Monday, December 14, 2015

Patrick Harran's nomination as an AAAS fellow to be reconsidered by the chemistry section

"Conn, sonar, we are cavitating."
Via Twitter at 8 pm, the interim statement from the AAAS, by Gavin Stern (AAAS news director):

AAAS Section Requests Permission to Re-review the Election of Patrick Harran as a Fellow
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today announced that its governing Council has been asked by the steering group of the AAAS Chemistry Section to allow reconsideration of the nomination of Patrick Harran as an elected Fellow. 
The Chemistry Section’s request to the Council was made after it became apparent that an initial review of Dr. Harran’s nomination materials had not included all relevant information. 
In a tradition dating to 1874, election as a Fellow of AAAS—the world’s largest general scientific society—is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers that recognizes efforts to advance science or its applications. 
Under AAAS bylaws, Fellows are nominated either independently by three existing AAAS Fellows, as in Dr. Harran’s case, or by the elected leadership of topical membership Sections. Following review by the relevant topical sections, successful fellows are then ratified by elected members of the AAAS Council, without interference or influence by AAAS staff. Newly elected Fellows are then inducted at a ceremony during the AAAS Annual Meeting in February. 
In November, AAAS had announced the election of 347 new Fellows, to be honored at a 13 February awards ceremony. Last week, members of the nomination reviewing committee became aware of a 2009 case involving the death of a technician in the UCLA laboratory of Dr. Harran. 
An additional announcement will be made as soon as the relevant AAAS governance bodies issue a final decision in this case.
Fascinating. More soon. 

33 comments:

  1. I'm still a bit confused - did the 3 people who nominated Harran not have to go through the Chemistry section at all? Or at some point did the Chemistry section have to approve his nomination, or at least be made aware of it? Maybe this will all come out in the end.

    The three people who nominated Harran have not done him any favors.

    It also sounds like AAAS did get quite a lot of feedback questioning the wisdom of the nomination.

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    1. According to AAAS at http://www.aaas.org/general-process:

      Responsibility for reviewing the Fellow nominations is assigned to the Steering Groups of the 24 Sections. Nominations undergo review by the Steering Group members (the Chair, Chair-Elect, Retiring Chair, Secretary, and four Members-at-Large of each section). Each Steering Group reviews only those nominations designated for its section. Names of Fellow nominees who are approved by the Steering Groups are presented to the AAAS Council for election.

      Each nominee must receive the approval of a majority of the Steering Group members, with no more than two opposed, in order to be included in the slate of Fellow nominees that is presented to the Council for a final vote. Nominations can also be challenged by any member of the AAAS Council during the voting process.

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  2. Sadly we'll never know who the 3 (possibly more) fellows who nominated him are.

    If we did know, it'd be a useful signal for prospective students and postdocs that their labs are not safe to work in.

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  3. It seems hard to believe they didn't know what happened - a cursory search would have given them that information. One has to assume that either they thought that Harran's achievements merited the award despite Sangji's death or that his achievements were worthy but not overwhelmingly so and would require them to ignore anything else that might have happened (or, worse, that the legal response to Sangji's death might have bolstered it because the nominators and awarders felt they could easily have been in his position). In none of these cases is the initial response really honest. I have a hard time believing the first option (I don't know what his group has done since diazonamide A, though maybe that's on me), and the second is possible but ought to have required some explanation on their part. The third....[spit].

    It's also possible that the suggesters believed that Harran had done enough to redeem himself and improve lab safety that he was worthy (his work and a redemption story). I don't know enough to know how he or his lab have changed to know that (anonymous claimed it so), but it could be. In that case, though, I would have expected the suggesters or the AAAS to wait until the case was fully discharged to do so (it seems a bit premature right now).

    I think his suggesters and the AAAS did Harran much less of a favor than they thought. If it's the third option above, though, they may have unintentionally and accurately represented the general problems with graduate education in chemistry.

