Corante

About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Emolecules
ChemSpider
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
PubChem
Not Voodoo
DailyMed
Druglib
Clinicaltrials.gov

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
Kilomentor
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
ChemBark
Realizations in Biostatistics
Chemjobber
Pharmalot
ChemSpider Blog
Pharmagossip
Med-Chemist
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
SimBioSys
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Business|Bytes|Genes|Molecules
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Depth-First
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa


Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
FuturePundit
Aetiology
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Sciencebase
Pharyngula
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net


Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
GruntDoc
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine


Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem


Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Instapundit
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus


Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Sanofi-Aventis and Genzyme: Walking Away? | Main | Not Your Usual FDA Hearing »

August 27, 2010

How Much is the PI To Blame?

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

Chemjobber has a post up on the responsibility of the professor in the Texas Tech explosion case. I have to agree with him: if you're going to get grant money to have your group work on energetic materials, you have to keep a close eye on things. And the C&E News piece on the whole affair doesn't make it sound like that was happening. It's easy for me to sit here, ex post facto, and say something like this, but I'll say it anyway: from what I can see, this research group wasn't being run the way it should be.

At the same time, there's no amount of training that will keep a real idiot from doing something stupid (thus the German quote that led off my previous post on the subject). Believers in seminars and checkboxes always have to come up against that fact, and against the people that exemplify it. But here's what you have to do with such people: get rid of them. Get them off the dangerous projects at the very least, and try to get them out of your group, out of the building, out of chemistry as a career. Anyone who would scale up a known sensitive, energetic material by a factor of 100 over the recommended amount and then put it in a mortar and pestle does not belong in a chemistry lab.

But that takes us back around to the professor again. Anyone running a research group should know when there's someone in it with a reputation as a wild-eyed cowboy. And when your group is concentrating on hazardous materials, well. . .

So sure, there should have been more training, and it sure sounds as if this lab could have used a better culture in general. But the first thing it could have used was this guy's rear end being kicked down the stairs. And Chemjobber's right: all of these are the responsibility of the PI.

Comments (40) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School | Safety Warnings


COMMENTS

1. bearing on August 27, 2010 9:39 AM writes...

I'm curious as to whether you and the readers think the exploding graduate student should be denied his doctorate -- or at least denied the ability to defend a thesis on energetic materials until he demonstrates, somehow, that he is not likely to repeat his careless behavior. And no, I don't think the fact that he hurt himself once is evidence that he learned his lesson. This guy has demonstrated that he's a danger to others.

I can't imagine that it looks good to defend your dissertation on explosives characterization with only two fingers on your left hand.

Permalink to Comment

2. mikeymedchem on August 27, 2010 9:47 AM writes...

@bearing -- that was my response as well. I read the C&EN article that mentioned that the student was writing up, and couldn't believe it. I feel bad that he's missing fingers now, but there is no way that he should be credentialed after such carelesness/cluelessness. He went home with gram quantities of explosives in his pocket? He walked across campus with the stuff in his backpack? Come on. My students don't even carry milligram quantities of small organics across campus for NMR work without appropriate secondary containers. It all comes down to acting like a professional.

If I worked in energetic materials, I'm fairly sure I wouldn't hire anyone missing digits due to a highly-publicized lab explosion caused by carelessness.

Permalink to Comment

3. weirdo on August 27, 2010 10:00 AM writes...

Frankly, the PI needs to go, too. She didn't know they were making gram quantities? The stuff they were making is a purple powder -- she can't tell the difference between 100 mg piles of purple powder and 10 gram piles of purple powder? Methinks she never even went into the labs. And she certainly never bothered to look at this guy's notebooks. Finally, she asks students to make "energetic materials", and DOESN'T PROVIDE THEM WITH BLAST SHIELDS!!!
Borderline criminal.

But she won't be held accountable. This is academia, after all. Your tax dollars at work!

Permalink to Comment

4. john on August 27, 2010 10:01 AM writes...

