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: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
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
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
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
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

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

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
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

« The Hours You Put In | Main | Sanofi Goes Hostile »

October 1, 2010

Three Times Is Enemy Action

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

Now here's a disturbing case: research sabotage. It involves a (former) postdoc at Michigan:

(Vipul) Bhrigu, over the course of several months at Michigan, had meticulously and systematically sabotaged the work of Heather Ames, a graduate student in his lab, by tampering with her experiments and poisoning her cell-culture media. Captured on hidden camera, Bhrigu confessed to university police in April and pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of personal property, a misdemeanour that apparently usually involves cars: in the spaces for make and model on the police report, the arresting officer wrote "lab research" and "cells". Bhrigu has said on multiple occasions that he was compelled by "internal pressure" and had hoped to slow down Ames's work.

The student's account of what happened (later in that linked article) is creepy and compelling. Things started going wrong with her experiments, one after the other. At first she couldn't figure out what was happening, then the suspected her own mistakes, but ultimately (like the man who furnished the title for this post), suspected sabotage.

What tipped her off, apparently, was the the same sorts of things went wrong over and over - and when one was fixed, something else would appear. Lanes looked switched on her Western blots, which turned out to be because the labels had been switched on her cell cultures. That happened a few times, then when she switched the labeling system to something that couldn't be messed with, contaminants started showing up in her media. Running experiments in another lab late at night showed that they were working the way they should - when something (someone) wasn't messing with them.

It would certainly take a while for sabotage to become a working hypothesis - after all, there are a lot of ways for things not to work. But this case seems to have been helped along by the crudity of the tampering. Even so, there was suspicion that the grad student herself was trying to blame someone else for her own failures. The university's public-safety officers put her through interrogations before they would go as far as installing cameras in her lab. But those cameras caught the post-doc messing around in the lab fridge in the hours before yet another experiment went awry, and he confessed when confronted.

How often does stuff like this go on? To be honest, I'm surprised that there isn't more of it in academic labs. The competition between individuals is much more fierce than it is in industry (where people tend to work much more in large teams), and frankly, there are more unstable personalities in academia than there are in industry as well. At the same time, this is a thoroughly nasty thing to do, striking right at the basic workings of any research lab. You have to be able to reproduce things, of course, and you have to trust that the reagents and equipment are going to allow you to do that.

Most of all, in science we have to take the word of others on trust pretty often. Experiments are always out there to be reproduced, but you really can't do that to everything, every time. It's just impossible. When someone says that they got a particular reaction to work, or protein to express, the default setting is to assume that yeah, they probably did. If you have to reproduce it and there's trouble, well, then you start checking things out step by step. But there's no way science could work if you automatically assumed that everything in the literature or in every presentation was probably a lie.

And there's no way it can work if someone's going to sabotage experiments, either. I have been around two or three situations in my career when there was a suspicion of this happening. For most of the cases I'm pretty sure that this wasn't the explanation, but in one other (which I was the most removed from) I still don't know. That one got me to thinking, though, about how terribly easy it would be to do such things. As I said, this case was pretty crude, but there are many, many more subtle ways of messing things up. Some of them would be quite hard to detect, but would definitely indicate foul play if they were, and some of them would still be obscure even if tracked down. Truly excellent sabotage, though, would require as much work as generating real results.

I'm not going into details - any scientist with sufficient imagination can think of such things (homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto). But it is interesting, when you do that thought exercise, how strange it feels. You can see how it would be done, you can see what would motivate someone to do it, but it's something of a relief to find out how little thought you've given to the mechanics of it all.

Comments (53) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side


1. Sili on October 1, 2010 10:07 AM writes...

I'm a big misanthrope, so I can't help but wonder if the student being a woman played a role.

Would the post.doc have felt equally intimidated by a man?

Permalink to Comment

2. SP on October 1, 2010 10:24 AM writes...

Well, if she'd spend 14 hours a day in lab, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to sabotage the reagents, now would he? I think we know who is to blame here- the clerical workers' unions!

Permalink to Comment

3. PW on October 1, 2010 10:27 AM writes...

Interesting story. Just one point stuck out. Do you really think academia is full of more unstable individuals than industry? I'd be interested to know how you came to that conclusion!

