Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Contest: The Duck of Sabotage

Commenter 032220110550a commented yesterday about:
hearing rumors of grad student locking their hoods at night in Boston College (lest their co-workers sabotage their work)
I have also heard these sorts of rumors about elite groups in Europe, that coworkers were sabotaging each other's reactions.

Label me a skeptic, but I have always found these sorts of cutthroat stories about highly competitive groups to sound a little ridiculous. That being said, there are obviously a great number of nutty folks in academic groups that are willing to pull some really bad/awful stunts. Whoever Michael Pemulis is, if he's willing to attempt blackmail, he was probably willing to toss a little water in your reaction. Also, the Vipul Bhrigu case is documented laboratory sabotage where the wrongdoer was caught on tape.
Quack! Don't you want me?
But I'll stick my neck out and say that these stories in chemistry are mostly grad student urban legend / late-night bad reaction paranoia / "friend of a friend"-type stuff. So to prove me wrong, I am running a contest to draw out the most ridiculous, convoluted and terrible stories of lab sabotage. As a prize, I am offering the below pictured duck, now named "The Duck of Sabotage." The winner of this contest will have this duck mailed to them, with 100 of the most excellent Chemjobber business cards and the finest hard candies* of the land filling its back.

The contest rules are as follows:
  • Submissions in the comments of this post or by private e-mail to chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com
  • Submission deadline: May 1
  • Winner to be judged on most awful and true** story of chemistry laboratory coworker sabotage that is best documented.
    • "Friend of a friend" isn't enough. One degree of separation is about the edge, I think.
    • Sames/Sezen is off limits.
  • Contest winner cannot be perpetrator of sabotage. Confirmation by asking detailed questions by private e-mail will happen.
  • Winner to be determined by CJ and/or popular acclamation. (i.e. to be decided)
  • Use good judgment here; if it's not your story to tell, don't tell it.
What am I hoping to gain from this? I'm hoping for 2 things: 1) that I can show, to the best of my ability that sabotage is always rumored, but rarely proven*** and 2) that I can get this ridiculous ceramic duck out of my home.

*Don't get your hopes too high.
** Thanks, Joel!
***I know -- sometimes, I'm a crazy optimist, aren't I?


  1. I haven't heard much about sabotage, but I have heard plenty about co-workers trying to steal projects.

  2. This isn't gonna win me the D. o'S, but anyway...

    At the R01 school I postdoc'd at, there may not have been outright sabotage, but darn close. Chemists hid "personal" stashes of reagents, sometimes in ridiculous places (-78 freezer behind two flasks and an ice pak). Flasks and stirbars were covetously guarded, hidden in much the same way as above. Ditto synthesized intermediates.

    A few times, as I was going to set something up, I would leave the hood to go get a reagent from a flamm cabinet, and come back to find that my apparatus had been taken apart for use in someone else's reaction. No lie, you leave for 5 minutes, and someone has dibs. This was especially problematic when distillation columns were taken...

  3. I'm in a department now working in a mostly bio research lab. Lots of cell cultures, buffers, proteins, and animals. No synthetic reactions to quench with water or anything of that sort. The building was constructed within the past five years, has airport level security when you enter (RF badges, ionscan, xray machines) and multiple locked doors with RF badge logging before you get to any lab space. Unfortunately, when you get to said lab space, it is totally open. Seven or eight groups share a single floor, and there aren't any walls or doors between them (don't leave your ipod out!).

    Last fall, we all got called into the conference room for a "serious discussion" and the bosses went on to tell us about how another group on the floor was seeing odd results that they contributed to sabotage. After killing a half dozen flasks of cells, the group in question decided to test all their media and fresh buffer solutions mixed up the night before, solutions that now had a pH somewhere in the 3.0 range. Seems someone had been going around to all the reagent bottles and dumping in a bunch of acid, or a bunch of base. At least this is as much as they could prove, given the limited chemical testing instrumentation in a biochem lab. It was only one of the eight groups that this was happening to, so it was either a disgruntled lab mate within that group, or someone had it out for the professor.

