UCLA professor Patrick Harran elected as a AAAS fellow

Sangji was using a plastic syringe to transfer tert-butyllithium when the plunger came out of the barrel and the reagent caught fire. Credit: UCLA

Sangji was using a plastic syringe to transfer tert-butyllithium when the plunger came out of the barrel and the reagent caught fire. Credit: UCLA

Among the people elected as fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this year is University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. In one of Harran’s labs in 2008, 23-year-old staff research assistant Sherharbano (Sheri) Sangji was transferring tert-butyllithium by syringe when the reagent caught fire, fatally injuring Sangji.

UCLA and Harran subsequently faced felony charges of labor code violations relating to the fire. Both are still fulfilling the terms of settlement agreements reached with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

AAAS elects fellow “to recognize members for their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications,” according to a press release. About Harran’s election, association spokesperson Ginger Pinholster told the Daily Bruin:

Ginger Pinholster, AAAS director in the office of public programs, said the AAAS fellow selection process is based strictly on scientific achievement.

“(Selection as a fellow) doesn’t reflect behavior or other issues,” Pinholster said.

Pinholster added the AAAS administrative members who oversaw the selection process for the fellowship were unaware of the charges against Harran.

AAAS publishes Science, which ran several stories about Sangji’s death and subsequent events:

Updated to add: A letter from Sangji’s family to AAAS leaders.

And again to add: Letters to AAAS leaders from University Professional & Technical Employees, the union that represented Sangji; Neal Langerman, safety expert and District Attorney witness; and various others. AAAS announced on Dec. 14 that the association’s chemistry section has asked to reconsider Harran’s election as fellow.

Commentary on Harran’s AAAS fellow election:

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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21 Comments

  1. This announcement must be difficult for the Sanji family to digest.

  2. Who nominated Dr. Harran? Whoever did so must have known that he neglected safety in his research laboratory and the horrifying consequences of his neglect.

  3. I’m scratching my head over this as well. It would seem that AAAS would look at the whole picture, not only scientific achievements, to award what would arguably be one of their highest recognition of a member.

  4. I am struggling to understand how AAAS administrators were unaware of the charges, and deferred prosecution of Professor Harran as it has been extensively covered by the AAAS’s own publications.

    While past incidents should not be the sole measure of someone’s academic standing, I cannot help but be disappointed in AAAS with this decision.

  5. OKay I understand that he is a good scientist with good results. But what the h&&&?

  6. When I learned of the AAAS action, last week, I sent the following email to the AAAS BoD – I have not heard back from any of them …
    —-
    To the AAAS Board (note: I could not get email addresses for 2 members):

    While the 2016 class of AAAS Fellows is impressive, I noted one exception, which reflects such a serious lapse that I am compelled to bring it to your attention. Professor Patrick Harran of UCLA is a brilliant organic chemist. I have read every one of his publications prior to 2012, and am very impressed, However, some singular failures are so significant as to override all other considerations. Contributing to the death of an employee of whom he was the direct supervisor rises to this level. In addition, Professor Harran is currently under Court supervision per the terms of the 2014 Deferred Prosecution Agreement.

    The AAAS Mission Statement says, in part “The AAAS seeks to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.”” Failing to safely supervise an employee fails to benefit that employee as well as her family, friends, and indeed, all scientists in the chemical enterprise. While neither the Mission Statement nor the Goals discuss responsibility for safety of employees, students, or the public, there is no question that this is a duty of every scientist. Neglecting to consider the safety leadership (or lack thereof) of AAAS Fellows speaks very poorly of the Association’s own leadership and commitment to advancing science safely.

    I do not ask and certainly do not expect that AAAS withdraw this award, but I do ask that you, at the highest level of leadership of the AAAS take steps to prevent a recurrence of such an embarrassing action.
    ————

    I learned some things while working on the email. The people who nominated PH were chemists and members of the chemistry section of AAAS. They knew or should have known of the UCLA fatality. It is certainly possible that the AAAS staff did not know; many ACS staff do not know of it.