Permalink to Comment

4. Sundowner on October 1, 2010 10:29 AM writes...

Those criminal profiles are probably more common in academia than in industry, but I have seen some in big pharmas also. When I was doing my PhD I witnessed several cases that were probably sabotage, but more of war than internal competence. Some PIs were really bad, exacerbating the situstion with an attitude of 'we are much better than any other chemistry group around' and so on. Competitivity can account for this behaviour, but also excess of pride.

Permalink to Comment

5. Brendan Maher on October 1, 2010 10:29 AM writes...

Thank you for the thoughtful post on the story I wrote. Do you really think there are more unstable personalities in academia? I guess I could think of reasons that this might be the case (e.g. a higher acceptance of behaviours that can be considered 'eccentric'), but I'm not sure I'm convinced. I actually found out a lot about rampant sabotage in construction, where the drivers are largely economic.
To Sili, this thought crossed my mind many times in reporting the story. There were no other red flags that I could find that would speak to sexism in this case. He says he is seeking help, which may get to the root of his actions.

Permalink to Comment

6. CMCguy on October 1, 2010 10:33 AM writes...

During my post-doc there suspected sabotage as one persons experimental set-ups for over night would occasionally have unexpected problems the next morning. This was an accumulation of minor mishaps like water or N2 lines "popped" off, or temp bath over or under heated plus established reactions not working well. While such can occur to anyone this person was very meticulous and the lab was full of intense and competitive individuals. Nothing was ever proven however a couple of us post-docs began double checking things at the persons behest, and we would also make an obvious point to look over hood when we left at night or returned in the morning. Result was no more such mysterious issues.

Permalink to Comment

7. RB Woodweird on October 1, 2010 10:33 AM writes...

A harder but more amusing prank is enhancing the experiment. Say the guy in the next hood is running some annulation experiment, so you go to Aldrich and buy some complex molecule which could just plausibly be the result of the reaction if multiple components fit together just right, the solvent participates, the functional groups couple like a bunch of zippers, etc. Rings and the number of carbons should match up more or less. Spike the reaction with the "product" a couple or three times just for the sake of reproducibility, then wait until the victim runs to the PI with this incredible new reaction scheme he has discovered. Watch as the PI hounds the victim for months or years to make the reaction work again, as the mojo seems to have decreased to zero over time.

Permalink to Comment

8. quintus on October 1, 2010 10:38 AM writes...

RB, that is really nasty

Permalink to Comment

9. CMCguy on October 1, 2010 10:45 AM writes...

Re Unstable personalities academia vs industry IMO is true but more a matter of "dilution" as get concentrated at Univ then distributed to many companies. Age probably is a factor too where immaturity clashes can make more unstable and (most) people grow up in or after school age.

Permalink to Comment

10. Chemjobber on October 1, 2010 10:51 AM writes...

Excellent Goldfinger reference.

Permalink to Comment

11. Anonymous on October 1, 2010 11:45 AM writes...

3 & 9 - most of the unstable ones go back to normal once they're out of the pressure cooker of grad school! I'm amazed at how much calmer my old grad school friends seem when I run into them at conferences or weddings.

Permalink to Comment

12. MTK on October 1, 2010 12:19 PM writes...

I give Ms. Ames a lot of credit. She really carried out the proper experiments to determine that sabotage was being carried out. Come up with a hypothesis and conduct experiments which support or refute that hypothesis. That's good science.

As for unstable personalities, I agree, because some fraction of the unstable get kicked out or quit school and never make it to industry.

Permalink to Comment

13. retread on October 1, 2010 1:09 PM writes...

"But there's no way science could work if you automatically assumed that everything in the literature or in every presentation was probably a lie."

Well, maybe not a lie, but that's the way I had to read the neurological literature back in the day. Not case reports, which I had no way of checking, but inferences of therapeutic benefit from the data. People quite often tend to over-interpret positive results.

The study on tissue plasminogen activator as a treatment of stroke is a particularly awful example [ New England J. Med. vol. 333 pp. 1581 - 1587 '95 ]. I may post about it some day now that I'm retired and no longer medicolegally forced to give it (forced is the correct word).