I work at a large research university. Many students take their organic samples on ice across campus on the campus bus system. I can post you pics of the unsecured gas cylinders that are on our loading dock. I've had a roommate who while putting out a biohazard bag in the autoclave was stuck by a needle carelessly discarded in the plastic bag. All these things have been reported, and nothing has been done.
The truth is that I'm at this University to work ridiculous hours under conditions which are not covered by OSHA legislation. If I don't want to do it, they can find someone else who will.
I can't even complain, as it has been made clear that students do not have whistleblower protection. If I go over my bosses head, and lose my position as a result, no PI is gonna pick me up. The culture is about producing papers, under a labor theory of value. Education, safety, and wellness of the student and post doc come second.
Sorry for the rant, already having a bad day and this is a pet peeve.

Permalink to Comment

5. p on August 27, 2010 10:01 AM writes...

There are a fair number of older gents who worked on fluorine chemistry who got PhDs after lab accidents robbed them of digits or limbs. I don't think the fact that he had AN accident should preclude a degree. How many of us with PhDs in chemistry would not have them if an occasional idiot move in lab precluded them?

What should get this guy bounced is the history of not just momentary idiocy, which all humans will experience from time to time, but the sort of premeditated idiocy. Flipping the wrong switch, spilling liquids, misreading labels, etc. happen. Planning to take explosive or toxic materials home with you from lab should get you thrown out of a program. I'd say this whether he'd had the lab accident or not.

As mikey says, it comes down to being a pro. There are ways to transport hazardous materials and places those materials should never be taken. That isn't a momentary lapse, that is wrecklessness and should be punished.

Permalink to Comment

6. Curt F. on August 27, 2010 10:25 AM writes...

Before I agree with Derek and "weirdo" on the culpability of the PI, I'd like to hear from some academic PIs about the procedures required to dismiss a graduate student for safety violations.

At my old grad school, the EH&S department liked to say that the PI was ultimately responsible for safety in the lab. Does that mean that the PIs word that a student was recklessly unsafe would suffice to remove the student from the lab and the PIs life? Or would procedures with EH&S, hearings with the Dean of Graduate Studies, or large amounts of paperwork with the Vice Provost for Research need to be initiated?

In other words, is the PI really ultimately responsible for safety in the lab?

Permalink to Comment

7. Liberal Chemist on August 27, 2010 10:32 AM writes...

I think we all know that success trumps everything in chemistry. The productive graduate student that has sloppy habits in the lab is tolerated. The PI with the big, high profile grant will not be shut down by a department as long as nothing significant happens. Those of us that have worked in synthesis have probably all worked with creepy researchers that had “The Gift”. I am not saying that sloppy work by lucky people is the best way to get work done but the reality is that we have likely all seen it happen and have tolerated it because it was in our own best interests. Glass houses people, glass houses. Instead of lynching the example of the moment we should seek to change the culture.

Permalink to Comment

8. wcw on August 27, 2010 10:48 AM writes...

Not a chemist, I still have to think the absence of shields in a lab working on explosives is damning of everyone involved in managing the place.

And you lead with the vernacular, not with the actual Schiller quote, which is, 'mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.'

Permalink to Comment

9. Phil on August 27, 2010 10:50 AM writes...

@ Curt F

As far as I know, it's not hard for a good PI to force a student out. It comes down to the magic words: "If you graduate with a doctorate, my letter will not support you. I you leave with a master's, I will support you." There's no procedure necessary. Only an idiot (maybe this guy) would finish a Ph. D. when they know they won't have their PI's support. The only piece of paper with value is the letter.

I agree with weirdo. This PI is clearly incompetent. No blast shields for a lab does hazards evaluation specifically? Come on. She needs to go.

Permalink to Comment

10. Pallas Renatus on August 27, 2010 11:02 AM writes...

I'm not familiar with the compound they were synthesizing, but would 100mg of the stuff really warrant a blast shield? I'm imagining that if the student wanted to take the rest of the stuff home, or do some private project with it, it wouldn't be too hard to lie your ass off in order to get the materials. I know students who have made off with entire bottles of iodine crystals and other materials on the pretense of needing a few mg of it.

It's hard to know how responsible the PI should be without knowing all the details.

