Tuesday, December 29, 2015

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Received a Lump of Coal for Christmas

Professor Patrick Harran is a brilliant organic chemistry professor on the rise. He graduated from Skidmore in 1990, followed by a Ph.D. in 195 at Yale. He then served as a postdoc at Stanford and moved in 1997 to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas for almost 11 years. He received many awards in this time. He was extensively wooed by UCLA and joined the school in July 2008 as the first holder of the endowed Donald J. and Jane M. Cram Professor of Organic Chemistry. UCLA offered him a $3.2 million budget to build a state of the art organic chemistry laboratory as part of the deal. His current annual salary is stated to be $302,000. Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji was a brilliant student from Pakistan. She graduated from Pomona College in May 2008 with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree. Professor Harran hired her as a graduate research assistant in his new UCLA lab. She began work in October 2008. Tragedy followed. Shari was transferring t-butyl lithium from one container to another on December 29, 2008 when it escaped. T-butyl lithium is a pyrophoric chemical. It ignites spontaneously when exposed to air, as it did when it escaped from Shari’s plastic syringe. Her clothes caught on fire. She sustained second and third degree burns on 40% of her body, succumbing to the injuries 18 days later on January 16, 2009. Investigations quickly revealed lax lab safety procedures on the part of UCLA. A UCLA investigator on October 28, two months before the lab tragedy, found a number of deficiencies, including “eye protection, nitrile (synthetic rubber) gloves and lab coats were not worn by laboratory personnel.” Cal/OSHA cited UCLA 16 times in 14 the moths after the Sangji accident for safety violations. UCLA graduate students had earlier received severe, but non-fatal, burns in November 2007, and December 22, 2008 without changes in safety procedures. In neither case was the victim wearing a lab coat. Sheri Sangji’s accident was a tragedy waiting to happen. These deficiencies persisted at the time of the tragedy. Indeed, Shari was wearing neither a standard lab coat nor a fire resistant lab coat. She was wearing instead a synthetic sweatshirt, which easily caught on fire. Cal/OSHA fined UCLA $32,825 in May 2009 for 4 safety citations at the time of Shari’s accident. A separate blistering, criminal report was sent to the Los Angeles District Attorney, who proceeded in file in 2011 three criminal felony charges against UCLA and three (later raised to our) against Professor Harran for violations of California’s safety codes, including the failure to provide proper safety training. Los Angeles is one of several communities that routinely investigate workplace deaths for possible criminal violations. Professor Harran’s response to Ms. Sangji’s tragic death was that it was unfortunate, but that she was a “seasoned chemist who chose not to wear protective gear.” This line of argument was echoed by the defense attorneys and supporters of Professor Harran. The lawyers also argued that a prosecution of Professor Harran would impede the war on cancer. The facts are vastly different. Ms. Sangji had never handled this type of chemical prior to her work at UCLA. She knew a lot, but received no “generalized safety training.” Professor Harran also admitted that no fire resistant clothing was available to lab employees at the time of the accident. Ms. Sangji. Not only was she not ever properly trained, but she also was never issued a lab coat. To be fair to UCLA, lab safety was “loose” in the academic community as compared to private labs. The PI’s in charge of the university labs, such as professor Patrick Harran, were “captains” of their ships, judged by the grants they brought in. As more and more details emerged, and as the science community internationally did not rally to the defense of UCLA or Professor Harran, the case became increasingly untenable. UCLA settled on July 27, 2012. It agreed to tighten safety standards and set up a $500,000 scholarship fund in her name. UCLA has also said that it has spent at least $20 million in improving lab safety on its campus. UCLA created a Center for Laboratory Safety. UCLA performed only 365 lab inspections in 2007 but almost 2,400 in 2010. Professor Harran held out for two more years. He was concerned that if he received a felony conviction then he would effectively be cut off from future research grants. A final agreement was reached with the DA’s office on June 20, 2014. He agreed to perform 800 hours of community service at the UCLA Medical Center, teach an organic chemistry course to inner city students for 5 summers, pay $10,000 to the Grossman Burn center, and commit no more safety violations. If he upholds his end of the agreement, then all charges will be dropped in five years by the DA’s office. He said “I have always felt I failed Sheri, and I deeply mourn her loss.” The legal defense was expensive. The UCLA Board of regents retained legal counsel to represent both the University and separately Professor Harran. The defense did not come cheap. Paul Hastings represented UCLA at a cost of $3.1 million. Mannett, Phelps and Phillips, representing UCLA received $1.3 million in fees. Munger, Tolles & Olson, a third large firm, also received legal fees in the case. UCLA spent about $4.5 million in legal fees and costs in the criminal liability for over 7,700 billable hours. One lawyers charge $$792,000 in fees while 4 others received over $500,000 in fees. Five dozen attorneys, paralegals, and clerks worked on the defense. The international research community has paid great attention to the LA case, resulting in changes. Professor Harran is free to carry on his promising research. Ms. Sangji’s family protested to no avail at the settlement hearing. Professor Harran’s reputation is tarred by the tragedy. He was on the path again to professional success. Or not! It was announced in November 2015 that the Chemistry Division of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) nominated Professor Harran to be a prestigious AALS Fellow. An uproar resulted. Too many scientists did not, after all, want to be associated with Professor Harran. The AAAS announced on December 22 that the Chemistry Division withdrew its nomination of the Professor. It had become “apparent that an initial review of nomination materials had not included all relevant information. Members of the nomination reviewing committee recently became aware of a 2008 case involving the death of a technician in the laboratory of Dr. Harran.” Professor Harran needs to make amends for Sheri’s death – not just the minimal conditions imposed by the legal settlement. If not, more lumps of coal await him.

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