Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sympathy for the adviser?: Patrick Harran, two fire marshals and tape recorder 403

Among the many valuable documents that Jyllian Kemsley was able to obtain and publish on the Sheri Sangji / UCLA case, the most valuable is the transcript of the one hour interview between Professor Patrick Harran and two fire marshals. Those who are interested in this case should read the document -- it's so rare that organic chemistry and the legal system meet (collide?) in such a manner, even though there aren't any CSI moments, by any means.

Holiday? Humbug!: I found it funny to watch a professor squirm when the UCLA fire marshals questioned why they were there during the winter break:
Aplin: Can you tell me why she was on campus during shutdown? UCLA has a shutdown period of time towards the end of the year -- turn of the year -- and all personnel are supposed to be off campus unless you are critical or central, and we are wondering why she was on campus during shutdown?

Harran: Oh, in research I think our vacation schedules may be a little different. I didn't realize there was some sort of mandatory - I treated Chari [sic] like a student. You know, she was classified as a full-time employee, but she was part of the group just like a graduate student and we work year-round pretty much. I was there then and two of my postdoctoral fellows were here. We were treating it like a - it was after the Christmas holiday - it was the week after that.

Aplin: Did anybody from the Chemistry Department or any of your colleagues say "hey, listen, it's shutdown period, we need to be off campus"?

Harran: No. And I hope they don't institute that as a - that would be bad.
I find this section really kinda hilarious, because it memorializes the must-work-all-the-time attitude of the academic world. Yes, yes, I've been in the lab on Christmas night and New Year's Eve, too -- but it's pretty darn funny to read it in print from a reasonably prominent professor (and after such a gruesome incident, as well.)

Sheri Sangji's statement: Los Angeles Fire Department investigators spoke to Sheri Sangji at the hospital; because they were "sworn peace officers", they are "allowed to take third-party hearsay testimony and admit it as evidence in a court." Her statement to the investigators is key in that she says three important things: 1) she was using a 60-mL syringe, 2) she said that she pulled the plunger out too far and 3) she said a container of hexane[s] spilled on her and exacerbated the fire.

With respect to the hexanes container, the fire marshals proceed to thoroughly interrogate Harran as to whether there was a container of hexanes. Ms. Sangji's statement is that there was -- Professor Harran says there was not. I suspect that the D.A.'s decision to prosecute in this case may hinge on this missing(?) beaker.

Questions of scale (sigh): In three separate places, I find I disagree with Professor Harran's assessments of the scale of the reaction Ms. Sangji was attempting to perform. To wit:
"And we do, we use both methods [CJ:i.e. syringe and cannulation.] I believe - yeah, [co-worker's name] had certanily done the cannulation technique. I don't know if she had done the cannulation technique previously, so she may have been repeating the procedure that she had done simply on a larger scale. (page 10, transcript numbering)

She was replicating an experiment. She had done this exact procedure with the same substrates several times. She was making more of something that she had made previously. (page 10)

...She was still on the pretty small end... It was a few grams of potential product... I would call it moderate scale. (page 32)"
I fundamentally disagree. While scale is all relative (there's always that annoying pilot plant gal who insists that your 200 liter reaction is penny-ante and she's drank more THF than you've ever seen), that's a pretty big amount of tBuLi. The facts speak for themselves on this point, but I'm sure that there have been many others who've handled more, safer.

Heartbreakers: Among the heartbreaking things in this transcript is the statement by Prof. Harran about PPE:
Jurado: Okay. Another element here that we have to address is personal protective equipment. It's my - we don't know whether or not she was using eye protection. We do have statements that she was wearing nitrile gloves. And we also know that she was not wearing a lab coat. (page 18)

Harran: Which is, which is, in my opinion, that's the real tragedy. I mean, I think just a simple cotton lab coat - I encourage everyone to wear eyeglasses and a lab coat. And I encourage it repeatedly. But yeah - I've done this, these are young people. They got lots of energy, they don't think anything's gonna happen to them, right? They don't, right? And, um, if I don't go in every single day-
No comment.

Another heartbreaking moment: Professor Harran was asked by the fire department officials to complete Ms. Sangji's experiment. I can't imagine what that must have been like -- I'd be interested to know if he actually completed the reaction or just quenched it.

