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Patrick Harran arraigned on four felony counts, #SheriSangji case to be continued in June

By Michael Torrice

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran was arraigned today on four felony charges of violating the state labor code. A Los Angeles County judge entered a not guilty plea on Harran’s behalf for all four counts. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in the professor’s lab

Another judge ruled last month that Harran should face trial on three charges, each citing a violation of a separate state safety regulation: failure to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failure to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failure to provide chemical safety training to employees. The Los Angeles County District Attorneys added a fourth charge that essentially expanded on the clothing and protective equipment charge.

The new charge is for violating occupational safety regulation 3383(a), which states “body protection may be required for employees whose work exposes parts of their body, not otherwise protected as required by other orders in this article, to hazardous or flying substances or objects.” The original charge cited part (b) of that regulation: “Clothing appropriate for the work being done shall be worn. Loose sleeves, tails, ties, lapels, cuffs, or other loose clothing which can be entangled in moving machinery shall not be worn.”

At the arraignment today, Harran’s attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, said Harran would not enter a plea because the defense team planned to file a demurrer motion to dismiss the charges. Deputy District Attorney Craig W. Hum argued that the defense could file the motion after the plea. The judge then entered the not guilty plea for Harran.

The case was assigned to a new courtroom and the next court date was set for June 27. The June 27 appearance will be a status update to see how ready both sides are for a trial.

On the importance of teaching safety

From this week’s issue of C&EN, a letter to the editor from Dow’s William F. Banholzer, Corning’s Gary S. Calabrese, and DuPont’s Pat Confalone discusses whether laboratory safety should have been included in “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences“:

As members of the ACS Presidential Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences, we challenge Richard N. Zare’s comment on the inappropriateness of including a recommendation about laboratory safety in our report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (C&EN, March 4, page 51). While admitting that safety is important, Zare states the report “should instead have been about preparing graduate students, about the future.”

What is more important in graduate education than ensuring students complete their research as safe and healthy as the day they entered graduate school? A graduate education is the ideal place to instill the mind-set that if you can’t do research while carrying out the best safety practices, then you shouldn’t do it at all. The recommendation to include safety in the final report was unanimously supported by all commission members. …

The facts are unequivocal. Occupational Safety & Health Administration statistics demonstrate that researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab. There have been serious accidents in academic labs in recent years—including fatalities—that could have been prevented with the proper use of protective equipment and safer laboratory procedures.

Most chemistry and chemical engineering graduate students will find employment in industry. As new hires come on board, many companies spend weeks on remedial safety training before new hires are allowed to work in their labs. This clearly shows that the current state of graduate safety education is lacking and that there is a clear need to address it. If the report is supposed to focus on “preparing graduate students, about the future,” how can this not be a relevant topic? …

The “11 times more likely” statistic is inaccurately framed. I followed up on it with the letter authors and Lori Seiler, Dow’s associate director for environmental health and safety in research and development. The numbers actually compare the overall injury and illness rate for academic institutions (including those that might occur, for example, in grounds keeping or a dining hall as well as in laboratories) to Dow’s overall rate. Seiler adds that the injury and illness rate for Dow’s research laboratories is consistent with the company’s overall rate, when calculated per employee.

That said, it seems like it would be wise for the academic community to take this letter to heart.  Banholzer, Calabrese, and Confalone are not writing in a vacuum—they see the skills that chemistry graduates lack, and those skills are necessary whether those graduates are going on to work in industry, academia, or elsewhere.

On a related note, yours truly will be heading  to Virginia next week for the Council for Chemical Research annual meeting on May 19-21. On the afternoon of Sunday, May 19, I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on the pilot laboratory safety program that Dow began last year with the University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Patrick Harran ordered to stand trial in #SheriSangji case

C&EN’s Michael Torrice reported earlier today:

Chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran will face trial on three felony counts of violating California state labor code, a Los Angeles County judge ruled today. The case stems from a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab [at the University of California, Los Angeles,] that led to the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji.

See yesterday’s post for background.

Other coverage (will update as I see more):

  • Los Angeles Times (reporter in courtroom)
  • Westwood-Century City Patch (reporter in courtroom)
  • Can’t quite tell if this reporter was in the courtroom: Reuters
  • Media outlets working from secondary information: Associated Press shorter & longer; LA Weekly; Chronicle of Higher Education; Science Careers; Nature News Blog; UK Daily Mail; The Scientist
  • In the chemistry blogosphere: Chemjobber first & second (with many comments); Doing Good Science; ChemBark (also with many comments)
  • Chemistry Reddit
  • UCLA chancellor’s statement
  • National Law Journal
  • Chemistry World

Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Motion to dismiss or reduce the charges

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran returns to court tomorrow to conclude a preliminary hearing on felony charges of labor code violations. The charges stem from the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab. The judge hearing the case is expected to rule whether to send the case forward to trial.