For a more benign (but still typical) example of biased interpretation of results see --

Permalink to Comment

14. partial agonist on October 1, 2010 2:13 PM writes...

"there are more unstable personalities in academia than there are in industry as well"

I am not sure that is true, having worked 14 years in industry and (counting my graduate work and the last few years of work) 11 years in academia. There are characters everywhere, but in industry the oddballs are certainly not weeded out, quickly at least, if they do other things right or if they are high enough up the ladder.

I left a job once due to a very ustable personality, that of a boss, an actual VP of chemistry. He used to rant and rave, yelling at people in public with language that would make Samuel L. Jackson blush. He would loudly and publicly berate people when they didn't get the data he wanted, as one example. "Only 10% orally biavailable! F you!! Can't you make a g-d bioavailable compound!"

When he was going through a messy divorce, on Friday afternoons he would crank a CD playing "Hey Joe" by Jimmy Hendrix, yelling out the lyrics loud enough for the whole buiiding to hear "I'm going down to shoot my old lady...You know, I've caught her messin' around with another man"

He was finally fired after years of this and many other things, but I left first. Then he was fired somewhere else, and again somewhere else... Last I heard he is raising funds to start up his own company. Beware, San Diego-ites.

Permalink to Comment

15. DerekF on October 1, 2010 2:48 PM writes...

What was truly dismaying to me was not the Nature story - I had heard stories of undergrad (pre-med) students sabotaging labmates' experiments to get a better grade back when I was a TA in the early 70s, though I never saw it myself - but some of the comments below it suggesting that this kind of thing is more-or-less what one should expect. We didn't back then, and I doubt people do now (witness Derek's tone and some of the comments here); but perhaps I'm just an old fogey.

Permalink to Comment

16. Virgil on October 1, 2010 2:49 PM writes...

Only example of this I have seen was in jest... a new grad' student wanted some mitochondria from another student who just happened to be doing a prep' that day. He handed her a tube with some milky brown liquid that looked like mitochondria. Several frustrating hours later she complained that the mitochondria didn't appear to be respiring properly, at which time it was revealed that the tube in-fact contained another milky brown liquid - coffee with milk.

Permalink to Comment

17. MTK on October 1, 2010 3:09 PM writes...


When I was an undergrad a quarter century ago, I lost my lab notebook. I looked everywhere for it and didn't find it. I finally went to the prof and told him that I lost it and would therefore be unable to hand in the lab report. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Don't worry about it. Someone probably stole it."

I was shocked. That thought had not even crossed my mind. Evidently, it must have been a fairly common event for him to just nonchalently wave it off like that.

Permalink to Comment

18. Lab Rat on October 1, 2010 6:07 PM writes...

Unfortunately I can relate. When I was in grad school, we were short on lab space so we doubled up in hoods.

In my second year, I was asked to share hood space with a new male student. We worked on two totally different projects---no competition at all between the two.

When things started going wrong, I too thought I was missing something. Reactions were literally exploding/exotherming. I would go to the hood to find that the apparatus I was working with had been closed off while it was heating--heating closed systems where ether is the solvent = big boom. At first I thought it was me. I would fix things so it could not happen again only to have something else go wrong. Then I noticed things only happened with he was around.

Everytime something went wrong he would grin at me and say "Ready to leave with that Masters yet?" Turns out he had been bragging to others in the group how he was going to get me to quit and leave with a Masters so he would have his own hood.

He often remarked in front of women in the group that women should only be allowed in the chemistry building in two capacities: as a janitor or a secretary; so I suspect this played a part in his gaslighting of me and not just that this individual wanted a hood to himself.

Our prof was useless. He would just wave off this guy's comments saying we should give him the benefit of the doubt that he was joking. Only after all the women banded together and threatened to go above his head about it, did he move this guy to a separate hood---right next to his office.

I would like to say that karma came back to haunt the male student in question. Unfortunately he is fairly high up at a company in Boston with HQ in Switzerland but at least he isn't in a lab anymore where he could kill someone.