Permalink to Comment

11. Anonymous on August 27, 2010 11:09 AM writes...

I'll weigh in. Ultimately it is the PIs fault.

They have admitted that they had problems with this wack job student and should have asked them to leave once they had failed to change his behavior. Having an unexpected accident with synthesis with sloppy chemists is a little different from working with explosives. The chances of something going boom is much higher, then a run away reaction or a freak fire.

No PI is going to watch every student, but they should have been watching him, and that’s why it’s the PI fault. The answer is they should have fired or suspended him working when there was first a problem. The PI chose to ignore and allow sloppy productive work rather then safety and should face the consequences.

I don't understand why it is so hard to fire grad students. I remember there was a guy who liked guns a lot, very anti social, agressive, and unsafe in the lab. He was asked to leave pretty quickly.

Permalink to Comment

12. bbooooooya on August 27, 2010 11:13 AM writes...

"The culture is about producing papers, under a labor theory of value. Education, safety, and wellness of the student and post doc come second"

Yup, you can like it or you can lump it!

Sadly, all this negative culture does is reinforce itself in subsequent generations of Profs (well that's the way we did it when I was in grad school....). Heck, no self-respecting MBA would accept a $40k salary after 2 years of MBA school, much less 4 or 5 years of chemistry school (waaaaaay harder!).

It's a pity that chemists don't have the balls to stand up for themselves.

Permalink to Comment

13. p on August 27, 2010 11:16 AM writes...

Phil is right in the power a PI has. But that is it. If the student has sense, that is a powerful threat. But, if he doesn't, a PI has a difficult, though not impossible, time in physically removing a student from lab.

Most unis, at least the one I'm at, views the student as a student, not an employee. So kicking them out of lab is akin to suspending them from school. Can't be done without hearings and red-tape. In the end, a PI can't throw someone out of their lab single handedly.

Now, having said that, if a student is making large amounts of dangerous substances and especially if they are then transporting that material off campus and the PI can document it, then I don't think the red-tape or hearings would be much of a hurdle and I think the PI is obligated to do it.

Pallas is right that just about any student can probably lay their hands on materials without a PI knowing. But a PI should at least make them go to the effort to act sneaky. As someone said yesterday, I'm not at all sure this type of research should be going on in an academic lab. If it is going to go on in an academic lab, there should be at least as many precautions and protocols as there are in a lab which handles illegal drugs. (And I would argue there should be more).

Permalink to Comment

14. Laura on August 27, 2010 11:17 AM writes...

Quite a few years ago, I trained a 4th year undergraduate student in proper glove box procedures ...where the trimethylaluminum and other fun compounds were kept. I saw from across the lab that he just opened the main chamber door (no evacuating it). To this day, I have never been more terrified or lividly angry in my entire life. Thankfully, things turned out fine.

Was it the PI's fault that the student did an idiot move? My fault because I had trained him? I think that you are ultimately responsible for your own behaviour. If you don't think things through or prepare before hand, you are going to hurt yourself and your lab mate. Safety is as much a part of your job as planning the synthesis.

Permalink to Comment

15. Anonymous on August 27, 2010 11:42 AM writes...

As for the comments about a lack of whistleblower or OSHA protection for grad students, I find it ironic that professors and university administrators are among the most left-wing liberal people you'll ever meet, but they're very good at turning their principles on and off when it's convenient for them. They'd be the first ones to freak out if the janitors were being exploited, but they'll look the other way when some grad student gets injured!

Permalink to Comment

16. Anonymous on August 27, 2010 12:02 PM writes...

Look for the silver lining, people! At least this happened in an academic lab... imagine how much worse it could have been in an industrial setting. Natural selection at work :D

Permalink to Comment

17. Chemjobber on August 27, 2010 12:18 PM writes...

I am, of course, honored that Derek agrees with my post. Thanks for linking!

As for bearing's question, the granting of a PhD is an academic judgment of whether they've contributed enough to scientific knowledge to earn one. There's no evidence (AFAIK) that he doesn't deserve one, based on his contributions.

I think it's a bad way to punish him for his carelessness -- I think that's already been done. You can't grow back 3 fingers, and you can't remove your name from the Internet and chemist lore. I am confident in saying that he will not work in energetic materials, but I could be wrong. (Presumably, you'd really like a judgment from an energetic materials chemist.)

