Professor Harran Arraigned

As reported by C&E News (with further commentary from the ever-present ChemJobber), Professor Patrick Harran was arraigned in LA court yesterday, on 3 felony charges of labor code violations. The next court date is October 9th, when a preliminary hearing will be held and the court will decide if there is enough evidence to go to a full trial. The court entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of the defendant, whose legal team had objected to the arraignment even occurring.

That it has got this far is amazing to me. I fully expected some sort of deal would be made, but it appears that all chances of that have ended, with offers from the DA office being rescinded. Perhaps they will work something out. Perhaps they are banking on the testimony of the investigator being thrown out. That seems likes a very risky strategy to me. I agree with CJ, I never thought this would actually go to trial, but as it stands, it is a judge’s decision away from doing exactly that.

Shaking off the Jet Lag

There was (if you didn’t notice) a little lapse in the usual sporadic pace of blogging, as I was away on summer vacation. We visited the city of San Francisco, California and did lots of very touristy things and had an excellent time.

The blog I probably would have written over my absence would have been about the Sheri Sangji case, but some sterling work by ChemBark, ChemJobber and, especially, Jyllian Kemsley (surely that should be Chemsley?) covered all bases and I have little to add to their words. Thanks, guys.

I mention my trip to California in particular as when we got back to home to North Carolina, there was the inevitable jet lag. I don’t know if it is just getting older, but the time changes seem to be harder to get over than there used to be. Even the one hour shift to daylight saving time from standard time knocks me off kilter for a few days. As it happened the transition to Pacific time was a breeze – effectively you sleep in and we tended to be heading to bed early anyway after a busy day wandering around and looking at stuff (as the fig allows, at least!). But back home, suddenly it is get up really early and go to bed really early. Even after the weekend, I was still wide awake at 1 in the morning, wondering how I was going to make it into work at a reasonable hour. Some dragging was involved.

It seemed to us that we were in a loop, we couldn’t get up as early as usual, so we would not feel sleepy enough at bed-time and stay up too late and have trouble getting up next day. So to break the cycle, my wife suggested a single dose of melatonin to get us back on schedule.

The over-the-counter medicine was a low dose (and pleasantly orange flavored too) but it really did do the trick of making me feel sleepy ahead of midnight. Which meant I could get up earlier, get back into the routine.

So what is this miracle? Well, it is a neurotransmitter made in the pineal gland which is involved in our normal sleep-wake cycle. Typically, levels rise through the evening and fall in the morning. It is affected by the light (and contributes to seasonal disorders when you live somewhere that gets dark early in the winter). That is a reason not to turn full lights on when you wake up in the night (or even at bed time) because you don’t want the melatonin levels to drop before you are back in bed and snoozing.

Interestingly, a study was done of the use of melatonin on sleep disorders and it concluded “There is no evidence that melatonin is effective in treating secondary sleep disorders or sleep disorders accompanying sleep restriction, such as jet lag and shiftwork disorder. There is evidence that melatonin is safe with short term use.”

I definitely felt a sleepiness when I had my little pill. Was it the placebo effect? I’ll add that I went to bed early but read in bed for a while. That usually has a soporific effect unrelated to the quality of the reading material. So the idea of acting upon the problem got the circadian rhythm back on course? Just allowed us to break the cycle? That would seem to be the case.

Just as well, as school starts again next week – and that involves an even earlier start!

Learning from UCLA

This week’s Chemical & Engineering News has an amazing article on the recent tragic death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a research assistant in the lab of Professor Patrick Harran at UCLA. If you have not read it, I highly recommend that you do.

This incident in particular has brought academic labs under the spotlight with regard to their attitude to safe practices in the lab. Many of my colleagues have war stories from their times in academia, talking about procedures that would not be tolerated in an industrial setting. Occasionally people talk about how it was because we were young and inexperienced and sometimes it is about how much money that there is to spend on safety, but generally I think most feel it is about getting results from their graduate students in a short time frame. It is in the interest of both student and professor that the work being done produces papers. The result: long hours and lax safety practices.

In some ways, though, it is a surprise that Sheri’s accident involved t-butyl lithium (tBuLi), which is a highly pyrophoric material (meaning it spontaneously catches fire in the air). When handling such a known danger as this, most people would take extra precaution, treating it with the proverbial kid gloves. This was (as far as we can tell from the investigation done by C&E News) only the second time she had used this material – certainly not a case of overly familiarity.

My personal theory is that Sheri treated the larger scale reaction as she had her previous experiment. She figured that she could just use a syringe to deliver the t-BuLi to the reaction, as she had done before. OK, it would take several aliquots, but that would not be a problem. It would save her having to use a cannula and pressure to push the reagent into another flask. I expect the first aliquot went relatively smoothly, but when she went to do that again, the syringe plunger became more difficult to pull out, then it gave suddenly and pulled all the way out.

This is often an issue when scaling up a reaction. What works on with only a small amount suddenly does not work with a much larger amount. The slightly warm reaction on 10 mL scale becomes a spontaneous reflux on 100 mL scale. The reaction suddenly doesn’t stir so well. Or, as in this case, the volume of reagents overwhelms the way that you have to deliver it.

I think I am personally so interested in this story because it is, to coin a phrase, happening where I live, that is in the laboratory, doing reactions and using potentially dangerous reagents. I can almost imagine the thought processes of the young chemist, as she tries to deal with the unfolding situation. You do not make good decisions when you are trying to improvize, you jury-rig and make do. Only by looking at the procedure before entering the lab and thinking “what is the best way to do this?” and “what can go wrong?” and “what will I do if it does?” can chemistry be safely be done, without needless loss of young lives.