    The reaction was dramatic. Doors that were previously unlocked were now secured, refrigerators got padlocks, and the groups stopped talking to one another and instead began exchanging dirty looks for a good month or two. I haven't really heard anything since. Don't think they ever caught the person responsible.

  4. Oh, and there is also this story about Silvya Oommachen allegedly thawing a bunch of crystals:

  5. Is that a coffee maker in the background? Just how big is that duck?

  6. Yes, that's a coffee maker in the background. The duck is approximately 6 inches? tall. It would make a lovely addition to any writer's desk.

  7. Nature has a pretty complete story of a post-doc sabotaging a graduate student's work (complete with hidden cameras and police confessions!). Interesting, if not bizarre, read.

  8. A9:22a: It's linked above, but thanks!

  9. Anybody else get the Beastie Boys stuck in their head? Thanks a lot, Rockband.

    I note that there is nothing in the rules that these stories need to be true.

    My all-time best story of lab sabotage therefore involves a grappling hook climb to the roof, an untimely run in with the Mafia due to the unfortunate similarity of one synthetic intermediate to a particular illegal stimulant, and Macgyvering my way out of assured torture and death using only a scoopula and Buchner funnel.

  10. Also, I'd be very curious to see if there is any correlation with the who/where/why's of each case. I've never heard of any other case (apart from my miraculous escape, of course) at my school.

  11. CJ - I agree, the vast majority of these accounts are likely urban legend. I remember a couple of times where a lab mate would rant that they were positive somebody sabotaged their reaction, only to discover later that it was their own screw-up. I for one am perfectly capable of messing things up on my own -- I don't need any help from a saboteur.

    Joel -- Thanks so much for the earworm....

  12. Oh, okay. I therefore retract the part in my story about the scoopula; it was actually a daring escape using only an NMR tube sharpened into a shiv. The rest is completely true, scout's honor!

  13. I would imagine that these incidents are handled by putting fear into the perpetrator, and under a cloud of secrecy, covering everything up in order to protect the reputation of the institute.

  14. No Sames/Sezen! What a ripoff. Anyone in the Schultz lab want to come forward. I bet you could win a duck!

  15. While I had heard stories of sabotage in other groups/schools throughout my graduate and postdoc career, I can tell you confidently that I now know without a doubt that it *does* happen. How often I don't know, but this is a true story relayed to me by a longtime friend and colleague. Within the past year, a few of our close mutual friends, who were all working in the same group at the time, were having issues in their lab over a few years that went from minor (misplaced reagents, temperature fluctations during reactions) to major red flags (reagents contaminated/diluted on purpose, reagent bottles emptied and filled with solvent, etc). They became suspicious and set up hidden video cameras and caught the person in the group who was doing this multiple times over a couple of weeks, even deliberately setting up "dummy" reactions as bait. They caught and confronted the person with the evidence, who was kicked out and threatened with legal action should they ever speak about it or bring legal action against the university.

    And don't ask, because I will never reveal the names of the parties involved, or even what school it was at.

    So yes, it *does* happen, but again, I don't know how frequent it is.

  16. I have mentioned before in In the Pipeline: During my post-doc there suspected sabotage as one particular persons experimental set-ups for over night would occasionally have unexpected problems the next morning. This was an accumulation of minor mishaps like water or N2 lines "popped" off, or temp bath over or under heated plus established reactions not working well. While such can occur to anyone this person was very meticulous and the lab was full of intense and competitive individuals. Nothing was ever proven however a couple of us post-docs began double checking things at the persons behest, and we would also make an obvious point to look over hood when we left at night or returned in the morning. Result was no more such mysterious issues. (I believe it was sabotage and even went to the PI however without proof he ignored as far as I could tell).

    Alternately a story of grad school there was one guy who had no inhibitions about borrowing reagents, cleaned glassware or dried solvents of other people- we did have to resort to locking things away. Maybe it does not rise to definition of true sabotage but was dang frustrating to come in lab to find careful preparations that were made now set up/empty in this guys hood so could not do want was planned.


