Should a UCLA Professor Be Forgiven for the Horrific Death of His Lab Assistant?

In the wake of negligence that led to a tragic death, should a UCLA professor be forgiven?

by Melissa Cronin
Dec 12 2015, 5:52pm

Image: YouTube.

A professor whose lack of safety precautions led to the gruesome death of a young lab assistant in 2008 has received a prestigious fellowship from the country's largest scientific society—a fellowship that critics say he doesn't deserve.

In late November, Patrick Harran, a chemistry professor at UCLA, was selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to become a AAAS fellow for 2015, an award given to scientists who make notable contributions to their field.

The appointment has been met with backlash from scientists on small blogs and on Twitter. But it wasn't until earlier this week that the real blowback came—from none other that the family of Sherharbano Sangji, a lab assistant of Harran's who was killed in a fire in 2008. In a letter addressed to the president and the chairman of AAAS, Sangji's family called Harran an "unethical scientist" and demanded that the organization revoke Harran's fellowship.

"Patrick Harran, the epitome of laboratory safety failures, is the farthest one could be from a mentor or role model. It was in reach of honors such as the one you offer that he recklessly ordered Sheri to her death. With his conduct in direct contradiction to your stated goal of promoting and defending "the integrity of science," we ask that you formally revoke your offer of fellowship to Patrick Harran....No one should suffer the way Sheri did. No family should have to deal with our loss."

Back in 2008, a recently-graduate assistant named Sherharbano Sangji was working in Harran's lab, using a plastic syringe to transfer a flammable substance called tert-butyllithium, which ignites when it touches air. She wasn't wearing a fire-proof protective lab coat when the syringe plunger fell out of its barrel, causing the tert-butyllithium to catch fire. The fire spread quickly, charring the skin of Sangji's neck, body and arms, 43 percent of her body in all. She suffered third degree burns and after 18 days in critical condition, succumbed to her wounds at the age of 23.

In the aftermath of the accident, Sangji's family alleged that Harran could have prevented her death. Just two months prior, UCLA safety inspectors sent Harran a report indicating that they had found more than a dozen safety deficiencies in his lab, including employees not wearing protective lab coats. If Harran had adhered to the recommendations, they say, Sheri would likely have lived. Harran also testified that Sangji had not received safety training prior to working with tert-butyllithium:

Harran was charged with four felony counts for violating state health and safety standards in Sangji's death, and avoided prison by reaching a settlement in 2014. He agreed to complete 800 hours of nonteaching community service and pay a fine of $10,000, according to a Los Angeles District Attorney.

In a statement to UCLA's Daily Bruin, Ginger Pinholster, AAAS director in the office of public programs, said that the selection of a fellow "doesn't reflect behavior or other issues." Oddly, he added that the AAAS administrative members who chose Harran were unaware of the charges against him, despite the incident making major news just a few years ago.

A request for comment to AAAS was not returned at press time. We will update this post when we hear back.