    About 8 years ago, the ACS committee of awards (whatever its proper name is) at the urging of Marinda Wu, adopted a question regarding safety performance for the nominators of candidates for all ACS national awards. While this is a pro forma checkbox, if PH were nominated, the nominator would be obligated to address the fatality and explain why it does not disqualify the nominee.
    AAAS needs a similar system

    Finally, and I have said this repeatedly; PH is a brilliant synthetic chemist. While working on the investigation with the LADA, I read every publication with his name on it from the time he began his career. As a simple physical chemist, I could not fully comprehend all of the organic chemistry; but I could clearly see brilliance. None of that, lessens his failure to provide for the safety of his staff and students.

    Neal Langerman

  7. My gut reaction: Harran’s election lowers the esteem held for others elected to AAAS–a good reason to disregard AAAS membership when looking at a resume.

  8. The AAAS has gained esteem in my eyes with this judgement. I am not sure why this became a supervisor lynching when the employee made the mistake. To me this shows that AAAS is on the side of rationality and placing blame for an incident on the person that made the mistake, not reacting in a feudalistic quest for a pound of flesh like many in the chemical community.

    It seems the broken American legal system is leaking into academia which was once a bastion of logical thought; when an individual is injured through their own negligence and failure to inform themselves, that it is always the fault of somebody above them. In similar parallel to why coffee cups now warn about the temperature of their contents. In that case McDonald’s paid 2 million when someone failed to take the most basic of precautions to avoid spilling hot liquid on themselves. In this case, a vocal minority of the chemical community demands a man’s reputation when a trained chemist makes a mistake.

    If you will excuse me, I am off to stick a fork in an electrical outlet in the lab. I’m hoping to get my boss in trouble and get some sort of settlement.

  9. Congratulations!!

  10. Best wishes for him, he deserves it after being subjected to a witch hunt the past years.

  11. “In that case McDonald’s paid 2 million when someone failed to take the most basic of precautions to avoid spilling hot liquid on themselves.” It is disappointing to read that the myth that the infamous Macdonald’s coffee incident was due to the victim’s stupidity. The records will show that the coffee was not just hot, it was scalding (a full 30 degrees hotter than other restaurants serve)and the final settlement was a lot less than 2 million.

    And to imply that Sangji was solely responsible for what happened and that poor Dr. Harran was just a victim of a witch hunt is nothing short of deplorable.

  12. wayne, LOL, so you say the lawsuit was valid because the coffee was too hot? How do you even function?

    “And to imply that Sangji was solely responsible for what happened and that poor Dr. Harran was just a victim of a witch hunt is nothing short of deplorable.”

    What is deplorable is your belief system; it implies one needs somebody else to tell you how to do the most basic things. If you need someone to tell you not to spill hot liquids or pyrophorics on yourself, you are the type of person natural selection has it out for. Do you take responsibility for your own actions at all in your life? or are you a rule reading bureaucrat that probably was a mediocre student, could not produce unique research, and now tells those that actually produce knowledge why they are wrong?

    The assumption that people need training to do anything is the antithesis of innovation; one cannot do new things that nobody has done before if you think you need training to do it. You are literally holding back the progress of the human race.

  13. “wayne, LOL, so you say the lawsuit was valid because the coffee was too hot?”

    Yes, and the court agrees. If you are interested in knowing what really happened there are a number of good articles on this case. Here’s an interesting synopsis from a legal expert:

    http://www.mgrlaw.net/mcdonalds.htm

    “How do you even function?”

    Quite well, thank you gasdasdasd, it was very thoughtful of you to ask.

    Have a nice day.

    W.

  14. gasdasdasd writes:

    > The assumption that people need training to do
    > anything is the antithesis of innovation; one
    > cannot do new things that nobody has done before
    > if you think you need training to do it. You
    > are literally holding back the progress of the
    > human race.

    Wayne hardly needs rescuing here.

    However, removing tbLi via syringe is not a “new thing that no-one has done.” It’s a chemical manipulation about as old at tbLi and can result in fatal burns if performed improperly. Where the consequence of failure is death, a little training is in order. It is far more productive to spend a few minutes on training than to spend hours on the inquest, to say nothing of the opportunity cost to the lab worker who suffers the fatal burns.