Permalink to Comment

18. RM on August 27, 2010 12:34 PM writes...

I agree with Laura@14 - sometimes (even otherwise intelligent) people do stupid things, and it's irrational to expect their supervisors to be 100% culpable for their underlings' mistakes. "A PI is ultimately responsible for what goes on in their lab" makes great copy for training seminars, but isn't always workable in practice. The Monday-morning safety "experts" can come up with a whole list of things the PI should have done ("inspect their labbooks once a week!" "keep a detailed inventory of materials!") which would have prevented the accident, while being completely impracticable.

That said, from the information I've seen, the PI in this case was woefully negligent. If the Grad student was as much of a bad actor as the stories indicate (e.g. others in the lab knew and were concerned he was violating even the lax safety standards repeatably), any PI that was paying the least attention should have realized they had a situation. They might not have been able to kick him out of grad school, but at least they could have transferred him to a project not involving dangerous explosives.

--

Anonymous@15 - Not everything needs to be turned into a political screed. One big issue you neglect is that all professors were once grad students themselves. A lot of the indifference over grad students' plights is because when the professors were grad students, they had it even worse. There's a lot of "We didn't worry about it when I was a grad, so I don't see why you should today."

Permalink to Comment

19. Laura on August 27, 2010 12:51 PM writes...

I worked for a PI who is notorious for being absent for long periods of time. I never once saw him in the lab in the two years that I was there. Maybe the grad students and postdocs were oddly tough but if I had done something even remotely cowboy-like- I firmly believe that I literally would have been given a beating. These folks took their safety seriously and didn't need the PI to enforce it. I took this mentality with me- you do something unsafe and I'll call you on it. I never had lab mates that didn't back me up.

Permalink to Comment

20. CMCguy on August 27, 2010 3:06 PM writes...

While like a Ship's Captain as PI does bear ultimate responsibility for their labs any "zero tolerance" approach as expressed by some is very irritating. Like #7 LC notes the culture of safety may be generally deficient, particularly in academic circles, and this is just a more dramatic example. The lack of blast shields for this environment is disturbing but I have been around many places and people who did not use auxiliary protection even if available as does require adjustment in how one works.

As far as the student please ask yourself how many foolish things you did in undergrad/grad school, intentionally or by accident, as again part of the culture is rather cavalier. I would suggest most of us could not be able to cast the first stone. This situation appears more extreme based of info presented and I may be over interpreting but incident may reflect a disproportionate level of knowledge vs. wisdom which I see most of people go through many times. As a 3rd year grad student would assume a level of skill and competence leading to possible arrogance or less caution in approach because had experience with similar compounds or scales without problems. Working with energetic materials all the may have desensitizes to the danger of not treating each compound with due respect I think it ultimately comes down to individual responsibility and that is for not only yourself but those around you.

Permalink to Comment

21. Skeptic on August 27, 2010 5:51 PM writes...

I dunno, do the inmates in a real slaughterhouse discuss corrective action after an accident or do they just shrug their shoulders and go on? Corrent answer could be a behaviourial hint for chemists.

Permalink to Comment

22. Bob Jones on August 27, 2010 5:58 PM writes...

If the rules were followed, there would have been no need for a 'blast shield' if there was 100 mg made (this is like 5 matchheads worth of material). Second, if a student was not going to wear their safety glasses, what makes you think they would use a blast shield? Third, I would like one of the 'experts' explain how a blast shield would have protected hands of someone grinding behind it.

Permalink to Comment

23. weirdo on August 27, 2010 6:26 PM writes...

I'm sorry, some of these apologists for the PI are just being ridiculous.

"no need for a blast shield if there was 100 mg made" is simply an ignorant statement. These scientists are intentionally making "highly energetic" materials. A 100 mg sample can make a big boom. And, if that 100 mg is in a glass vial, a fast-moving sliver of glass can do tremendous damage to a human body.

"The student wouldn't use it anyway" is not worth responding to.