  17. So I can't ever submit my own sabotage story? Its so unfair... I wanted to share an insight how few drops of 50% H2O2 added into the Sure-Seal bottle of dioxane that belongs to the evil boss can enliven even the most boring palladium arylations.

  18. Sabotage is for real, but it's very difficult to prove.

    Are you interested in unproven stuff?

    Because I have better than a trifecta:
    --Stolen intermediates later published without acknowledgment
    --Oxidants added to reactions (like milkshaken described)
    --Taking over the computer that you are working on using Carbon Copy and screwing up the formatting of your manuscript.
    --Taking my group meeting presentation, going and starting his own lab, trying to scoop me with his superior manpower.

  19. Not direct sabotage, but fully intentional: another GS in my lab ran control experiments on a catalyst under study in the group, and found that one batch was excellent, and another poor. He then proceeded to hide the good batch with both a cryptic label (XYZKK127) and an opaque secondary container in the backbackback of the glovebox, with the garbage batch clearly labelled in plain sight for use by the rest of the group.

    When it became apparent what the situation was, he said he hadn't completed the control experiments and wanted to make sure no-one used the other batch before he was sure of the results....

  20. A4:03p:

    Counts #2 and #3 sound like sabotage to me; e-mail me details (as far as you're comfortable) and I'll see what I think. So far, you're the only one in the running, AFAIK.

    Readers, what burden of proof do you think A4:03p needs to meet? Am I missing other entrants?

  21. As a technician working in a protein x-tallagraphy lab we had numerous incidents over several years of protein "denaturation events". At one point buffers and solutions were being contaminated with foul smelling solvents so quickly and ubiquitously that foul play was suspected. Eventually they caught the disgruntled postdoc with hidden cameras and building entry logs. Long story short several projects made incredible headway after the sabotage ceased.

  22. From the Nature link above,

    "Some people whom [PI] Ross consulted with tried to convince her that [the sabotaged student} Ames was hitting a rough patch in her work and looking for someone else to blame. But Ames was persistent, so Ross took the matter to the university's office of regulatory affairs, which advises on a wide variety of rules and regulations pertaining to research and clinical care..Some people whom Ross consulted with tried to convince her that Ames was hitting a rough patch in her work and looking for someone else to blame. But Ames was persistent, so Ross took the matter to the university's office of regulatory affairs, which advises on a wide variety of rules and regulations pertaining to research and clinical care. Ray Hutchinson, associate dean of the office, and Patricia Ward, its director, had never dealt with anything like it before.

    After several meetings and two more instances of alcohol in the media, Ward contacted the department of public safety — the university's police force — on 9 March. They immediately launched an investigation — into Ames herself. She endured two interrogations and a lie-detector test before investigators decided to look elsewhere.

    How many students going to be confident/determined enough to go through all that??

  23. E-S: She's very mentally tough, that's for certain.

  24. CJ: Portmanteaux words save time and increase efficiency...shouldn't we just call it "labotage?"

  25. SAO: Sounds like a Canadian beer.

  26. I haven't had my work directly sabotaged, but there was an [accidental] incident where a lab member (who doesn't do synthesis) capped fuming nitric acid + water + solvent in my fume hood. A couple hours later it exploded violently, shattering a full 4L glass waste bottle next to it. Had not the sash been almost closed I would've been riddled with shards; as it is, one got out, gouging the metal ledge on the way, and sliced open my knuckle. It left surprisingly large amounts/trails of blood all over the lab. There was a new undergrad in there at the time, and the poor guy was running around trying to mop up all the blood. He left after a month or two - I wonder if that incident scarred him for life. All I heard from him was that his ears were still ringing for at least a day, and he wasn't next to the hood like I was!