    Like others, I agree that PH is a brilliant chemist. If the scientific and safe science communities are to forgive him for his role in the tragedy, when does that forgiveness come?

  15. There’s a detailed discussion of AAAS disingenuous statements regarding the appointment occurring in the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Division of Chemical Health and Safety.

    Regardless of whether you believe the appointment should have been made despite the death of his employee for which he was criminally charged or not, it is clear that AAAS’s public statement regarding the predictable outcry has been nothing but obfuscation and and a lie so far.

    See http://www.ilpi.com/dchas/2015/ starting December 9 and in particular http://www.ilpi.com/dchas/2015/20151209b.html

  16. “The assumption that people need training to do anything is the antithesis of innovation; one cannot do new things that nobody has done before if you think you need training to do it. You are literally holding back the progress of the human race.”

    Puhleeeze, spare us your pretentious, sanctimonious, faux-horror, laize-faire libertarian cloak. You’re either trolling and/or ignorant both of the facts of the case and established workplace regulations. Working with pyrophorics is not something you can just go “do”. Under multiple OSHA regulations, the employer is duty-bound to provide the training and equipment required to do perform the assigned tasks in a safe manner – even if the employee doesn’t want the training and is willing to put themselves at risk.

    That training was not provided, ergo, the employer was negligent for not complying with the law and is, therefore, both criminally and civilly liable. You are wrong.

    Do you think NASA just puts people onto rockets and blasts them into space? Or do they spend hundreds of thousands of man hours per year training for the tasks they will perform and how they will handle both predictable and unpredictable hazardous situations? And yet they seem to be doing pretty well advancing human progress.

    NASA’s achievements provide clear evidence which demonstrate that your ridiculous blanket statement is incorrect. The statement is wrong, and once again, so are you.

    Please provide an example of where safety training has held “back human progress of the human race”. We are all waiting with bated breath…

  17. This basically makes AAAS culpable in the widespread lack of a safety culture in the academic setting and represents a form cowardice.

  18. One aspect of this which has not been commented on is the timing. The charges against Harran haven’t been dropped. For the charges to be dropped, Harran must respect certain conditions over a five year period including community service, a fine, teaching chemistry to inner-city kids, consenting to random OSHA inspections and agreeing to not badmouth the decision. Only if he respects those conditions will the charges be dropped.

    At a minimum, the AAAS should have waited for this 5 year period to elapse and for Harran to become relieved of the charges before considering him for the award. Doing so beforehand is really in poor taste, is insulting to the family and damages the integrity of the AAAS.

  19. It is surprising to me that a 23-year-old working in the field would end up making this mistake. I’m not saying it’s her fault, it’s just surprising that whatever combination of people and policies existed at the time were in place resulted in this. Most every experienced chemist knows lithium is extremely flammable and dangerous as metallic form, and any reactive form which may lead to lithium atoms (remember the Boeing fires?). The fact is lithium quickly loses electrons, this combined with the small size of the ion is responsible for its utility in batteries etc. Futhermore, any daily chemist knows that akyl compounds, highly nonpolar compounds, are extremely solvating of plastics etc. It is shocking to think a chemistry lab worker in our institution, at least these days, wouldn’t consider the issues with using a plastic syringe for such strongly nonpolar organic solvents/reagents. A quick wikipedia highlights the issues with exposure to moisture, present in all air. It’s scary to think there are more safety concerns we haven’t figured out as a community yet, or that people would, directly or indirectly, disregard the concerns we, as a scientific community, have already realized.

  20. UCLA lab guy said: “Most every experienced chemist knows lithium is extremely flammable and dangerous…” That may be true but Sheri Sangji was not an experienced chemist, this was her first job out of school. And she was not planning to become a chemist either as, on the day of her funeral, a letter arrived from Berkeley to announce that she had been accepted into law school.

    The accident rate amongst new and young workers in the first 6 months on the job is about 4X that of experienced workers. This is why employers need to pay extra attention to making sure young workers are adequately supervised during this period.

  21. ” on the day of her funeral, a letter arrived from Berkeley to announce that she had been accepted into law school.”

    I think the real cause of this accident is that the gods of chemistry were angry.