Sep 212009
 
Authors: Seth Anthony

It’s common for graduate students to wonder what they were thinking when they chose to tackle an advanced degree. We endure grueling coursework, long hours working in research labs for low pay and being stuck at the low end of the totem pole for years.

It can sometimes be a demoralizing experience, but one thing grad students shouldn’t have to worry about, among the many stresses we face, is whether we’re going to make it out alive.

Last week, the body of Annie Le, a 24-year-old, third-year pharmacology graduate student, was found inside a wall at the Yale University lab where she worked. In discussing her murder with fellow grad students, I’ve felt a palpable sense of “this could happen here.” There’s also a sense of amazement at the intensive access control and video surveillance at Le’s research lab, safety precautions which no doubt helped find her body more quickly and will likely help convict her murderer.

In the past couple of years, CSU facilities have begun to build up some of the high-tech monitoring that well-funded facilities like Yale have. It’s time to step this up, a move that would probably also help with the chronic problem of minor thefts in academic buildings.

Graduate students often work long hours alone in research labs. Late at night, they’re often some of only a few people in a large empty building where police foot patrols are a rare sight. Unless they’re responding to a call, I can’t recall seeing campus police patrolling inside campus buildings — something that I know would make me feel safer. CSU needs to look at changing this practice.

Violent crime, however, isn’t the only safety risk graduate students face.

In December 2008, Sheri Sangji was working as a research assistant in a UCLA chemistry lab — most graduate students are supported by research assistantships at some point in their academic careers. She was setting up a reaction using t-butyl lithium, which can catch fire spontaneously when exposed to air.

Something went wrong, and the compound caught fire, as did a container of flammable solvent that was nearby. Sangji ended up with severe burns over more than 40 percent of her body and died from her injuries less than three weeks later.

Graduate students conduct most of the hands-on research work that’s done at CSU, and we’re the ones most often exposing ourselves to risks, ranging from chemical fires to radiation exposure. At the same time, we’re just starting out as researchers and have less safety training and life experience than the faculty and senior scientists who supervise us. This inherently places us at greater risk.

Anyone who has worked both in industry and academia can describe the profound contrast in safety precautions between the two environments — things happen in academic labs every day that would get industrial scientists fired. Even the relatively mild rules enforced in lab courses — safety glasses or appropriate attire — are often ignored in the research labs where graduate students work and violations are shrugged off.

Deaths like Sangji’s are why it’s sensible to err far on the side of caution. It’s time to create a culture of safe laboratory practices, where those who notice unsafe practices can report them with some assurance that they’ll be taken seriously, and the violators will be held accountable. This change in culture has to take place not only among students but among their supervising faculty and be supported by university administration.

There’s a cost to these safety measures —- increased surveillance and access control to buildings costs serious money, and rigorous safety training and enforcement slows down research progress. But, especially for an educational institution, safety shouldn’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. We need to be doing more to make sure that tragedies like the deaths of Annie Le and Sheri Sangji don’t happen at CSU.

Seth Anthony is a chemistry graduate student. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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