We have a couple of letters in this week’s issue regarding the felony charges against the University of California and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran for health and safety violations that led to the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji.
The letters respond specifically to a January 16 editorial on the charges and a possible prison sentence for Harran. C&EN Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum wrote:
That UC and Harran should face no sanctions given the facts that are known is unacceptable. As Kemsley said to me in a conversation about the case, the only people who think of a 23-year-old as experienced are 21- and 22-year-olds. Sangji was clearly unprepared to conduct the experiment that killed her. Other people in Harran’s lab who were there at the time of the accident were just as ignorant of basic safety procedures.
That said, sending Harran to prison for what are all-too-common safety lapses in academic labs would be overly harsh and almost certainly counterproductive. We need to change the safety culture in academic labs, not shut them down. If Harran is found guilty of the charges against him, a hefty dose of community service—maybe teaching lab courses and lab safety in Los Angeles high schools—would be a much more appropriate penalty to impose on him.
C&EN readers responded:
Rudy Baum suggested that “teaching lab courses and lab safety in Los Angeles high schools” would be appropriate community service for a person found guilty in a UCLA laboratory accident (C&EN, Jan. 16, page 3). I agree.
A significant national issue involves educational preparation of science students before they enter college or university. Every student needs hands-on experience in laboratory techniques and laboratory safety in science courses taught by qualified teachers in high school and earlier. Moreover, students need that laboratory instruction in modern facilities, with safety equipment that meets current codes and regulations.
I learned experimental chemistry in a small rural town. My father, who spent 48 years as a science teacher, taught the high school chemistry course. Each of my 40 years as a college chemistry teacher involved extensive laboratory instruction, with an emphasis on educating students to work safely with hazardous chemicals. Appreciation of chemical safety is learned incrementally; it’s best when that learning begins at an early age and is accompanied with knowledgeable mentoring.
Progress in chemical safety will be painfully slow at research levels until feeder schools—especially high schools—are well staffed with credentialed science teachers who are provided appropriate support.
By George Fleck
Being the left-leaning, environmentally minded ex-chemist that I am, I generally agree with Baum’s editorials. However, as a California prosecutor I was surprised to read his take on the punishment that UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran should receive for his part in the death of Sheharbano Sangji. A young woman, who received no safety training and wasn’t even wearing a lab coat, died while working unsupervised with a pyrophoric liquid, and Harran should face only community service because safety lapses in academic labs are “all-too-common”? Imagine if we applied that logic to DUIs and other “all-too-common” offenses that result in injury and death.
This letter expresses my opinion only and not that of my employer.
By Dije Ndreu