Here's how I "explain how a blast shield would have protected hands". It wouldn't have. But did you miss the part about the injuries to his torso and face? Or, the potential for injury to his lab partners who, thankfully, escaped injury?

Nowhere do I see anyone advocating "zero tolerance". But the overwhelming lack of oversight in this case is shocking. Yes, graduate students do stupid things. But PIs needn't encourage stupidity. And they can at least provide a safe environment in which students can do stupid things, and provide the basic tools so that ramifications of that stupidity are minimized.

Let's at least pretend we have a few standards, m'kay?

Permalink to Comment

24. Bob Jones on August 27, 2010 7:23 PM writes...

@weirdo

So you are an expert on these materials? Why do you think there was such a lack of oversight? Did you even read the students statement? He said he met with her as often as needed, at least twice a week, and in weekly group meetings.

You know, sometimes people come out of the woodwork when an accident occurs and only then are issues brought to light. Did you read the police report that states the student would scale up after hours and that the student had compounds in their desk.

I am not making a judgement either way, but you are so quick to jump on the PI but you can't accept that accidents do happen when carelessness occurs. Is there not a chance that the PI did not know this behavior was going on (the statement is in the investigation that they did not know and I am not sure how they would know stuff was taken home) and even the other students stated that they did not report the violations to the PI.

So should all PIs that have accidents be fired? How about the explosion at Missouri recently or the undergraduate that burnt down the chemistry building at Southern Illinois?

If you have read all the documents uploaded by Chemical and Engineering News and still feel the same then fine.

Permalink to Comment

25. Jose on August 27, 2010 11:53 PM writes...

Making multigram batches of energetics for FUN, parading around campus? That's not just idiocy, that's criminal. The DHS (and OSHA, and ?) should come down on this guy's head. And the PI is a first class idiot. Any energetics lab needs to be run *way* beyond standard good practice, and everything points to this lab being run *way* below that (pathetic) minimal standard.

Permalink to Comment

26. Anon on August 28, 2010 7:07 AM writes...

RM @18: "The Monday-morning safety "experts" can come up with a whole list of things the PI should have done ("inspect their labbooks once a week!" "keep a detailed inventory of materials!") which would have prevented the accident, while being completely impracticable."

This is why industry does not like to get anyone fresh out of academia unless they are a big shot and there's no chance they will go anywhere near a lab bench, frankly.

At MegaPharma, we get oodles of applicants, just having finished their nth postdoc, from Ivy League/near-Ivy University, for every job opening. We reject them in favor of the applicants from Pretty Decent U. with even a couple years of industry experience. This is because all the things academics regard as "completely impractical" are in fact routine, everyday practices in industry, for a lot of legal reasons. After someone has spent a certain amount of time in academia, asking them to change their habits by keeping a regularly-updated electronic notebook, work safely with PPE, supervise the new techs closely for a few months, do paperwork consisting of three whole pages of forms, use an electronic inventory system, go ahead and buy a new (whatever) rather than trying to make the cracked old one work...

Clearly other academic labs are able to manage these materials safely (the Klapoetke lab Chemjobber references, for one) it's just that this particular PI chose not to implement those practices. I find that good safety practice is pretty rare in academia, though; there is still the culture that a large amount of bad behavior is tolerable in the name of Genius. I think the PI does bear a lot of responsibility because it's pretty obvious she did not trouble herself to find out any best practices for handling these materials, let alone implement them--in other words, if she doesn't even know how to do this kind of science, and doesn't bother to find out, exactly how much genius-level science do you think she's going to produce on this grant?

Permalink to Comment

27. anon on August 28, 2010 12:31 PM writes...

this goes beyond the PI (who is nevertheless responsible and should be held accountable) but to the fundamentals of the safety (indeed scientific) culture in the dept..........or tota lack of aforesaid culture!

Permalink to Comment

28. anon on August 28, 2010 2:02 PM writes...

From reading the interview accounts, it does seem clear that the PI wasn't aware of what was going on in her lab. That said, most PI's wouldn't be around late at night or on a weekend when some of this stuff may have happened. (You can't watch a student 24/7, if they have free access to the lab at any hour, which is often the case for academia. Students are encouraged to work really long hours in most cases.)