Permalink to Comment

19. Norepi on October 1, 2010 6:51 PM writes...

@ #18 - That's *horrible.* This guy's misogynistic ego could've gotten you killed, so sorry that happened. I'd have gone to the dean about that one. :-( I'm the only woman in my research group but thank heavens they're all gentlemen...

He'll get his someday.

Permalink to Comment

20. gippgig on October 1, 2010 9:16 PM writes...

Everyone should remember that science is humans vs. nature, not human vs. human.

Permalink to Comment

21. Jose on October 2, 2010 5:37 AM writes...

Many profs are too unstable/psychotic/sociopathic to be employed in the real world. Seriously. And many chemists are the just the same, and unemployable in any other industry. The head of HR at my last company said that if half of the things that happened in med chem (personality-wise) had occurred in any other dept everyone involved would have been terminated.

I heard a story about some p-chemists at UChicago, 15 yrs ago: a couple had a nasty breakup, and shortly afterwards the woman's laser table experiments started going off the rails; lo and behold, the ex was moving mirrors and beam splitters at night....

Permalink to Comment

22. frequent visitor on October 2, 2010 11:27 AM writes...

Great post, and I hope more people in science see this. That dirtbag as a postdoc should have been mentoring that grad student. He should have realized that supporting her could have gotten his name on her publications. Sometimes helping people that you are in competition with really messes with your pride. As people move into "middle management" in lab groups, where no one actually reports to you, but you are one of the most senior people, you have to let the pride go, and do the right thing.

Derek, you brought up something in this post that you may have posted on before (but I may have missed it), and that is extreme skepticism. I have seen this a few times (and I am sure many others have too) where you show someone a paper, and they just try to tear it apart, and trust nothing in what is presented. I think skepticism in reading others work is important, but it seems like people are sometimes too closed minded to think outside of their "scientific routine". I would think you would have some good stories on this, and would be interested to hear more about your feelings on this.

Permalink to Comment

23. Nick K on October 2, 2010 5:24 PM writes...

What a betrayal of trust by that Brigu guy! I sincerely hope he never sets foot in a lab again.

Permalink to Comment

24. retread on October 2, 2010 7:09 PM writes...

I told my wife about this, and she said that when she was in architecture school in the Ivy League, 1/3 of the assigned reading by profs had those pages ripped out in the library. A friend (now a physicist and son of an MD I practiced with) was initially premed at another Ivy League institution, but was turned off by the sabotage and mindgames premeds played with each other. When I was a lab instructor '60 - '62 to help pay my way, I didn't see anything like this, and about 1/2 my kids were premed. The times they are achangin'.

Permalink to Comment

25. Chris Buckey on October 3, 2010 8:05 AM writes...

This story makes me glad that my Ph.D research area is in history. The only way someone else could sabotage my doctorate is setting fire to an archival collection.

Permalink to Comment

26. leftscienceawhileago on October 3, 2010 3:55 PM writes...

Well, they could also do it by getting a hold of a time machine...

Permalink to Comment

27. Anonymous on October 3, 2010 9:12 PM writes...

You see, that's why people interactions are so important for survival in our field. It starts early...even in grad school. I don't want to blame the victim of this situation, however, as many of us (in industry) know, the "emotional quotient" or emotional intelligence is critical for survival. Period! It is what will define your success. My advice to new PHD's and alike is to make sure you hone your people interaction skills so that you have the ability to deal with adverse/unexpected situations. Keep your cool. Don't lose it in front of management or peers and maintain your state of the art knowledge in the field. With that, you will do well!

Permalink to Comment

28. anon on October 3, 2010 9:19 PM writes...

#22: (Industry Biologist here) We don't believe anything published unless/until it is published by two labs which aren't related by lineage. We must have tried to replicate singly-published findings 5-10 times and not been able to. In contrast, almost everything else we've set out to verify has worked out. Sad but true. Most of the irreproducible results were from PNAS, PLOS One, BBRC or other poorly-peer-reviewed journal, but one was from Nature.