Professors, you do not want this to be you: During this 1 hour interview, it's pretty clear that Professor Harran is uncomfortable with his position. He's got these two fire marshals asking him very pointed questions about his lab's operations. He has to answer questions about his employee's experiments, they want to know about this missing bottle of hexanes, he has to face up to the fact that he had his postdocs* and him clean up the lab (against the wishes of a UCLA fire marshal) and then he has to answer more questions about how the lab appeared to have been tampered with (during the night.)

Professors, you don't want this to be you -- pound PPE into your underling's heads, pound common sense about the dangers of the lab (and the dangers of scale-up) into their heads and you will probably avoid all of this.

*Anyone think that this part of the story would have been different if the two postdocs were US nationals? Yeah, I think so, too.


  1. CJ, I asked UCLA EH&S head James Gibson about the holiday shutdown, and he told me that the shutdown is really an academic/administrative thing that's not intended to cover research labs. From the story: "Gibson also says that, although the incident occurred over the winter holiday for the university and administrative offices were closed, UCLA expects that research labs will generally be open 365 days per year."

    Obviously there is a disconnect between that and what the UCLA fire marshals believed, and I don't know why that is.

  2. Chemjobber guess I am an "annoying" scale-up type guy as I have indeed executed large scale reaction with 5-20L BuLi reactions and can say it was much safer that any work ever done in the lab. I also know I ran many BuLi (including vinylLi prep at very similar scale) and other hazardous reactions in grad school in multigram preps and would agree with Prof Harren's characterization as "moderate" (so call you a whimp if you think scale speaks for itself). It was funny going from anything larger that 1L flask being called "pilot plant" to actual Pilot Plants where minimum was 30L with increase from there to 500-1000L.

    To me the statements suggest even though she had conducted the very same reaction she, either by inexperience or lack of satisfactory training (probably both), she did not properly appreciate what the increased scale involved. She should have used a canula method and been more cautious with PPE and other hazards (i.e the hexanes if was truly major contributing factor), so in that sense Prof Harran makes sense there too.

    I do agree with comments about "365/24/7" grad school hours being norm and that this incident should be flag to all academic labs to pay more attention. In terms of US Post-docs the difference I see it that they would even not be in the lab since probably would be with family.

    Finally note I have dealt directly with Fire Marshals/Government Safety inspectors and find most kgenerally now zitch about how labs operate and many times their "rules" make things less safe regardelss of oposite intentions.


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  4. Dear CMC Guy-

    (1) The difference between a US/European post-doc and one of the Asian Persuasion is that the former asks questions and the latter has a cultural inclination to blindly kow-tow to Lord Professor.

    (2) I, too have worked with large amounts of butyl lithium: that's n-butyl lithium, not t-butyl. N-butyl lithium is safe enough to be dispensed from a 100 L milk can (the kind used to collect milk from the cow) under N2. T-butyl lithium is another story. In that context, yes I've put out t-BuLi fires started by undergraduates.

    The confluence of the two previous paragraphs is that junior laboratory workers need senior workeers around who can act as professional role models. The poor English language skills of the two Chinese post-docs in the UCLA incident has already been documented. My own experience with chemical synthetic slophouses that are run by Chinese nationals in central New Jersey leaves me no doubt about the insuitability of the involved individuals as role models.

  5. Notes to readers: I deleted the comment at 4:02 because it was redundant.

    A further explication of my comment about the Chinese postdocs, which may require another post:

    I said this in reference to the lockout of the lab -- I have my doubts that postdocs that were US nationals would have participated in the lab cleanup without having cleared it with the relevant law enforcement officer at hand. 'Twould be interesting to get Deputy Lutton's opinions of the matter.

  6. Anon 4:04 Aug 19.

    I would hesitate to stereotype to such an degree but largely agree with you statements on Reverence and communication issues. I would add there are two sides involved and often the US personnel do not take time/effort to learn how to intearct effectively and I have been fortunate to learn much from fellow lab mates whose English was poor. I have likewise had several unsuitable role models that where Americans from Big Name groups so view may be tainted.

    You are correct that nBuli better behaved than tBuLi however when you use 10N nBuLi the characteristics are about the same IMO. Milkcan is good discription for nBuLi cannister purchasable although I think more akin to Propane tanks with the valves.

    Chem Jobber you could be correct about how US nationals might have acted although think many people would have not cleared with law enforcement if the Prof indicated to do it (falsely assuming that the Prof had such permission).

    CMC guy


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20