angeles District Attorney office's pre-filing investigation. Basically, they talked to Dr. Neal Langerman (a chemical safety specialist) and Dr. Steve Carr, a chemist (Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry) for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Department and a researcher of water treatment chemistry. The defense is basically arguing that Dr. Carr's interview was potentially exculpatory and not included in their evidence:

Two things:
  • I don't have time to double-check right now, but I'm pretty sure that Ms. Sangji did not perform a cannulation on October 17, 2008. I could be wrong. UPDATE: Never mind, I am wrong -- according to Jyllian Kemsley (and her lab notebook, she did do a cannulation.) 
  • I love the bit about an experienced chemist not following the AL-134 bulletin because they would want to suck out every last drop of tBuLi. I'm sure that's at least partially true, but, to my mind, it's not evidence of best practices.
What is ironic to me is that a lot of chemists would say, (or have said!) similar things about the case. Plenty of room for reasonable doubt? More later. 

14 comments:

  1. I'm bad about not clamping bottles of BuLi, but if getting the last drop out was why you could just clamp at an angle.

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  2. My thoughts exactly!

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  3. Sangji did cannulate in the Oct. 17 experiment. From her lab notebook, page 5: "14:00 Transferred to rxn flask containing vinyl bromide via cannulation over 10 min."
    https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/778633-sangji-lab-notebook-tbuli-experiments.html

    I think it would be easier to get the last drop with the bottle upright and clamped at an angle, with the needle inserted all the way down into the liquid. Trying to do it with the bottle inverted, you'd have to pull the needle almost-but-not-quite all the way out, no? Tricky.

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    1. That's why Jesus gave us bent needles.

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    2. We used to bend all our needles and clamp the bottle straight.

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    3. I still tilt the bottle a bit. Just a few degrees causes all the fluid to run down to the bottom edge where it can easily be removed. If you leave it flat, you end up with little puddles everywhere and a couple of mls that are hard to remove. Either way, it needs to be clamped!

      It's obvious to me than Sangji wasn't even remotely properly trained to handle such a dangerous material. To even touch a few mls of b-BuLi in my corporate lab, there would be a full safety review involving at least four people (probably all PhDs, with many decades of combined experience). At the scale Sangji was operating at, there would be a higher level review involving middle management and engineers, certainly.

      Fireproof (Nomex) lab coats are already mandatory in our labs, and we have had training concerning the relative flammability of our underlying street clothes (fluffy hydrocarbon polymer sweaters = high surface area = flames and melting = severe burns). I am sure for the reaction we were doing both a face shield and a stand-based shield would have been required. What she was doing was ridiculously unsafe, and the process that got her there was woefully inadequate. Harran needs to be hung out to dry so that other professors start taking this part of their job seriously.

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    4. Chad, imagine Harran told her: "I see you wearing polyester one more time, I see you not wearing lab coat, and you are outa here." and then actually fired her. Can you see her filing a complaint? Remember, UCLA safety policy did not require lab coats, law school was the next destination. Can you imagine the editorials about a powerful man trying to dictate to a young woman what legally should be her personal choice? He'd be blacklisted for life.
      I mean I understand your feelings and I don't think he should get off scot-free, I just find it distasteful that the institution that set up the system that let to the accident, allowed it to proliferate, all the while reaping the benefits of cheap unsafe labor, has been able to bribe its way out with mere 500k and hung him out to dry.

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    5. They're paying for his defense, that's hardly hanging him out to dry, true?

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    6. What you wear at work is not a "personal choice", especially when it comes to safety. If I flagrantly violated my employer's safety protocols, I would expect to be fired and very much deserve it.

      In academic labs, the buck stops with the professor. Harran's lab, like most academic labs, was clearly unsafe, and he should be held accountable.

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    7. I've been known to tell high school students that, if they're wearing flammable clothing, they may not participate in experiments involving flame. If it's a regular lab, they had notice and should have known to dress appropriately. If it's a 1-on-1 technical, hey, we can do it tomorrow. I assume if any of them go on to further chemical education they'll remember.

      BTW hi Chad.

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    8. But that's just it - safety protocols must be in place. You can't enforce what's not out there.

      "Harran's lab, like most academic labs, was clearly unsafe, and he should be held accountable." I see a problem here - too many want him held accountable for the fact that all university labs where chemistry is done are basically deathtraps. Sure, let's make him do a nickel, and feel better because nothing like that will ever happen again.

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  4. Let me correct you - she wrote that she cannulated it and we have no way to check if she did. In my experience, students routinely skip over experimental only to fill the page out two weeks later when the boss wants to see the notebook and they feel that a major reaming is coming their way. Then "cannulated" goes in because it's the shortest word to describe air-free liquid transfer.

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  5. Let me add the fact that she had performed a cannula transfer is not evidence that she was properly trained. For some reason she didn't appear to know that she needed to do a cannula transfer of the tBuLi.

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    1. While it isn't evidence that she was properly trained, it also isn't evidence that she wasn't. I presume that the onus is on the prosecution to prove that she wasn't properly trained and I would guess that notes like this in a lab book would (rightly or wrongly) go someway towards reasonable doubt on this point.

      My personal opinion is that Harran may well have violated the labor code, but I'm not totally sure that the prosecution will be able to prove it beyond reasonable doubt - and I would assume that notes like this would make their job more difficult

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