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Fatal UCLA lab fire cited as science group is urged to reconsider chemist's fellowship

Fatal UCLA lab fire cited as science group is urged to reconsider chemist's fellowship
UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran, right, sits with his attorney, Thomas O'Brien, in Los Angeles County Superior Court. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The selection of UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran for a fellowship has sparked an uproar in scientific circles, prompting key members of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science to seek reconsideration of their decision to honor him.

The association, the world's largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, has come in for harsh criticism -- from workplace safety experts, other chemists and the family of a woman who was fatally injured in a lab Harran supervised -- since including him among 347 fellows announced last month.

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Association officials said this week that the chemistry section steering committee's request to reconsider Harran's fellowship was made "after it became apparent that an initial review of Dr. Harran's nomination materials had not included all relevant information" -- a reference to the lab death and subsequent criminal charges.

Harran, 46, was charged with four felonies stemming from a December 2008 lab fire that killed research associate Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, 23. She died 18 days after suffering extensive burns when a plastic syringe she was using to transfer t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another came apart, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. She was not wearing a protective lab coat at the time.

Harran, who was charged with willfully violating state labor codes by failing to provide proper safety training and failing to require protective gear for lab workers, struck a deal last year with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to defer prosecution for five years. If he meets certain conditions during that time, including teaching chemistry to inner-city students each summer, the charges will be dismissed.

In a letter to association officials, Sangji's family expressed "shock, dismay and utter disbelief" that the 167-year-old organization had selected Harran for one of its fellowships.

"For an organization that states as its mission a goal to 'promote and defend the integrity of science and its use,' we ask how you can reconcile this laudable aim with a decision to honor a man responsible for the death of a young scientist," read the letter signed by Sangji's siblings, Naveen and Hussain.

Another letter, signed by more than 40 workplace safety officials, public health professors, labor union representatives and others, also criticized Harran's selection.

"His careless practices put his staff and students at risk of grave harm," it read. "Dr. Harran failed to address the safety problems and Ms. Sangji lost her life as a result."

Harran and the University of California contended that Sangji was a seasoned chemist who chose not to wear protective gear and was trained in the experiment she was performing. Charges against UC were dropped in July 2012 when the regents agreed to follow comprehensive safety measures and endow a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji's name. UCLA has since spent at least $20 million on enhancing lab safety.

Harran's attorney, Thomas O'Brien, declined to directly address the fellowship controversy.

"Professor Harran has always taken full responsibility as supervisor of the laboratory in which this tragic accident occurred," O'Brien said. "He remains committed to pushing for increased safety in academic laboratories as he continues his groundbreaking research."

Harran's nomination by three current association fellows was reviewed by the organization's chemistry section and then ultimately ratified by its elected council. In its press release this week, the organization said that the initial reviewers were unaware -- until last week -- of Sangji's death or the unprecedented and widely publicized criminal case against Harran.

That claim was met with skepticism by many in the science world, including commenters on the Chemical & Engineering News Safety Zone blog.

"I am struggling to understand how AAAS administrators were unaware of the charges, and deferred prosecution of Professor Harran as it has been extensively covered by the AAAS's own publications," one wrote.

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Association officials declined to comment beyond their prepared statement.

UCLA officials said in a statement that Harran has "a well-deserved reputation as one of the most creative and influential synthetic organic chemists of his generation" and should receive the fellowship.

"The December 2008 laboratory accident was a terrible tragedy and Prof. Harran and the Regents remain dedicated to improving lab safety and abiding by all the terms of their agreements with the District Attorney," it said. "It is our belief, however, that the understandably strong feelings that surround this tragic accident should not negate Prof. Harran's important work and this substantial honor."

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