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  4. My guess is that pretty much almost all chemists at an R1 instiutions knew what happened, but possibly they think that this could happen *anywhere* (knowing that they are, in general, as complacent as apparently Harran is), and that it was bad luck for him that it happened in his lab. These individuals could be thinking: why punish someone for having bad luck?

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    1. It's my opinion that Harran did get unlucky. Not unlucky in that the incident wasn't his fault, but unlucky in that his method of overseeing lab safety is identical to that of many MANY other academic labs in the US and they've just managed to avoid catastrophe. He doesn't deserve sympathy IMO, but I do believe this could have happened to a lot of people, he just happened to be the one.

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    2. Indeed. You have just reminded me of my own research "director": the guy with 30 coworkers, who would rush by for ca. 20 seconds, once/week, to ask if "you had it". I can remember three serious explosions during my time there, and all of them were conducted by student trainees, who were not being adequately looked after:
      1) an undergrad wanted to dry PhMe over Na. So he began to press Na-wire into the PhMe (duhhh...) The dye somehow hit the 2 L RBF: instant fire!
      2) an undergrad wanted to distill ethylene glycol, but did so in a closed distillation unit: boom! the safety windows on one side of the building blew out!
      3) an undergrad wants to distill a trialkylphosphine (again on 2 L scale) and the RBF started to smoke. He tried to bring it outside, and it ignited on the way down.

      Oh, and just before I arrived there for doctoral studies, a grad student committed suicide. The only person in the research group who didn't attend the memorial was the research director.

      So what happened to the research director? He became President of the (local-national) Chemistry Society.

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  5. While I feel there is a lot of whining on science blogs/message boards, they have been very important in some circumstances. They helped bring down the Korean scientist who faked stem cell research many years ago. Everyone became aware of the Sames scandal. We learned not to use nanochop sticks. And now possibly safety trumps the ego club. If Harran's membership would be revoked, this would be a major victory for bloggers as typically scandalous individuals do not receive administrative punishment.

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    1. Ordinarily i have come to hate the Twitter-based lynch mobs, but at least sometimes they put the heat/light on a situation that needs a second look.

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  6. It appears that nominators were focused on Professor Harran's contribution to science and teaching and likely the Chemistry section evaluators chosen by AAAS simply reviewed the file in front of them.

    I am just wondering if this level of scrutiny should be done on the other fellows of AAAS including ones in previous years, what about other awards and honors? Should we limit our anger to negligence that leads to death, or include serious injury, there are lots of "accidents" in chemistry labs every year.

    Let's keep this going and expand our efforts so the world will be better place.

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  7. I've dropped out of postdoctoral Hell and now teach at a technical high school, I have a pretty good time doing that, and I mention Ms. Sangji every year. Without fail the students express that they think it's her own fault. "So how old WAS she?" "Did she have a degree in Chemistry?" This is Voke, so kids know they can get hurt - printing presses eat fingers, improperly propped car hoods break arms, knives cut and deep fryers blister, all that. But I tell them that it's Prof. Harran's fault because he's the "Doctor" and the "Doctor" is always responsible, so I really don't want THEM to catch fire. The satin jackets, thin dresses, the 10 yard scarves, why not just bathe yourself in gasoline before lab?

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    1. Places that make money by doing chemistry (like professionals) actually have rules about that stuff, but of course, they actually have safety rules and teach and enforce them. I guess schools can't do that, though, despite it being their job and all, because....we don't want to! (It works for my seven year-old, why not professors?)

      I hope you don't run your own shooting range.

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    2. I do have safety rules, and I would say that about 5 of them were broken in the Sangji incident. Starting with flammable, non-lab appropriate clothing.

      I notice that you have fairly poor reading comprehension, so you assume that I must endorse working without taking any safety precautions whatsoever. I do hope that you are not responsible for SOPs yourself.

      But if my high school kids can learn what NOT to wear in lab, so should a grown adult with a chem degree.

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    3. "the satin jackets, thin dresses, the 10 yard scarves, why not just bathe yourself in gasoline before lab?"

