We’re not there yet
Honor Sangji’s memory by encouraging safer laboratory practices
It is hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Sheri Sangji died. Since that time, thousands of words have been written about what happened, who was to blame, and how the chemistry community should respond.
I still find the story as horrifying as when I read about it the first time. I trained as an organic chemist and was a postdoctoral researcher at the time of the incident. Each time I learned a new detail, I turned it over in my head, asking myself questions such as, “Would this have been allowed in my graduate school group?” and “What would I have done in this situation?” I concluded that my lab group would have never allowed something similar to happen, although we surely had some near misses.
Nevertheless, the lab environment in which Sangji worked and the circumstances that led to her death were certainly not unique. I suspect that every chemist reading this essay can point to serious safety concerns in laboratories they have worked in or visited. Did someone ever work with an unusually dangerous reagent? Was that person well trained? Did well-trained senior personnel watch over junior scientists performing the procedure? Was all the available literature consulted and all the necessary equipment acquired before the procedure was performed? Were other experienced personnel aware of what was going on and available to help if something went wrong? I hazard a guess that few of us could answer yes to all those questions.
What has been accomplished in the past 10 years? The University of California system, following its legal agreement with the Los Angeles County District Attorney, has reams of new standard operating procedures and documentation. Other large research institutions have paid attention to the legal precedents set in California and revised their internal procedures. Whether these procedures are being followed is unclear, as is whether they are improving the safety of the scientists working in these organizations.
What I think has not changed are incentives in academia that discourage scientists from pursuing safer work practices. The pressure on scientists young and old to produce data for publications and grant applications hasn’t decreased. And young scientists in groups that may be ignorant of or indifferent to best practices in chemical safety still face daunting challenges to inform themselves and their colleagues. The chemistry community can honor Sangji’s memory by finding ways to encourage and ease safer laboratory practice.
One way to do this individually is to bring up safety issues whenever we can. It can be a burden to do this—you can be labeled as “the annoying one” when flagging unconsidered safety hazards in the laboratory. But to do better by Sangji and the many young and inexperienced people who will continue to enter laboratories, we must be willing to insist that before starting any experiment, we step back to ask if we can do it in a safer manner.