Archive | October 2011

Incentives for Academic Chemical Safety

Hi ChemJobber,

Your suggestions are great! I expanded on them in my post, suggesting methods of prodding. But as you concluded, the problem with policy is that it often makes me I wonder: are these too pie-in-the-sky?! Will they ever work? But I think policies are where students also can “take back the lab”, so to say. In having conversations about improve chemical laboratory safety makes them more aware perhaps of the deficiencies in their own lab.

I looked into the C&EN article that one of your comments referred to; on Yale’s changes in machine shop policies after Dufault died when her hair was caught in a lathe back in April 2011. Yale has implemented a lot of really great policies such as a hierarchical system of users and a defined buddy system. But what I find most valuable is that they decided to make their policies public so that other schools could implement them and provide feedback on what worked and what didn’t work as each campus is unique. A forum and discussion about policies is probably one of the best ways to formulate policy as well as a means for researchers to be reminded that accidents do happen and the best way to keep them from being lethal are to know how to be smart and quick.

ACS-Approved Institutions Requiring a Safety Practicum
Along the lines of knowing how to react, I like your idea about developing modules that have students learn to identifying a dangerous situation and discuss the appropriate way to step in. Everyday, we place an exorbitant amount of trust in our labmates. I trust that they will know what do if I happen to get into trouble, and I trust that they are cautious and aware of the hazards of their own chemistry.  In order to make sure that safety courses/modules are consistent and well covered, I would find a means to have them accredited and mandated. Perhaps to have a safety practices practicum be a part of the curriculum for an ACS-approved degree in chemistry. Universities do love to tout their ACS-approved degrees. ACS can say: “we will take it away if you don’t have a means of creating a culture that Safety is Important”. Funding: If it gets picked up as a requirement for accreditation, I can see it being funded through education initiatives. These would also fund activities such as Safety Fairs.

Screenshot of JoVE video: Microarray Analysis for Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Publishing Videos of Excellent Safety Techniques
Another great teaching avenue for chemical safety and proper preps would be to publish in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVe).  Here is a chance for a publication! After watching a few of the videos, this seems like a wonderful way to show the handling of a hazardous or (even difficult) procedures in the context of actual research that was carried out for a publication. These are peer reviewed journal articles that are presented in video format in order to bridge the complexity of translating what’s actually done at the bench into a written prep. From my quick perusal, there does not seem to be too many chemistry related videos, only lots and lots of biology/biochemistry related contributions (none of them are particularly dangerous procedures).  Plus, it is dogma that publication=funding, right? There is a potential incentive. If a video of me carrying out the prep accommodated my publication, you’d bet I’d make sure I had good technique.

But a video publication speaks to something that we have not mentioned or discussed yet, is there is room to incentivize safety? We have talked about the difficulty in forcing PIs to be responsible for proper mentoring, but what if there was a means for them receive an award if say, they submitted to the JoVE, created a video on how to properly handle the synthesis of azide derivatives, and it was viewed over 1,000 times.  Could it turn into an H-index-type measurement on safety and technique?

Authoritative Environmental, Health and Safety Personnel
Another policy suggestion would be to employ safety personnel who have the authority to fine or demerit laboratories. These individuals would be trained and accredited, perhaps by ACS and hired by the University, to audit laboratories and assess safety. Perhaps TTU modified its organization structure so that the Environmental, Health and Safety Director now reports to the Vice President for Research who also oversees the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Chair and PIs, as a means of increasing the authority and leverage of EH&S personnel.  One can only hope. Funding: Well, we technically already have this personnel, they just don’t seem to have a lot of authority over departments, and it does not seem any amount of funding can change this. It would have to be the University’s mandate that laboratories be audited and those audits taken seriously.

Perhaps one suggestion of mine is a bit out of the box (JoVE), but after watching a few of the high quality videos, I realized that for those who don’t get the proper mentoring, videos like these have the opportunity to be invaluable in teaching proper chemical technique and handling of hazardous reagents.


Academic Chemical Safety: a discussion with Chemjobber

Hi Chemjobber,Thanks for the opportunity to do this little exchange about academic lab safety and to see if we can develop feasible policies to improve upon academic chemical safety. I completely understand your response to the CSB video. I found myself cringing and gnawing at my nails when the animated Brown returned to the lab bench without his safety goggles just before the graphic explosion.

One of the many posters that decorates our lab.