      What is meant by this comment?

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    4. That we should not wear flammable clothes on Lab Day? It's not a fashion show, it's a lab, always say that. The scarves are proverbial because not only can they burn, they can fall into beakers and soak up chemicals, they can even get caught in machinery if any is around.

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    5. Fair enough. As you might imagine, I'm (probably overly) concerned about adding additional details that are not true surrounding this incident.

      I think we can all agree that 1) the polyester sweatshirt she was wearing that day was not appropriate to the hazards she was facing and 2) we could walk into any academic synthetic lab within 50 miles of all of us, and find an undergrad, graduate student or postdoc doing exactly that.

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    6. Given the level of training she allegedly received, she might not have known that it was a hazard anonymous. There certainly is a place for people to be responsible for looking into the safety of their procedures themselves, but an undergraduate in an academic lab should have a reasonable expectation of being trained to some extent. The shirt was less of an issue than the luer tip large volume syringe she was using, when a cannula would have been more appropriate. That kind of technical training definitely should have been the responsibility of the lab. And if it had been chances are we would never have heard of Sheri Sangi. Her oversight might have made the accident worse, but Harran's or his lab's made it possible.

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    7. Lots of things are flammable with pyrophorics. You should be more careful than usual with them, but in my old lab, I don't think we had a Nomex-type labcoat or heavy lab apron to have worn over clothes instead. I assume they're more common now, but I don't know if they're anything close to ubiquitous (if they're available in most academic labs).

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    8. We have heavy lab aprons, a whole box of them. Right under the goggle cupboard and the glove boxes. Tomorrow, we will actually use them - acidic and basic solutions will be in use.

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    9. Sorry to have been mean earlier.

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    10. and I got "find the milkshake" as my captcha. I didn't see any Ladas with vinyl chloride bottles thrown out the passenger window, though.

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    11. Yeah, I get grumpy too. Sure, Harran wasn't training people. But nobody asks this question: what the Hell did this woman learn at Pomona? She had an undergrad degree in Chemistry. In an ideal world (one we don't live in), that would be one that prepares someone to go work as a chemist. You can go through 4 years of coursework and not be taught about PPE - well, yeah, you can, but that's crap isn't it? Part of being a bitter postdoctoral dropout is that I think the whole University system is overpromising and underdelivering and charging too damn much in money and lifetimes for what it promises to give. If anyone is going to not drop the ball here, it has to be us at the K-12 level. I hope my kids remember, I hope that those who go to college (for many go into trades - and we help them find work there! University 'career' offices are a joke in comparison) at least remember gloves, goggles, apron, tie that hair back, stop drop and roll, where's the blanket, where's the extinguisher, and that clear liquid is NOT necessarily water dammit! If I don't teach them that now, apparently nobody is going to teach them later, that's the bottom line.

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    12. I didn't work with extremely pyrophoric materials in my college organic lab-- I bet nobody does. So Pomona, I bet, is training Chemists at the same level of lab sophistication as every other college. I suspect the goal of the lab is to learn some basic principles of organic chemistry using as safe reagents as possible. Substutions of relatively safe for dangerous compounds are probably always being made to improve safety in a sophmore organic lab.

      Does anybody even use a Shlenck line in college organic chem lab? I didnt.

      She required advanced graduate level training, which she did not get.

      I don't think Pomona did anything wrong here.

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    13. I agree, NMH. I didn't work with pyrophoric reagents until graduate school either.

      When I taught high school chem, I didn't let my students play with anything much more dangerous than acids or bases. From a teacher's perspective, it is not worth the risk. YouTube was my friend for demos.

      Yes, Anonymous, the secondary level is a great place to make students understand that safety is serious, but for fraction of students who will end up in an actual research lab, it's only the beginning of their education in making decisions regarding safety. Even the most experienced chemist still has to make judgement calls, but when an inexperienced student first works with something extremely hazardous, there needs to be some guidance. Your high school students have learned because they have been taught.

