How should we be training our undergraduates?
As many of you are aware, the Sheri Sangji tragedy has touched off another round of navel-gazing since the filing of criminal charges against her former advisor, Patrick Harran, of UCLA. For those of you who aren’t up to date on this story, I’ll give a brief recap: Sheri Sangji was killed in a laboratory accident in Harran’s UCLA lab. She died from complications due to the burns that she sustained over her entire body when she mis-handled a pyrophoric (spontaneously combusts in air) chemical. It is an absolutely heart-wrenching story, and you can’t help but feel sympathy for everyone involved: her lab-mates and friends at UCLA and, mostly, for her family.
The specifics of these events have been discussed in greater detail elsewhere. Jyllian Kemsley’s blog is THE place to go for the most in depth coverage on all aspects of this case. I want to focus this post more on how chemists should be promoting laboratory safety. Again, other people have written outstanding pieces on the safety angle recently as well. Janet Stemwedel poses the question: Who is responsible for lab safety? CJ responded to this question and has also tested the safety of a 60mL syringe (the main piece of equipment that failed during Sangji’s accident) for himself. Ash brings up the possibility of >automating lab safety. And, earlier this week, Paul suggested that university PIs should implement weekly safety meetings.
I really like this idea. But I’ve got my own little twist on it. I think it would make a lot of sense to hold group meeting at the beginning of the week. At the start of each meeting all of the lab members would have to discuss the reactions that they were going to be doing. If someone was doing a new reaction or procedure, they would have to give a risk assessment of it. No one would be able to do a new reaction until they had discussed it with the group. If any group member were going to be doing a reaction that the group considered dangerous, they would need to make the group aware of what day this reaction was going to be run. It seems to me that approaching safety this way has several perceivable benefits. 1) Researchers will be forced to assess the safety of any new procedure. 2) Lab members will be made aware of when any hazardous protocols will be in use. 3) Researchers will have to actually plan ahead for what they are going to work on during the week. (Tongue-in-cheek: This might be the trickiest part of my proposal.)
In my mind, these are things that graduate students and postdocs should be capable of. The question I want to ask today focuses more on undergraduate education. What are we doing wrong and what should we be doing better in our undergraduate education to prepare our students to assess laboratory safety?
From the outset of the coverage of this case, comments from chemists on several blog posts have been of the attitude that: “Sangji should have known what she was doing. She should have put in the effort to understand what she was working with. It’s her fault for not understanding the techniques she should have been using.”
These comments are terribly callous. They flaunt in the face of this tragedy. And, they show no compassion for this young woman and her friends and family.
However, the point of view of these chemists comes from an honest place. When you work in a chemistry lab, it IS your responsibility to understand what you’re working with in order to keep yourself AND your lab-mates safe. This is why I think number 1 from my above suggestions is so important. When we (chemists) are trying to solve problems, we are creative first and thoroughly safe second … and then we get into lab.
But the question is: “Where and when do we learn this?” Certainly we are expected to abide by this procedure in graduate school. But are we ever taught this during our undergraduate training?
I bring this issue of undergraduate safety training up because its very pertinent to the case. Sangji was a lab tech. She was employed by the university because of her proven ability to be successful with lab work, as can be inferred from her publication record as an undergrad. She was a recent college graduate. The assumption that many of the blog commenters make (and perhaps one assertion that UCLA will present in their defense) is that because Sangji showed proficiency for working with one set of hazardous materials, she should be capable of determining the safety of a different set of hazardous materials.
For a graduate student, I think that this is a reasonable assumption. For an undergraduate, I don’t know that you can reasonably make this case. When I think back on the instructional labs I took as an undergraduate and compare them with the labs I’ve been part of recently, they all have a similar make-up. They include a worksheet with a description of the reaction or protocol that you are supposed to use and a list of questions that need to be answered. If there are any questions regarding the safety of the substances you are using, they are likely limited to looking up a chemical’s material safety data sheet. The protocols and equipment have all been suitably vetted for use in an undergraduate learning environment. The students are never forced to come up with a safe and effective procedure on their own, which is what was expected on Sangji at UCLA.
Even in my own research lab (which is made up of entirely undergraduates), I make sure that the reactions that I ask my students to run are safe enough for the level of their expertise. I give them a procedure for exactly how to handle the chemicals and the reaction. I never expect them to develop a procedure on their own. There are several good reasons why I operate this way. First, I am better suited to keep my students safer than they are. Second, they feel more confident with a protocol coming from a professor. Third, it’s just faster this way. (Undergraduates, understandably, don’t have ample time to dedicate to lab work. It’s not efficient for them to be spending time trying to develop new procedures.)
Now that I’ve got a whole year and a half of this professor business under my belt, I’m starting to change my mind. College is the time when you are supposed to learn how to think. Not just answer questions. You need to learn how to solve the types of problems that a professional has to solve on a daily basis. If we don’t expect our undergraduates to be able to perform a complete hazard analysis on their experiments, then we are doing them a disservice. I cannot speak to Sangji’s undergraduate education. I’m sure that she was taught by terrific professors. I can and will, however, speak to the shortcomings that I’ve seen in undergraduate education at the institutions I’ve been associated with.
We need to get back into the business of teaching our undergraduates to think. That involves making sure that they can think their way through real-life problems. And it certainly means making sure that undergrads can think their way through the development of safe experimental protocols.