Yes, in industry it is alot different. We have many industrial placement students in our group, and it is a challenge getting them to adjust. I have to push my student regularly to write in their lab notebook in compliance with the company policies. You have to constantly watch them, making sure they don't resheild a used needle and stab themselves or do something else which may be dangerous. Sometimes they listen, other times they will just do whatever they were taught to do in school (or feel like doing at the time). I'm working in the same lab as my student, and watch them closely while they are here, but I can't stop them from doing something stupid during the 5 minutes that I am not watching them because I'm in the bathroom or have to do some of my own work that requires complete attention. If something bad happens, I was told that it is my fault period. End of story. If I don't get enough of my own work done due to watching the student and making sure that they are ok, it is also my fault. Any problems, and the manager doesn't want to hear about it so just doesn't listen.

A postdoc is in a similar situation as this - only the postdocs who were helping me in grad school felt free to ignore me if I was taking too much of their time (and it was not their problem if I failed), but I can't do that because of the liability reasons (and it is completely my problem if the student fails). And, from what I saw when in grad school, the postdocs are really the ones who deal with all the day to day issues of running the lab while the prof is out golfing or on some lecture tour. The prof also doesn't want to hear about anything going wrong, only results for the next paper he plans to write. My prof barely acknowledged my existance.

Permalink to Comment

29. Hap on August 28, 2010 9:07 PM writes...

BJ #25: You mean, like this? It doesn't seem like the ideas for management of labs handling energetic materials were exactly trade secrets (after all, these aren't the first people dealing with them, exactly), and if you ignore them (no blast shields? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over?), well, that seems like copious negligence to me.

As a bonus, it seems like explosives research might attract cowboys, though not necessarily keep them, and that so one might want to watch out for them. That doesn't excuse the cowboy, who ought to have known what he was putting himself at risk of, but for the sake of your other students, you might want to watch out. Just in case.

If newbies with a C+E News article as ammo can cogently criticize your lab safety, you've either 1) got some 'splainin to do or 2) should be in another line of research. "You can't know everything about explosives handling" doesn't cut it as an excuse with your students' lives at stake.

Permalink to Comment

30. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on August 30, 2010 12:53 AM writes...

The student may be able to get disability pay for having lost 3 fingers. If he cannot get disabiity payments, then have the school pay for transplanting toes to his hand. The resulting limb should be a great conversation piece at parties.

Permalink to Comment

31. cliffintokyo on August 30, 2010 4:39 AM writes...

My 2 cents:
The student has paid a severe penalty.
Maybe he deserved it because of his near criminal 'cowboy' behaviour, and possible ulterior motives.
There should have been proper lab hazard training and ongoing vigilance/verification because of the nature of the research; the PI is culpable if this was not the case.
The PI is not ultimately responsible for the injury; we don't expect to have to 'walk' grad students through a procedure; they are supposed to already know how to plan an expt from start to finish, including thinking about all by-prods and final clean-up, and to ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS before they start something.
As Laura said, lab peer pressure should mean that all you people hinting about chemistry culture are talking through your hats, or else you need to change labs, pronto.

Permalink to Comment

32. BOS on August 30, 2010 7:22 AM writes...

When a big accident like this occurs I think its the PI's responsibility to prove that they provide proper working conditions, oversight, and saftey training for all the lab members. I haven't read anyone's statements, but it doesn't seem as though the PI has done this.

Permalink to Comment

33. Chemjobber on August 30, 2010 7:54 AM writes...

For what it's worth, I agree with Laura (#19) that the one of the best guarantors of lab safety is peer pressure and/or peeking over people's shoulders.

That said, the grad student in question WAS a (the?) senior group member. Again, a place for the PI to step in.

Permalink to Comment

34. LAM on August 30, 2010 5:10 PM writes...

OSHA needs to come up with standards for academic labs, which should be used for rating of graduate programs. PIs and departments need to be responsible for what goes on in their facilities.

Permalink to Comment

35. cliffintokyo on August 30, 2010 8:36 PM writes...