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    14. I went to a small school for undergrad, and in an upper division lab with all the senior chem majors (8 total), we did tbutyl lithium transfers. Mind you, this was after 3 dummy runs with solvent to learn proper schlenk line technique, and always under close supervision.

      In grad school, whenever we have something pyrophoric being transferred I always ask another grad student to watch. If this from my undergraduate training or my desire to not risk my life, is hard to say....

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    15. Maybe your undergraduate experience (3 dummy runs!) has taught you, in addition to proper technique, that there is a significant risk involved if you make a mistake. Sounds like effective teaching and learning.

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    16. My school didn't have as much lab work as lots of others, but we didn't do anything with pyrophorics. We did have one lab with a Schlenk line, but only one (of my three-person lab group) did it (the sections were split up), so I didn't have any experience with one of those, either. If I had done more undergraduate research (which would have been a good idea), I might have, but that isn't a guarantee, either.

      If handling of pyrophorics is important to the job, then it should either have been a requirement at hiring (Pomona isn't that far away - someone could have asked Sangji's references or gotten a reasonably complete syllabus of her education and labs) or someone should have expected to teach it. Since UCLA is taking people as students, and should have some awareness of what other schools teach, the expectation would be that they would have to be prepared to teach (or have advisors teach) specific lab skills needed for research there. Surviving your research (and making sure others aren't hurt from yours) is a good skill to have.

      I think graduate schools seems to profit to some degree from student naivete - as a closed environment without context, people are unlikely to have an idea of how things work other places, what the consequences of bad processes and actions are, and how the environment could be different. An awareness of safety requires an awareness of self and others and I think grad school tends to suppress those awarenesses.

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    17. Whoa. During my time as a "retro-post-doc", I did indeed have to put out the fire that an undergrad had caused. And yes, it was from t-butyl lithium. The person in question did have a higher amount of direct supervision than it appeared in the Harran case.

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    18. I used to be a postdoc in the US too, although in the relatively safer life sciences, but health and safety was atrocious. I attended two health and safety lectures in three years and both had me foaming at the mouth at the low standards. In the handling chemicals safety talk which was two hours long PPE was never mentioned. In the biological safety talk all the temps etc were in US imperial instead of metric, despite the fact that lab equipment is in metric. There were no lab coats in the lab I worked in. Food was cooked in the lab microwave. Gloves worn around a building shared with two lecture theatres and the antropology department. Students had no idea alkalis were corrosive. I could go on. In my new life I'm still involved with a program that hooks up kids in high school with universities. I'm always staggered at the lip service paid to the risk assessment. I drive my colleagues nuts with my insistence they write down they will be using PPE because I know that they probably won't be, but at least I've told them and told the student they should be.

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  8. I did what I should have done before and looked up the list of fellows. I'm not sure what to think. The list of chemistry fellows has a lot of names, most of which I don't recognize. On the other hand, the ones from organic that I do recognize seem to be much bigger names than Harran - Craig Hawker, Meijer, and Kobayashi. I'm not sure whether I'm out of it, if I've missed a bunch of Harran's better stuff, or if he seems out of place.

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  9. ...though the latter two are not USian and would probably be subject to a higher bar to entry.

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  10. I just looked through the list of "SECTION STEERING GROUP" members of the AAAS, at http://www.aaas.org/Section-C .

    It is frankly impossible that Bruce E. Bursten, Thomas E. Mallouk, Melanie Sanford, Mark Thompson, Michael P. Doyle, Marisa C. Kozlowski, Donna J. Nelson and Stephanie L. Brock would never of heard of Harran's lab death. There are pretty clear implications from the fact that none of those individuals said anything. Obviously, this comment is anonymous.

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  11. I would like to mention that Prof. Olaf Schneewind has had two lab acquired infections (2009 and 2011) in his laboratory one which resulted in a fatality and is a Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science even wrote about it http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2011/09/updated-university-chicago-microbiologist-infected-possible-lab-accident

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