  27. I once worked at a biotech company that did a fair amount of work with mice. One morning, a bunch of mice were found dead. Someone had put dry ice into their cages, which filled the cages with CO2 and asphyxiated them. Presumably the culprits thought the dry ice would all be sublimed before anyone investigated, but they miscalculated, and some of the cages still had bits of dry ice in them. Most people in the company believed they knew who did it, but there was never any direct evidence to implicate the presumed culprit.

  28. I don't know if this counts as sabotaging an experiment (specifically targeting the experimenter), but there was a case in 2009 where six researchers at Harvard Medical School were sent to the hospital from sodium azide in their coffee machine:

  29. Pharma MicrobiologistMarch 24, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    I have a true sabotage story but it's not at all funny, just very, very sad.

    When I was a grad student, a collegue's PCR machine repeatedly was reset so that her runs were destroyed. It always happened when my collegue wasn't in the lab which was suspicious. When my collegue stood watching over the PCR machine it never happened, but as soon as she tried to run a reaction overnight or even over lunchtime, boom, the machine reset.

    Over time this got more and more blatant so that as soon as a certain person, so-called person X, was alone in the lab and the PCR machine was running, the machine reset. At the same time person X was constantly needling my collegue, and tried to scare her with stories about miscarriages (my collegue was pregnant at the time).

    Person X was an accomplished student working in the lab for a few months. Very smart and hard working, got some really good and bona fide results (later checked and re-checked of course). A weird thing about person X was the telling of stories that got increasingly less beliavable. There was lying about everything. About accidents, partners, research incidents, you name it. I thought person X was bragging a lot and telling a lot of untrue stories but I had absolutely no idea sabotage was in the picture.

    Until my collegue with the PCR machine asked for a meeting off-campus and told me her suspicions. Then it took just a short while of watching and making some tests to realize what was going on. (My collegue starting a "fake" PCR run and leavning the lab with just X in it, for example.) It became very obvious that X was the person reseting the PCR machine. Only when my collegue was using it, X was never sabotaging anyone else's experiments.

    I managed to locate person X's previous employer by some creative Internet searches. And lo and behold, there had been sabotage there too, and moreover, person X had turned violent when confronted.

    All sorts of administrative complications ensued, and in the end, person X was escorted off campus by two guards. Psychiatric help was offered and was accepted initally, but refused after the first meeting. Unfortunately the family of person X refuses to acknowledge that there is anything at all wrong with person X.

    I know for a fact that person X is still in the field, applying for grad school positions.

    About a year ago I also saw person X on the street with a small child, of which X was obviously the parent. Thinking of a child growing up with a compulsive lier as a parent makes me increadibly sad. I dearly hope that X has gotten treatment and is healthier now. But I doubt it. It's all very sad, both for X and now, the child.

  30. I think the axide in coffee machine mist have been a an indiscriminate murder attempt. And it was obviously done by some biologist who did not have access to anything more potent - azide ingestion causes rapid and excruciating headaches followed by fainting but instances of fatal poisoning are rare.

    I heard of a case in Prague in a peptide custom synthesis lab where someone mixed two Boc aminoacids in a shared bottle, and the problem took about 2 months to figure out (and everything done during this time was useless. It could have been sloppiness though because they were making their own simple Boc aminoacida to save money.

  31. CJ: Dude, that "Labotage Duck" is the epitome of it! Where/how did you acquire it? Glad to see that having a steady job hasn't compelled you to spend frivolously, e.g., granite counter tops, 12-burner professional stove, Gevalia coffee machine, marble columns, etc. Are you going to the Anaheim ACS Meeting?Anyway, continue keeping it real! Peace out!

  32. A8:35:

    It was part of a gift flower arrangement; it has served its purpose. As for the granite countertops, I'm vaguely amused that you can pick the boringness of my home from these pictures.

    Re Anaheim: sadly, no. I was hoping for Denver, but that doesn't look good either.