My thoughts on the incidents at UCLA and TTU are very similar to what you and much of the chemical community discussed at the time, to sum up:

  • where lies the responsibility of the PI in all of this?
  • we all have been naive* at one point or another (*perhaps even reckless to gain “productivity”)

but more importantly, what can be done so that we can continue to learn and carry out meaningful research that is not at the expense of our safety?

In both cases at UCLA and TTU, I strongly agree that there seems to be lack of responsibility placed on the PI to carefully train their students to be able to “accurately identify and address hazards in the laboratory…a skill that [does not] come naturally…and must be taught and encouraged through training and ongoing organizational support” (NRC, 2011, p.7). The CSB’s Investigation of the TTU incident does not mention any repercussions for the PIs having not properly mentored the students.  I believe that what is clearly missing from the CSB’s recommendations is for universities to establish consequences for a PI that does not enforce safety protocols, endangering students’ lives.

Why is that? Why is there no pointing of fingers at the PIs? You mentioned that you thought Professor Harran (UCLA incident) should also share responsibility, but why do you think it seems as though he has been “protected”? The CSB Investigation of TTU is riddled with examples (although they do not say this, I do) where the PIs would be the individuals most aware of the risks and yet they are not reprimanded. Examples such as: instructing and ensuring that students read and understand in the protocols on handling explosives, such as policies outlined in the DOE Explosive Safety Manual. (*yes, yes, students don’t listen too. But as you know, Chembark and Everyday Scientist already did a great post here and here on that side of things.)

This paragraph in the case study outlines exactly why more responsibility should be placed on the PI:

At academic institutions, the research of individual PIs can differ significantly; consequently, the hazards of research can vary widely among different laboratories. Even within the same laboratory under a single PI, students commonly work on different projects that can pose diverse safety hazards. This indicates a need for guidance on various hazard evaluation methodologies and instruction on how and when each should be used within an academic laboratory  research work environment. Detailed examples for multiple methodologies would help researchers determine the most effective way to evaluate the hazards of their work, whether they are due to routine procedures, modifications to current research, or entirely new endeavors.

How can anyone else other than the PI know about all the hazards of so many projects?

The indented quote also illustrates the variety of research that funding agencies have to deal with and why I believe that it would be difficult for a funding agency to be able to outline safety provisions to their grantees. Even though this is a recommendation of the CSB.

However, after muling over the surprisingly immediate action of the Office of University Programs in DHS after the TTU incident and the specific changes they have made to their Requests (RFP), I see these actions as attempts to have PIs be more responsible. Is this what you glean from section 8.2 of the case study? From the bulleted points in the CSB report, it seems as though RFPs (Request for Proposals) may require the grant requester to assess and be aware of the safety risks and physical hazards of a project along with the anticipated science. Yet, knowledge of these dangers during grant writing does not ensure the appropriate amount of mentoring and relaying of this information to the students.

Am I too harsh on PIs?!  Idk, would grad school be a better world if PIs trained their students to be safe rather than just gather results? “Prior to the incident, weekly group meetings between students and PIs were held, but the focus was primarily on experimental results, not actually research activities and the safety implications of the work.” – CSB TTU Case Study


Hi readers! Chemjobber has given me a chance to do a bit of back-and-forth this week on academic chemical safety. See his first response here and he will respond to my post on his blog on Thursday.  Chemjobber has been one of my favorite blogs for quite some time, and I am very honored for the conversation on this topic of lab safety.

Oil from Plastic Waste

One of my many interests is to read about alternative processes that turn waste into meaningful/reusable materials. For example: dog poop into methane to light a lamp. or turning plastic into fuel. In an earlier post I outlined a few attributes as to why perhaps we cannot completely do away with plastic. But what we can do is to find a means to have it not sit in landfills forever. Therefore, naturally, this article in the NYTimes about Reaping Oil From Discarded Plastic caught my attention. An Oregon-based start-up, Agilyx, has a system that can turn plastic into crude oil. They only have a small prototype system at the moment and are looking to start selling commercial systems soon.  From the descriptions of the article, we figured that polyethylene was undergoing an incomplete combustion, then the resulting vapor (H2 and CO) is converted into hydrocarbons that can then be converted to diesel, jet fuel or other forms of oil. Pretty cool, right?! Well, we did some calculations with the numbers that were in the article and although a very good idea, it only about 64% efficient by weight. Which is comparable to other processes and actually might work, considering the input source is, in essence, free, if it is in fact coming from the local waste management. This process could perhaps be a way for municipal waste to fuel their own fleet. If they had the $5 million upfront to invest in the system.

* Special thanks to my labmate for the helpful discussion and unit conversion reminder. (thanks to article for not having easily interchangeable units.)

yeah, yeah, i know, too many sig figs. (I was taught to carry more than enough through the calculations then round) so technically, since the article only gave me 1 SF, it should be 60% efficiency

Chemistry Carnival!

All of the Chemistry Carnival – My Favorite Reaction posts have been compiled in a really great post here! Check them out! David Kroll, blogger for C&EN and a pharmacology professor, did a great job categorizing them. Comment on which one is your favorite!

A couple of my favorites were: An important reaction that you probably carry out everyday in your very own kitchen: the Maillard reaction by ScienceGeist, or Ever wonder what goes into a perm? Check out Christine Herman’s, blogger for Just Another Electron Pusher, post on mixing ammonium thioglycolate, hydrogen peroxide, and keratin.

Happy IYC 2011! Enjoy!

Carnival Booth

Artwork : Photo by Stu Seeger, used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Why is it so hard to have a work/life balance in the sciences?!

or so it seems.

I was really excited earlier this week when the White House and NSF announced a Foundation-wide initiative termed the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative”. Some parts of this initiatives include postponing grants for child birth/adoption or suspending grants to cover parental leave.  It is refreshing to finally see some action from the highest levels addressing the mountains of research that has indicated a gap in the pipeline (that although women are receiving almost 50% of the PhDs only about 30% are tenure-track faculty).

But an interesting question is: will this work? A recent study by the National Academies might shed light on what women who have reached those critical career transitions have done. One of the conclusions they drew in conducting two national surveys in 2004 and 2005, was that:

“both male and female faculty utilized stopping-the-tenure-clock policies – spending a longer time in the uncertainty of securing tenure – but women used these policies more”. But, most importantly: “…stopping the tenure clock did not affect the probability of promotion and tenure; it just delayed it about 1.5 years.”

This result was surprising to me. Women (and men) are already beginning to take advantage of opportunities to delay tenure. Therefore these new NSF policies may in fact continue to make it more acceptable for faculty to consider these opportunities. The National Academies also make an note that in their study women are just as successful if not more than their male counterparts in obtaining tenure. So the question becomes, how to increase the number of women faculty who get to that point?

There is a gap in the study if the key transition for women turns out to be between receiving her PhD and applying for that tenure-track position, and these new NSF policies perhaps do not address the considerations that happen at that point in a researcher’s career. Although an interesting observation noted in the NAS study is that although institution and departmental strategies for increasing the percentage of women in the applicant pool were not accurate at predicting the number of women applying,

“The percentage of women on the search committee and whether a woman chaired the search committee, however, did have a significant effect on recruiting women”

This finding somewhat supports a recent discussion in Nature Chemistry about the culture of science and not that the field of science is unwelcoming to female scientists but that it is rather inadvertently being hostile.  I highly recommend this article as it has an excellent comparison/illustration of gender biasing to chromatography. But it might just be because I’m an organic chemist. Basically the article presents the viewpoint that perhaps there might not be a key transition point (undergrad to grad, PhD to post-doc, postdoc to applying for tenue-track position) when women decide or not decide that academia is not for them but that it might be the small things that make her think that she does not fit. *Sidenote and speaking of inconvenient bathrooms for women (read the Nature article): a reminder that just this year the House put a female bathroom that was adjacent to the House floor. (men had one but women had use the one through Statuary Hall put built for them in 1962.)

Science Careers in Search of Women 2009

Great program at Argonne National Lab: Science Careers in Search of Women. Strong mentorship has also been attributed to having a significant positive influence on female faculty.

There is a lot of really excellent data on the existence of the gender gap in the science pipeline and it is exciting to see some policy action addressing the gap. However, as the end of the NAS report indicates there still needs to be significant research into what are the barriers at key transitions and what types of policies will be effective? I would also look to fields that have a more even distribution of men and women. What is different about the culture/policies in those fields that attracts both men and women equally?

More reading:

The Conversation: so seriously, why aren’t there more women in science?

The numbers at Wired – Convergence: number of women among National Academy members.