Also, in the 90's there was a postdoc who routinely sabotaged others' experiments in an HHMI lab at UCSF to the point that everyone there took their bacterial plates home every night and grew them in their ovens rather than come back and find that their transformation hadn't worked again.

Permalink to Comment

29. Anonymous on October 3, 2010 11:55 PM writes...

I wonder what ever caused Derek to be so anti-academic. Having worked in both environments I wouldn't be able to call "unstable personalities" a defining difference between academia and industry.

Permalink to Comment

30. Anonymous on October 4, 2010 1:46 AM writes...

Chemistry certainly attracts a lot of "characters", both in academic and industrial circles.

I've worked in both and I'd probably agree with Derek on this one - I met a few more oddballs in academia than in industry. I think they can flourish a bit more there, the social norms are a bit more relaxed somehow. It's not everyone of course - I'm certainly not saying that everyone who works in academia is a mental, not at all. But of the crazies I have met throughout my career, I would say that the more unstable and socially peculiar types have been in an academic setting.

Permalink to Comment

31. Anonymous on October 4, 2010 3:00 AM writes...

There is an interesting article in the aug 13 edition of 'Science' about crime in the lab. It seems to be more common than I could have ever imagined.

Permalink to Comment

32. Anonymous on October 4, 2010 3:01 AM writes...

There is an interesting article in the aug 13 edition of 'Science' about crime in the lab. It seems to be more common than I could have ever imagined.

Permalink to Comment

33. Anonymous on October 4, 2010 3:02 AM writes...

There is an interesting article in the August 13 edition of 'Science' about crime in the lab. It seems to be more common than I could have ever imagined.

Permalink to Comment

34. Anon on October 4, 2010 7:40 AM writes...

I have two experiences with this:

1) In academia my advisor would tell us to sabatoge our colleagues experiments for our own gain. Why? To teach them a lesson that they should always be in the lab. He said when he was in graduate school, people would booby-trap their experiments when they would run out for dinner so that labmates wouldn't mess with experiment. For example, "floating" the metal hardware by direct connection to the AC voltage in the outlet by a secret wire.

2) In industry we had a polymer chemist who could never synthesis a ploymer so we hired an intern for the summer who did a fantastic job. After a month, however, his overnight syntheses started failing. It was suspected but never proved that the employee was spiking water into the intern's reaction flask before he went home. Problem was solved when he intern locked the sash on the fume hood. The intern finished the summer and the employee was fired for other reasons.

Permalink to Comment

35. HappyDog on October 4, 2010 8:16 AM writes...

Re 24: retread,

I saw something similar as an undergrad. While I was doing research one day in the medical library, I heard someone screaming. I looked up and there was a physician, dressed in scrubs, complete with booties and facemask dangling around his neck, yelling at a librarian. The bound journal he was showing him apparently had an important article ripped out.

I've heard from pre-med and med students at several universities that when they have an assignment where they need to look up something in a journal, they used to rush from class to the library, find the article, make copies, then take the journal to the bathroom and rip out the original so that no one else could read it. Remember - this is the ethical standard of the people you're counting on to take care of yourself and your family when you get sick.

All I can say is thank goodness for the advent of the internet and online subscriptions!

Permalink to Comment

36. Anonymous on October 4, 2010 8:31 AM writes...

Had a friend in a SF Bay Area Biotech (now more than 10 years ago) with a very similar story. In the end security installed cameras and caught a colleague messing around with cell culture experiments.
The perpetrator was let go, but no other charges or additional HR action was taken since the company feared that any bad press about the company would lead to possible stock valuation decline.

Permalink to Comment

37. Vader on October 4, 2010 9:56 AM writes...

Never saw sabotage, but I did see an astronomy grad student publish an article using his professor's satellite data without consulting the professor first. In other words, he swiped his data.

Only time I ever saw a professor go beet-red with anger. For a minute there he looked like a Talosian with the throbbing vein in his forehead.

No formal action was taken that I know of. On the other hand, this grad student was stupid enough to include this professor on his employment references. So I suspect rough justice was done.

Permalink to Comment

38. WC on October 4, 2010 11:34 AM writes...

In my experience, there seemed to be more obvious unstable personalities in academia than in industry. But, the unstable people I've encoutered in industry have taken their sociopathic behavior to a more evolved and sinister level than I saw in grad school.