    P.S. The marble columns are in the foyer; and if you believe that... :-)

  33. True sabotage story, but very boring compared to other commenters: Service lab was in the midst of a unionization battle with management, and management had promised to certain individuals that they would get promoted, raises, etc. if they could create a reason to fire the union organizers with cause. 3-month stability studies from high-profile clients were found with containers opened and samples dumped on the lab countertops, oxidation ovens turned off/temperatures adjusted, water hoses popped off distillation columns, sort of thing. The GC had coffee poured on it, and the saboteur was caught in the act by a manager who disagreed with the strategy. She was infuriated when the saboteur wasn't fired.

    The sabotage stopped when so many high-profile clients went to the local university's outreach lab instead, that the owners realized that they were headed for bankruptcy court if it continued. But by then it was too late and they'd already lost too many clients who had complained loudly about them.

    Various morals to the story: Saboteurs can and will bring down the whole enterprise; encouraging sabotage as a political strategy is like hiring mercenaries--they cost a lot to start fighting, but it costs even more to make them stop; don't have stupid employees who aren't even bright enough not to get caught...

  34. @CJ: At your leisure (obviously not at work), please see


  35. A10:14a: Thanks, but the chandelier one was better.

  36. Hm. Leaving a huge HyperChem optimization to run overnight; coming in to find that [someone] had removed the dongle to 'teach me a lesson about leaving the computer unattended'. Does that count?

  37. A7:33a: Hmm. I think I'm going to consider it an official entry, but it's not officially what I was looking for. I'll say that I think A4:03p is the early leader, assuming they pop back up or are willing to contact me.

  38. Been There Done ThatMarch 29, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    This isn't a joke CJ. As a victim of a saboteur, it was the worst episode during my time as a chemist.

    You deal with self doubt, paranoia and anger for a long time after experiencing something like this. the violation of the trust that exists in a lab is horrible. It really rocks your faith in other people.

  39. BTDT: E-mail me at chemjobber at gmail/dot/com with the details if you're willing.

    I don't think it's a joke, by the way, even with the jokey prize. It's just something to say that I *really* want to hear the stories. Not from an entertainment perspective, but more from a teaching/learning perspective.

  40. On the day I began my supervision of a CRO pre-clinical (dose formulation, analytical and bioanalytical) pharmaceutical unit, I was told by my supervisor, (the Director), that “this is a terrible place to work” and that the analytical “workers are sabotaging each others work at night”. I was told that security cameras and image recording equipment had secretly been installed, but so far had not caught anyone “in the act”. I was asked if I wanted the cameras to continue to record the night time events, and I said-turn them off.

    I then proceeded to meet the team and learn the business of the unit. Even though some were strongly individualistic, those same people were very hard working, extremely knowledgeable of HPLC analysis, and had written a strong set of SOP's for themselves. So this reputation for being a terrible place puzzled me.

    Later on, I was presented with an HPLC run gone bad. It had the same character as had been described to me: It had been carefully set up according to the method during the afternoon, but when chromatograms were examined the next morning, they were un-integrable because of overlapping peaks.

    We started a Laboratory Investigation and immediately recorded that the method had not been validated! The team said, that's always the way it is: “we have good validation SOP's and are trained on them, but the clients send us unvalidated methods and expect us to run them as is”.

    So I started the practice of only running validated methods, combined with offering the service of validating any client method.

    After that, there never was another another instance of un-integrable chromatograms or purported “sabotage”. I had the spy camera equipment removed.

    But this practice was not popular with the sales team, (supported by the Director), because it raised the cost of the work package.

    Was the previous practice of agreeing to use unvalidated methods, unintended sabotage by the Director and the sales team?

  41. No, it's the same management baloney as ever. Let's cut corners and see if anything happens. I don't think that counts as true laboratory sabotage, but it does count as management B.S.

  42. This didn't happen to me, but to my wife (let's call her Liz).

    Liz was a grad student in an organic lab. She stored her NMR tubes in an oven along with another student in the lab, call her Jill. One day, Jill came to Liz' office and was upset because one of her NMR tubes was missing. Liz said she was sorry and that it was possible that she accidentally took one of Jill's tubes without realizing. She offered to replace the missing tube, but Jill stormed out without saying anything else. The next day when Liz went to get one of her NMR tubes out of the oven, she found that all of her tubes had been snapped in half and placed back in the beaker.

