Supervising the laboratory

One of the common threads that came out of the investigations into the laboratory incidents at UCLA and Texas Tech was a lack of training, communication, and supervision in the laboratories. Sheri Sangji at UCLA did not use the procedure that her adviser would have recommended. Preston Brown synthesized amounts of energetic materials well beyond the limits that his adviser, chemistry professor Louisa Hope-Weeks, thought she had set. I spoke with Hope-Weeks and chemical engineering professor Brandon Weeks recently about how they’re running their labs now.


Probably the biggest change is intended to address the question of “How do you know that students understand what you’re telling them?” Weeks says, echoing some recent science blogosphere discussion. Before anyone can do an experiment or use an instrument, Weeks and Hope-Weeks now require everyone in their labs to write out protocols for what they will do. It’s not enough to have a literature protocol in hand: Students must rewrite it in their own words. The same is true for instruments–no one gets to refer just to a lab protocol, everyone has to get trained on an instrument and then write out the protocol for themselves.

“After the accident what became clear to me was that oral communication with students was never enough to ensure they understood,” Hope-Weeks says. Now, “when it comes to lab work, we discuss it, and then I say go away and write it down and send it to me.” Hope-Weeks reviews the document, flags any issues, and the student will rewrite as necessary until Hope-Weeks is confident that the student knows what to do and how to do it safely.
The process applies to students from other groups who want to do something in the labs, too. Although TTU requires that labs have written standard operating procedures and experimental protocols, different faculty vary in how they implement the requirement–some faculty might write all the procedures that people in their lab are expected to follow or allow the use of literature protocols. But anyone who wants to work in the Hope-Weeks or Weeks labs has to write their own protocols and get them approved before starting experiments.


Aside from helping to ensure that students have thought about what they’re to do, the student-written protocols have also flagged some training issues, Hope-Weeks says. She read one protocol recently in which a student said they would use a cannula to transfer 30 mL of an air-sensitive material. Hope-Weeks asked if the student knew how to do that, and the student didn’t. The student will have to set up the equipment and practice with a solvent before proceeding with the experiment.

The effort to review student-written procedures can be a time sink, Hope-Weeks says–a protocol for a new project or new student can take an hour to review. As she and her students become more experienced at it, though, the reviews take less time.

Hope-Weeks also tries to be conscious of the line between appropriate oversight and allowing her students room to learn in the lab. If she reads a protocol that says a reaction will reflux for two hours and she thinks it will need 24, she’ll let the student proceed as long as there’s not a safety concern. “As long as it’s not unsafe, I’ll let them try it their way,” she says. “I think that’s the only way they can learn.”

Having the students write the protocols also provides documentation of communication between adviser and advisee. To that end, Weeks and Hope-Weeks also now take minutes of their group meetings, which they hold jointly. “Often that’s where we communicate with our students and give them advice on reactions, data they should collect, or ways to adjust experiments. Or they get advice from other students,” Hope-Weeks says. “We record all this so there can be no question of what we talked about.”

Both professors also make sure they visit their labs to check up on things in person, including reading lab notebooks. They try to make the visits random, but there are limits to their ability to do that. “Students aren’t stupid,” Weeks says–they know when he arrives or leaves for the day, or when he’s teaching class.

Hope-Weeks’ duties as an associate dean mean that she can’t be in the lab as much as she would like, so she’s appointed a senior postdoc to stand in for her. “If there is anything she is uncomfortable about or if she is ever not listened to, she is to call me and I will come immediately,” Hope-Weeks says. So far that has only happened once, when someone opened a solvent bottle and didn’t move it to a fume hood quickly enough. “By the time I got there 10 minutes later, it was done,” Hope-Weeks says.

And members of both labs have to sign a contract, agreeing both to follow the lab rules and to report any unsafe practices or unauthorized workers in the lab. The penalty for not following the rules is dismissal from the lab.

Trying to walk the line between appropriate supervision and micromanagement is tough, both professors say. On the one hand, the people working in the labs are all adults and “there has to be some trust in the lab because you can’t be in there all the time,” Weeks says, noting that trust is not just a safety issue–faculty also have to trust that students aren’t fabricating data, for example.

On the other, “If you think you’re providing enough vigilance and oversight, double it, because it is amazing what students will do when your back is turned,” Hope-Weeks says. She adds that even if advisers strive to avoid putting too much pressure on their lab members, students and postdocs nevertheless know that they need to get results and publish for the sake of their careers.

Weeks also continues to wrestle with the fact that safety enforcement is all punishment based. “I don’t know that that’s the best way to deal with safety,” he says, noting that the threat of dismissal may encourage people to hide things. He doesn’t have disposable funds to spend on prizes or awards that might encourage people to speak up if they have concerns. He’d like to see more of a dialogue in the academic community for positive ways to promote safe laboratory behavior.

Photos: TTU

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the assessment from Hope-Weeks that students need to be made to write out their own step by step instructions on how to handle hazardous substances in the lab. No matter how many times you tell them something, you never know if they truly understand until you have them write it down – only then does it become concrete.

  2. It is fantastic to see someone facing up to their responsibilities and making changes. I am getting involved in setting up Postgraduate Supervisor training and this sort of story is very important. Hope-Weeks talks about the extra time she now spends with students during experimental planning. It would be interesting to know how much research time the incident and subsequent investigations cost her. That would really put the extra-time issue into perspective.