#34
If you mean Depts and PIs should be responsible for implementing safety rules and ensuring they are followed, I agree.
However, rules don't take the place of *horse sense*, and are worthless if not obeyed. This is not a rules issue, its a *people* issue.
Showing new guys that existing people follow the rules is powerful preventive medicine.

Permalink to Comment

36. Jose on August 31, 2010 12:38 AM writes...

Sorry, but a PI has a duty and responsibility to know/find out if anyone working in their *energetics* lab is a braying donkey cowboy idiot. Obviously they cannot and should not supervise every single moment, but seriously. This was the norm of behaviour for this soon to be PhD.

Permalink to Comment

37. cookingwithsolvents on August 31, 2010 8:27 AM writes...

I agree with Laura. 1000%, and my lab runs the same way.

As a note to people characterizing this lab as a "high energy materials" lab, well, that's pretty incorrect if you read the group website. It is a "sensor" lab that does *detection* of high-energy materials and other materials techniques (SIMS is definitely not a typical wet-chemistry technique...). Hence this story is an even BIGGER tale of the dark side of interdisciplinary research without proper planning and safety implementation. I'm surprised that no one has commented on that.

Frankly, some of the most careful people (paranoid?) *and* biggest cowboys I've ever seen have come from outside the traditional "wet chemist" background.

Permalink to Comment

38. cookingwithsolvents on August 31, 2010 8:32 AM writes...

gah, my bad...too early and before coffee.

I was looking at Brandon Weeks website (materials/engineering). One could infer that the two PI's are married (not that it is germane other than it is easy to mess up a quick google).

Permalink to Comment

39. Donough on September 1, 2010 8:00 AM writes...

@ 19 Laura. I disagree unless what the student was doing required judgment and it was not inconceivable that his judgment required opening the cabinet.
If a judgment call was not required (i.e. he opened the cabinet for ease of use e.g. easy cleaning of a spill) then yes the training procedures were deficient. You boss is culpable as proper training procedures were not involved and checked by him. Dangerous equipment should not only have instruction from people but written and living procedures. What is dangerous is based on experience.

@ 22 Bob Jones. The fact that safety glasses shows 3 things; the student was sloppy as was the PI as she did not know of this or did not care. The PI is responsible for safety and should have ensured that no student was inclined to not wear the glasses and if they did, sack. The third; people knew but did not report him it seems or if they did we have the I don;t care from previous. That is a clear lax in safety procedures.

@ 24 Bob Jones. Expertise is not required on 23 but common sense. I use blast protection in different forms all the way to bullet proof depending on the explosive nature and if feasible (not so at pilot scale which for me is 10000m3 @ bulk chemical).
Accidents do happen but this was carelessness. There are basic rules that were disregarded and the PI has to have responsibility in enforcing these rules We have rules for example that forbid use of the lab alone or after hours.

Permalink to Comment

40. josie on September 7, 2010 9:07 PM writes...

I find it very disturbing that this student, who's about to finish with a Ph.D. in inorganic chem, does not know you do not take chlorates lightly. Or he may have become complacent, having done it before without anything happening. While he may have been a difficult student (know it all who wouldn't follow directions), the PI is equally responsible for this. From one report, the student's notebook has mix of exptl and seminar notes. Careful recording of work (aside from the fact that you should have a separate notebook for lab work only) is one of the first things my adviser emphasized when I started grad school. If she had bothered checking his notebook, she would have seen what he's doing in the lab as it seems he had done a scale up previously. In addition, reaction vessels size would immediately tell her it's not a 100 mg reaction. It seems she does not even check on what is going on in her lab, or maybe, she knows and chose to ignore those reckless behavior.

Permalink to Comment

POST A COMMENT




Remember Me?



EMAIL THIS ENTRY TO A FRIEND

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):




RELATED ENTRIES
XKCD on Protein Folding
The 2014 Chemistry Nobel: Beating the Diffraction Limit
German Pharma, Or What's Left of It
Sunesis Fails with Vosaroxin
A New Way to Estimate a Compound's Chances?
Meinwald Honored
Molecular Biology Turns Into Chemistry
Speaking at Northeastern