Policing potentially dangerous students

ChemBark and ChemJobber both have posts up this morning commenting on the Texas Tech incident. I’d like to jump off from something in the ChemBark post:

I bet anyone who’s worked in a lab has encountered at least one coworker whose inattention to safety has troubled those in his presence. I feel a little bad for the PI here, because she is ultimately responsible for what goes on in her lab, and it seems as though this student was incredibly irresponsible. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound like she was the best at oversight, as Brown had an established pattern of dangerous behavior and didn’t exactly hide it. When you’re in charge of a lab, it is not enough to establish protocols and dictate your wishes. You must ensure that your protocols are being executed properly. If your directions are repeatedly ignored, you’ve got to swallow hard and take care of the nasty business of booting a student from the lab.

When I asked a couple of professors about this issue two years ago (for Making Explosives in the Lab), two said that they had, in fact, booted students from the lab:

Both Klapötke and DesMarteau have refused to work with students who may be a safety hazard. Klapötke declined to let a student advance to Ph.D.-level work after the student repeatedly scaled up syntheses without permission. DesMarteau asked a student to leave after the student let their spouse use the group’s vacuum line to pump off an organic solvent, and the next day the residue caused another student’s compound to explode. No one was hurt, but “sometimes people do something stupid and you can’t take the risk that they will do it again,” DesMarteau says.

Another professor I spoke with more recently said that he had had a student he was concerned about, and so the professor hovered–he checked up on the student frequently, making sure the student stuck to the established protocols.

Anyone else have experience with the issue of having to monitor a potentially dangerous student or employee? How can this be done appropriately and effectively? I suspect this is an area in which few, if any, prospective or newly-appointed faculty are effectively mentored. The danger, of course, is not just to the student in question–labmates could get hurt or, in the Texas Tech case, others on campus or at the student’s home.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. It’s been mentioned that Preston Brown had taken compounds home, some of which were explosive. In the third edition (1956) of Vogel’s A Textbook of Practical Organic Chemistry the following appears in the section General Instructions for Work in the Laboratory:

    “Students are generally permitted to retain small specimens of their preparatios: the main bulk … must be returned to the chemical store.”

    The preparation of DDT and picric acid are given in this book. Times have changed.

  2. You know, I kept a vial of something from one of my undergraduate labs. Anthracene, maybe? Definitely not DDT or picric acid. 🙂 Whatever it was, I disposed of it years ago.