The fire started when Sangji was handling a pyrophoric compound, tert

-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air. She was trying to transfer the reagent by syringe when the plunger came out of the barrel, exposing the solution to air. The tert-butyllithium ignited and Sangji’s clothes caught fire. Several aspects of the incident indicate that Sangji did not know how to handle the material safely and was not prepared for something to go wrong.

The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for the prosecution to present evidence to a judge, who will decide if there is enough to take the case forward to a trial. The court heard testimony in November and December last year. Recaps of the testimony can be read here: Day one, two, three, four, five, and six.

At the end of a preliminary hearing, it is standard for the defense to ask the judge to dismiss or reduce the charges. In this case, Harran’s attorneys asked to file their arguments in writing. Over the last few months, Harran’s attorneys filed a motion “to dismiss; or, in the alternative, to reduce felony charges to misdemeanors.” The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office responded to that motion. Then Harran’s attorneys replied to the response. The judge is expected to rule on Friday whether the case will go to trial with the original charges, the case will go to trial with reduced charges, or the case is dismissed.

Continue reading →

Stony Brook chemistry incorporates lab safety into Research Day celebration

Chemistry Research-Lab Safety Day Flyer-ScheduleResearchers developed lab safety demonstrations, competed for prizes, and attended a safety equipment expo as part of Stony Brook University chemistry department’s Research Day in January.

Research Day is an annual department tradition going back at least a decade, says department chair Nicole S. Sampson. Students prepare posters about their research, the department hosts a lunch, and one of the faculty members gives a keynote lecture. “Undergrads and other faculty wander through and find out what’s going on in the chemistry department,” Sampson says.

Last year, it was scheduled in early November, the week after Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast. Although the university suffered minimal damage from the storm, the school cancelled classes for several days and Research Day was postponed until January.

Meanwhile, Sampson says, she had already been pondering how to elevate people’s safety consciousness. As everyone returned to work after the storm, she organized a joint meeting with the Research Day and safety committees, and Research Day took on a new safety component. “We got really excited about it, says Jonathan G. Rudick, a chemistry professor and one of the Research Day organizers. “It was a great way to get something new into a well-trod tradition.” he says.

Adds Sampson, “You can only tell people so many times to be safe. We decided that we had to find another way to say that it’s important to the university and to get people to stop and think about what they do every day.”

The plan the department came up with was to have students develop safety demonstrations related to their research. Members of the department would then vote for their favorite demos, and the winners would receive a prize. Prior to the event, lab safety specialist Kim Gates reviewed demonstration ideas and written protocols to make sure students followed best practices, then visited the labs to see the demos in person and ensure the labs could accommodate visitors.

One of the demonstrations that won an award was a presentation on a waste handling system for radioactive 32P work. Liquid waste gets filtered to remove 32P, which gets concentrated to reduce the waste volume. “It’s a very nice set-up,” Sampson says.

The other award-winning demo showcased permeability of different types of gloves to various solvents. The group dyed the solvents so observers could see them migrating through glove material to paper on the other side.

Additional demos included using solvent purification push stills, ultracentrifuges, and glove bags; moving compressed gas cylinders; handling ethidium bromide; transferring butyllithium reagents; quenching metal hydride reagents; and “find-the-hazard” on a benchtop. One of Rudick’s favorites was hands-on instruction for how to remove gloves, using ketchup as a contaminant. The department also gave prizes for the two cleanest labs.

Additionally, Gates arranged for an expo with several vendors to exhibit safety equipment and perform a few additional demos. She had her own table to display lab photos she’d taken over a few years. Students had to identify 10 incorrect things in the photos, and their answers went into a raffle for another prize.

Overall, department members were very enthusiastic about the safety demos and the day went better than expected, Sampson and Rudick say. But between the usual Research Day events and the safety demonstrations, they agree that they had too much happening—neither Sampson nor Rudick actually made it to see everything. In the future, the department will hold separate annual research and safety events. For the safety day, Sampson and Rudick also want to pare down the number of demonstrations so there’s time to see everything. Even if individual researchers don’t do the chemistry in question, Sampson sees value in exposing them to it. “The laser jocks who come in to hang out with the people running ethidium bromide gels need to know what’s going on in that lab,” she says.


A note from Jyllian: I get a lot of questions from people asking how to be positive and proactive about safety rather than punitive and reactive. If your group or department is doing something that others could find useful, please get in touch!

Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education

An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.

An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.

The perennial question of the value of humanities education has been rearing its head down here in North Carolina and elsewhere. More often than not, these arguments focus 1) on the allegation that one can’t get a job in [insert humanities discipline] and 2) that education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is of far greater importance.

Remarks by our new Republican governor on a conservative talk radio show suggested that his goal was to reallocate state funds from humanities programs toward science disciplines. His stance led to an outpouring of support for the humanities but with considerable criticism of fields such as gender studies and African-American history.

My own students in a newswriting class were split on the governor’s comments. Their opinions were captured in an op-ed writing assignment where I posted the top three peer-ranked pieces over at my Forbes.com blog (by Luke Tompkins, Elizabeth Anthony, and Brian-Anthony Garrison).

Late last week, a call for support of the humanities by the STEM disciplines appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Dr. Kira Hamman, mathematics professor at Penn State Mont Alto. Her essay focuses around three points, one of which is the following:

It is the worst kind of pre-Enlightenment thinking to claim that a thing is only worth doing if it leads to economic gain. No, it is not true that a liberal-arts education decreases a person’s earning potential, but so what if it were? One of the most important things one takes away from a broad education is the understanding that there are many ways to live a good life, and not all of them include material wealth.

Of course, we all need to put food on the table. But having a science degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment. Even so-called alternatives to bench science careers are so competitive that jobs are scarce — science writing, for example.

But I want to come out in support of humanities education, and not just because I now have a faculty appointment in English at our state’s land-grant university.

Therefore, I’d like to assemble a list of why the humanities are important in chemistry education and/or being an employed chemist. Here’s a start from me but feel free to add more in the comments:

1.  Writing and oral communication skills are essential in chemistry and other sciences.

2.  The ability to interact with people from other cultures is increasingly important in a global, scientific economy.

3.  The rich history of chemistry is a jumping-off point for discussion of the most important advances of our discipline. Witness the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

4.  Expertise in psychology, for example, allowed a chemist to debunk Kekule’s dream in conceptualizing benzene’s structure.

5 . . . .


I’m looking forward to your own contributions.


Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship

A cool idea! Photo: Arctic, Inc.

A cool idea! Photo: Arctic, Inc.

We’re about to close up the world headquarters of Terra Sigillata to head out and convene with the PharmFamily in points north for Easter (but, thankfully, not a Nor’easter.)

Before we do, I’d like to draw your attention to a short but astute editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education by chemist Gina Stewart. Stewart launches her essay with a concise description of a dichotomy that’s giving all of us agita:

The STEM paradox: At a time when we have a national dialogue about the dearth of students pursuing these degrees, newly minted Ph.D.’s are having a harder time landing academic jobs.

She then talks about her career and what she considers to be the shortest postdoc on record (believe me, Gina, I know of many shorter) in the UNC-Chapel Hill laboratory of Joe DeSimone. There, the seeds were planted for entrepreurship and a fascination with the practical applications of carbon dioxide.

Years later, Stewart is now CEO of Arctic, Inc., a company that uses sustainable weed control methods by selectively freezing these nasty invasive threats to biodiversity – her company site is appropriately named frostkills.com.

Her experience is one example where one takes a different approach to a chemistry career than following in the traditional academic progression. The first commenter already admonished her for saying that she was pursuing an alternative career. Based on percentages, being a tenure-track faculty member is now the alternative.

It’s a great read so enjoy. I was also delighted to learn that she and her husband live just west of the Research Triangle and base their company in Clemmons, NC.

UK thallium and arsenic poisoning case neither accident nor suicide attempt

Chemistry World reports today that the University of Southampton chemistry graduate student poisoned with thallium and arsenic is slowly recovering. A joint university, police, and U.K. Health & Safety Executive found that the poisoning was neither an accident nor a suicide attempt. “Malicious poisoning remains a possible explanation,” Chemistry World says.

The Health & Safety Executive, the U.K. version of the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration, did not cite the university for any health and safety violations, Chemistry World says.

Also from the Chemistry World story:

Sources close to the victim, who wish to remain anonymous, spoke to Chemistry World with the student’s agreement, say he survived a dose of thallium that is usually lethal, and is now fighting to regain the ability to walk. ‘Doctors consider him extremely lucky to be alive,’ one source says. …

‘He is currently continuing a rehab programme in hospital,’ a source says. ‘He’s working towards walking again, but clearly the nerve damage to his limbs was rather extensive and regrowth takes time. Currently, standing up is extremely difficult and he’s been in a wheelchair for some time now. He has recovered from hair loss and has most of his hand movement back. I think he would quite like it if more people appreciated the severity of it.