Permalink to Comment

39. Jonathan on October 4, 2010 11:51 AM writes...

@24, @35, I remember as a fresh 1st year undergraduate being taken round the library at the beginning of the year and being told about razorblading articles and how it was one of the few things that would be an instant expulsion. Struck me at the time as pretty fair, and it still does.

Permalink to Comment

40. StunnedChemist on October 4, 2010 11:32 PM writes...

@18 Lab Rat: Hopefully that male chauvinist will get booted during the next corporate restructuring!

@37 Vader: Haha Talosian! Too bad the professor couldn't use the Vulcan Death Grip on that moocher!

Permalink to Comment

41. Fries with That? on October 5, 2010 11:16 AM writes...

There are other subtle forms of sabotage. For example, when asked by the boss to help out on a project involving a viral stock, I was given a low titre stock instead of a much higher titre stock, both made by an RA who was quite hostile to me, and they differed tremendously. When I had trouble with the project, the RA then gave the higher titre stock to his friend, who "helped" him out. I found out and complained but to no avail. Oh, and this was industry. And both RA's were from a different country than me, and spoke a different language. That's life.

Permalink to Comment

42. toxchick on October 5, 2010 1:40 PM writes...

@partial agonist--I am pretty certain we worked together.

I have also seen many unstable people in industry, I can back you up on that one!

Permalink to Comment

43. Unanimous on October 5, 2010 1:49 PM writes...

When I came to the US (from Canada) to do my post-doc (org chem), I was warned of the dangerously competetive nature of US labs, and I was advised to store any valuable samples in my own freezer at home. I never bothered with that, but I did photocopy my notebook on a weekly basis and store copies at home. I never had an issue, except for another post-doc always wanting to 'borrow' late stage intermediates for their own research.

Permalink to Comment

44. SteveS on October 6, 2010 12:09 PM writes...

When I was an undergraduate student at George Washington University in the early 1970's, sabatoge in the biology and chemistry labs was the norm. From direct experience, I remember three examples. In a biology lab, the grad student lab instructor stated "Your group will only have one frog and you are expected to hand that frog in at the end of class. If you don't have a frog, for whatever reason, you group will all get a "0". Three pretty female students, who appeared to me to be flirting with the handsome blond, curly haired pre-med, asked him to pith their frog. He agreed, and then proceeded to throw it out the second story window. This resulted in a "0" grade for the three students who were supposed to dissect the frog, even though they tearfully complained to the instructor, to the professor, and the department chairman. Similar events occurred in the inorganic chemistry lab. On the first day, the two instructors stated: "You are expected to identify the elements that we put in th solutions. If you identify something else, even if you can prove that it is present in your solution, 15 points will be deducted for each new element." During every class session in that lab, you had to put a watch glass on every open beaker, graduated cylinder, flask, etc. to protect your solutions from the rain of salt and who-knows-what falling from the air. The lab instructors sat in an area where there was little chance that this mess got in their hair. Some students took to wearing hats in the lab. All of the salt-throwers that I observed were pre-meds. Last, during one of these inorganic chemistry labs, there was an explosion and smoke from the nearby organic chemistry lab. The lab instructors announced: "Don't panic. This happens all the time because the pre-meds mess with each other's experiments." We were ordered to leave everything behind and to evacuate the building. Some people tried to stay behind to protect their experiments, I carried all my stuff with me, and everybody was seemingly evacuated. When we returned, about 60 percent of the experiments were upset, with glassware broken or missing. The lab instructors said "Well, this stuff happens. That is why we added a replacement glassware fee and issued the glassware punch card that you got when you registered for this lab."

I can appreciate that pre-meds, identified as the culprits in the 1970's GWU labs, were under intense pressure to be in the top few percent of the class so that they could get accepted into med school. They probably did get an academic advantage when they damaged their classmates work and grades. Nonetheless, the rampant and condoned destruction of the work of other student's work went far beyond mischief. I feel that it even went beyond condoned unethical behavior, to direct academic instruction in unethical behavior, at least for the pre-meds. The effect that it had on me was to never trust any medical doctor - they were all pre-meds at one time.