    I should note that there was no "bad blood" between the two people involved before this took place.

  43. My lab notebook containing two years of research was stolen by a lab mate and his girlfriend who also worked in the lab. When I went to my advisor he was supportive and suggested that we interview everyone in the lab and contact the police. When he talked to the couple who had stolen my lab notebook they suggested I was mentally unbalanced and had been overly emotional in the lab prior to the theft. They even suggested to my advisor that I had faked the theft. They are both borderline personalities and they convinced my advisor that somehow the theft never happened. I went to the police and H.R. The police were supportive but said there was little they could do. H.R. encouraged me to file a formal complaint that would need to be taken to court. Without hard evidence I knew I did not have enough of a case. The couple then went around mocking my lab notebook theft to others in the lab, telling others I had faked it and that I was crazy. Everytime they would look me in the eye they would be laughing. I confronted the female and told her that I knew what she had done and that she could say whatever she wanted to other people but that between the two of us, we knew the truth.

  44. As an additional comment I would like to say that prior to the theft I did have a confrontation with the male related to his inability to get a job post graduation. By his own admission he is a vengeful and vindictive person who always gets even with people when they wrong him. In retrospect I should never have entertained a discussion which damaged his ego to such an extent, but we were caught up in the heat of the moment. I believe that he instigated the theft and that the female, his girlfriend, knew about it and went along with it. I don't know that there was any other motivation other than the fact that I had put him in his place verbally in a minor argument that he had initiated. If there was some other motivation, I do not know what it was.

  45. I know this thread is a bit old, but what the hell. The post by “Been There Done That” hit the nail on the head. I was the victim of lab sabotage when doing my chemistry PhD in a prestigious U.K. university in the 1980s. Simple preparations of my starting materials kept going wrong whenever my back was turned. I was subjected to scorn and insinuations about my abilities as a chemist. For months I racked my brain desperately trying to think what could possibly be going wrong, while my work was seriously impeded and my prospects of getting a PhD jeopardised. I was humiliated and embarrassed. My confidence was shattered, my enthusiasm gone and I sank into depression. Gradually it dawned on me that someone might be sabotaging them, probably by slipping hydrogen peroxide in. It would oxidise everything in an instant and leave no trace, only water, which was present anyway. When I suggested this I was met with more ridicule. One idiot, a postdoc, even had the cheek to accuse me of sabotaging my own work! It took me a while to work out who was doing it (not the idiot postdoc, but the one orchestrating the ridicule), and when the realisation came everything made sense. In fact with hindsight it was glaringly obvious and I am amazed it took me so long to figure it out, sabotage is just not something one expects, but without proof I was helpless. My supervisor was dismissive, and accused me of causing him trouble. I was only taken seriously when another PhD student independently arrived at the same conclusion I had. Even then all my supervisor did was move me to another lab, to which the suspect still had access, although it gave me enough of a break from the creep to finally make some progress. I was at last able to prepare my starting materials without him always around – and the preps worked. My supervisor showed absolutely no interest in trying to catch the culprit. The only staff member who sympathised was the head of security. When I went to him I didn’t even have to name my suspect – he did. He had suspected the creep of being responsible for thefts and other incidents of sabotage but, like me, was stymied by lack of proof, except for one occasion when it was proven the creep had sabotaged an n.m.r. machine. He was given a warning, when he should have been sacked. (Moral of the story, NEVER give saboteurs a second chance). I had been driven to despair, and the brink of nervous breakdown, and my physical health suffered too. It was an immense relief to finally get out of that place. I did get my PhD, but decades later the experience still haunts me. Hardly a day goes by when the memories don’t resurface. And it really irks me that the culprit got away with it. Years later I came across the Hare psychopathy checklist. I was disturbed, but not surprised, to find that my suspect ticks more than half the boxes.


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