‘Talking about safety is something that scientists do’ (or, at least, should)

My story looking into the details of the January incident at Texas Tech University is out today: Texas Tech Lessons. In short, a graduate student made way too much of an extremely hazardous material, didn’t use protective equipment, and got badly hurt when the substance blew up in his hands. The incident is prompting changes in safety programs not just at TTU but also in research centers funded by the Department of Homeland Security.


The person about to be in charge of all environmental health and safety (EH&S) matters at Texas Tech is Alice Young, TTU’s faculty fellow for research integrity, a position that falls under the office of the vice president for research. She is also a professor of psychology and of pharmacology and neuroscience.

As faculty fellow for research integrity, Young’s responsibilities include oversight of TTU’s institutional review board for research on human subjects, animal care and use, research integrity, and research misconduct. She is also in charge of the university’s responsible conduct of research programs, which are now required for all students and postdocs funded by National Science Foundation grants, as well as some National Institutes of Health-funded researchers.

Previously, TTU’s EH&S department had been considered part of facilities. “We are fully convinced that the only way to have a proper safety culture on campus is to have EH&S and all that it does be more fully integrated into the academic and research environment on campus,” says T. Taylor Eighmy, TTU’s vice president for research. “We believe it will have more prominence with faculty and students when it’s affiliated with this office.”

Young’s own research involves using animals to look at the processes underlying drug tolerance and dependence. She says that, when she arrived in Texas, she couldn’t get a key to her lab in TTU’s Health Sciences Center until she’d gone through basic safety training and had a consultation with that facility’s EH&S staff about what she needed to do her research safely. That’s a model she wants to see implemented across the institution. “The kind of steps we’re taking are to make sure EH&S is aware of all new faculty hires,” Young says, as well as ensuring that EH&S is notified when established faculty members embark on a new area of research.

Young also says that she wants to see a change in mindset about regulatory oversight. In her lab, instead of seeing regulations as an annoyance or a hindrance, she tries to look at them as a way to enhance her research program—a way to make things better for her animals or her researchers. She would also like to see a more collaborative relationship between researchers and EH&S personnel. “I’d like for people to have interactions with EH&S like I’ve got with my superb lab animal veterinarian at the Health Sciences Center,” Young says. “He has regulatory authority over how I handle the animals, but we also have a working relationship such that if I have a question about a new procedure or issues coming up as my animals age, I can use him as a resource,” Young says.

One of the challenges to building a safety culture may in fact be some safety practices, Young says. Lab doors are often closed, if not locked, because of fire regulations and safety or security concerns. But then “you’re working in a closed environment,” Young says. “That doesn’t necessarily build a feeling of responsible community.” She doesn’t have a good solution yet but it’s something she’s thinking about and discussing with others on campus.

Young adds that some areas of laboratory science have a sort of “outlaw” culture in which it’s not acceptable to have a problem or ask for help. “We have to create a culture where students can bring concerns to the table,” she says. Accordingly, she wants to ensure that students are on both departmental and university safety committees. It’s an important mentoring opportunity for faculty and staff to model how to bring up and tackle safety concerns in a productive way, Young says.  And then, “students know that talking about safety is something that scientists do,” she says.

Photo courtesy of TTU

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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