Permalink to Comment

45. retread on October 6, 2010 2:00 PM writes...

SteveS: Back in '62 I did nail a flagrant cheater (he was dumb enough to sabotage himself) when I was an organic lab instructor. I tried to get him thrown out of the course (which would have meant that he wouldn't go to medical school), but the powers that be (at an Ivy League institution) over-ruled me. For this and some examples of Doctors (not premeds) behaving badly see: Definitely blots on the profession.

Permalink to Comment

46. Otis on October 12, 2010 12:58 AM writes...

I know of one post doc at my former school for adding salt to conductivity buffers. Same situation: international student sabotaging a woman making progress on a project.

Permalink to Comment

47. Shonkin on October 13, 2010 10:37 AM writes...

Interesting that this happened at a graduate school. As an undergrad in the 1960's, in organic labs full of pre-meds, I saw crude sabotage going on -- depress the class curve and all that. But once I got into graduate school things got less cut-throat.

Several persons have commented on male grad students from outside North America and their bad attitude toward women. Yes, I can agree that might be their motivation.

Permalink to Comment

48. Shonkin on October 13, 2010 10:45 AM writes...

Interesting that this happened at a graduate school. As an undergrad in the 1960's, in organic labs full of pre-meds, I saw crude sabotage going on -- depress the class curve and all that. But once I got into graduate school things got less cut-throat.

Several persons have commented on male grad students from outside North America and their bad attitude toward women. Yes, I can agree that might be their motivation.

Permalink to Comment

49. Morten G on October 15, 2010 3:12 PM writes...

Heard a story at a New York university about sodium azide in the coffee. Trying to kill your colleagues seems a bit over the top, no? No one was hurt, coffee smelled weird.

Permalink to Comment

50. Anonymous on October 21, 2010 7:39 PM writes...

I worked at that company that poster 36 mentioned. The person who's experiments were being sabotaged left science because of it.

Permalink to Comment

51. RespiSci on March 23, 2011 4:07 PM writes...

The technician in the lab where I did my Ph.D. had an experience where she found a post-doc vigorously shaking her assay for cell adherence, completely disregarding the signs she posted requesting people not to touch the rack of tubes. When he was caught he just laughed-thought the whole thing was a joke although it ruined hours of work.

For my own experience during PhD and post-doc work the majority of lab coworkers have been great but in each place I have encountered a few lab mates who would "borrow" buffers, reagents and cell lines I had prepared without (1) asking and/or (2) ever replacing them. After yet another day of arriving to work only to discover that the bottles of buffers I had prepared the day before were empty along with my aliquots of other items, and not getting any support from the PI (note: this happened in more than one lab), I would resort to "mislabelling" items with either nonsense acronyms (e.g. Buffer A) or note cell lines were in presence of certain antibiotics/growth factors when they weren't. Did these actions cause "sabotage" for the experiments of others? They probably did which at the time I felt justified as my experiments were being delayed and I was doing double the work. Today though I cringe at the thought. I work in industry and I would never accept such behavior from anyone on my own research team. Looking back, I see this as a lack of mutual respect among colleagues,and a lack of leadership on the part of the PIs.

Permalink to Comment

52. memories on March 29, 2011 4:27 PM writes...

#51: I also remember making up nonsense names for (RNAse free) buffers in order to keep a certain postdoc from leaving them empty, open, or contaminated. Thanks for the memory.

Permalink to Comment

53. Wheels17 on January 14, 2012 7:03 PM writes...

@17 MTK
I had my analytical chem lab notebook stolen as an undergrad, and it was the best thing that could have happened.

First semester, my lab book was cited as an example of how a lab book should be done. Second semester it was, well, not a good example. It was such a mess I handed it in a day early to the lab TA, as it could not be improved with another day's work.

Someone stole it thinking it would be a good one to copy and used it to create their lab notebook for the course. It had to be a total disaster. Sometimes there is justice!

And best of all,the TA gave me my lab grade from the first semester for the second semester, since the notebook had been in his possession when it disappeared.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry