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Did Lax Laboratory Safety Practices Kill This UCLA Chemist?

In her first year out of college, Sheri Sangji was fatally burned at work. Will her death teach academics to protect their lab staff?

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 11:39 AM EDT

Harran, 42, did not respond to interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting. In a 2009 statement to the Los Angeles Times, he called Sangji's death a "tragic accident" and explained, "Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab. Sheri had previous experience handling pyrophorics, chemicals that burn upon exposure to air, even before she arrived at UCLA…However, it seems evident, based on mistakes investigators tell us were made that day, I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials."

UCLA officials declined interview requests, pointing to a written statement issued by university Chancellor Gene Block in January. "Sheri Sangji's death was strongly felt by everyone at UCLA, and we were deeply saddened by the loss of a member of our community," Block wrote. "I made a pledge then that we would go above and beyond existing policies and regulations to become a model of campus safety. And we have."

Documents used to build the criminal case against Harran and the regents paint a vivid picture of the events leading up to the accident at UCLA. And investigations undertaken since Sangji's death raise questions about safety at academic laboratories across the country. The American Chemical Society, a professional association for chemists, recently unveiled a draft report recommending ways to change the "safety culture" in academia, where labs are stocked with students and other young workers. The study, its authors wrote, was prompted by "devastating incidents in academic laboratories and observations, by many, that university and college graduates do not have strong safety skills." Last fall, following a serious 2010 accident at Texas Tech University, the US Chemical Safety Board released a report stating that it was "greatly concerned" by the frequency of such accidents. The board said it had documented 120 in university labs since 2001, and identified "safety gaps" that threatened more than 110,000 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the US. 

"A scientist's scientist"

Sheri Sangji was raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and graduated from Pomona College in Southern California in May 2008. A superior student and athlete, she earned a degree in chemistry but had no plans to make a career in the field. "She was a very dynamic person with lots of interests, a lot of spark," says her sister Naveen, 29, also a Pomona graduate. "She was interested in the environment, women's rights, minorities' rights."

Sheri took a job with a pharmaceutical company outside of Los Angeles, hoping to save money for law school. She was intrigued by an ad Harran placed for a research associate at UCLA. The idea of working for a "rising star" in organic chemistry appealed to her, Naveen says. 

Researchers  across the country have followed the case with consternation: Might they, too, be criminally liable if something happened in one of their labs?

When Sangji interviewed for the job in September 2008, Harran was impressed. Sangji "was very familiar with analytical instrumentation of the type that I really wanted her to focus on, which was great," Harran later told Brian Baudendistel, who investigated the accident for California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). "I asked her if she was comfortable with general techniques and properties of organic chemistry. And I asked her if she worked with air-sensitive materials…Just how generally comfortable she was in the laboratory. That's what we spent most of our time on, and she left. And, you know, I loved her. I thought she was fabulous."

Sangji began work on October 13. Four days later, Harran watched her perform a small-scale experiment using tert-Butyllithium solution, a chemical its manufacturer, Sigma-Aldrich, describes as follows: "Reacts violently with water. Contact with water liberates extremely flammable gases. Spontaneously flammable in air. Causes burns."

Sangji did a "great job" on the experiment, Harran told Baudendistel, and had knowledge of chemistry beyond her years. "She had published in top peer-reviewed journals with very well-known researchers…She stood out." Harran acknowledged, however, that Sangji did not receive generalized safety training. "I believe my assistant told me that it was not offered for her category per se, although we were going to follow up on that." He also said that no fire-resistant clothing was available to lab employees at the time of the accident.

Harran had been recruited to UCLA from the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he'd spent nearly 11 years and won a number of honors. According to Steven McKnight, chairman of the biochemistry department at UT Southwestern, Harran "built a very strong laboratory and proceeded to make a number of really nice discoveries in the field of synthetic chemistry." Harran and a colleague, Xiaodong Wang, developed a chemical that causes cancer cells to kill themselves. They published a paper on the breakthrough in Science magazine.

A graduate of Skidmore College and Yale, Harran was "a scientist's scientist," McKnight says. "He really wanted to dig in and make discoveries of consequence. When he went to UCLA it was a heartbreaker."

A violent reaction

UCLA pursued Harran aggressively, offering him a budget of $3.2 million to set up a state-of-the-art organic chemistry lab on the fifth floor of the Molecular Sciences Building. He and his team were given temporary space on the fourth floor while renovations were made upstairs.

On October 30, 2008, UCLA chemical safety officer Michael Wheatley conducted an annual inspection of the fourth-floor labs. Wheatley found a number of deficiencies, one particularly relevant to events that would soon unfold: "Eye protection, nitrile [synthetic rubber] gloves and lab coats were not worn by laboratory personnel."

In an email on November 5, Wheatley asked Harran when they could meet to discuss the findings. "Is it possible to wait until we get settled on the 5th floor?" Harran replied a week later. "That would make for a better meeting—our labs on 4 are overcrowded and disorganized. I wasn't planning to be in temporary space for this long." Wheatley agreed to the delay.

On December 29, a Monday, Sheri Sangji reported for work on the fourth floor. Harran wanted her to replicate a chemical reaction she'd performed on October 17, but on a scale three times larger. Around 1 p.m., Sangji was using a 60-millileter plastic syringe with a 2-inch needle to transfer tert-Butyllithium from a bottle.The bottle Sangji was using during the accident CPIThe bottle Sangji held during the accident CPI

The needle was too short; the manufacturer recommends using one at least a foot long. Cal/OSHA's Baudendistel theorized that the smaller needle forced Sangji to tilt or lay the bottle on its side, awkwardly withdrawing the liquid with one hand while holding the bottle with the other. Had the needle been long enough, she could have clamped the bottle, upright, to the workbench, a less risky procedure. Safer still would have been the "cannula technique," where an inert gas like nitrogen is used to push a liquid through a tube from one container to another.

Sangji accidentally pulled out the plunger of the syringe, spilling the solution and triggering a flash fire. Had she been wearing a fire-resistant lab coat, her burns might have been less severe. In fact, she was wearing no lab coat, not even a cotton one.

At the time there was no university policy requiring such protection. "That policy has been put in place since the accident," Harran told Baudendistel. Requisition forms from the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry show that fire-resistant lab coats were, in fact, ordered after the accident, at a cost of $45.05 each.

In an interview with a deputy UCLA fire marshal, Harran described what he saw before the paramedics arrived: Sheri "was, you know, she was in shock…she was shaking. I asked her what happened. She didn't tell me much. She just said there was a fire, and she just kept asking, 'Where are they, where are they, where are they?'…She wanted water on her arms, and she was holding her hands out like this, and the skin was separating. It was awful."

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