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Beryl Lieff Benderly

A Potentially Life-Saving (And Long Overdue) Recommendation

It’s gratifying indeed when people who really know what they’re talking about agree with what one has been saying for a long time.  So it is with a commentary by Rudy Baum, editor-in-chief of Chemical & Engineering News, that underscores points that Science Careers has mentioned a lot more than once.  Commenting on the summary of a workshop held by the Council for Chemical Research, he highlights the four recommendations that emerged from the program.  Two echo favorite Science Careers themes.

One of them, that graduate schools should “require or at least strongly encourage internships as part of the Ph.D. program,” seems fairly obvious and unexceptional in light of the widespread current interest in scientists developing “soft skills.”
But the other recommendation is much less expected, long overdue, and, potentially, of the utmost — indeed, of literally vital — importance.  It advises graduate programs to “share industry/government lab nonproprietary training curricula on intellectual property, ethics, safety, etc.”  In plain English, this means that graduate students should be taught the safety standards required in industrial and government labs, which, as Science Careers has repeatedly reported, are far stricter than those prevalent in academic labs.  As the former chair of the United States Chemical Safety Board, John Bresland, told Science Careers a year ago, this discrepancy is an issue needs systematic attention.
Indeed, Baum writes, “The difference between the safety culture of academia and that of industry and government labs is apparent in the workshop report.”  One reason that industrial employers prefer to hire chemists who have done industry internships, the report notes, is that they have already been taught the safety standards routinely enforced in industrial labs.
Given the horrific incidents that have maimed or killed people working in university labs in recent years — including the totally needless 2009 death of 23-year-old Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji from burns sustained while working in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran at the University of California, Los Angeles — this recommendation would doubtlessly save lives and prevent future suffering. Hooray for the Council for Chemical Research panel for making it!  Graduate schools everywhere should implement it immediately, not only in their chemistry labs, but everywhere scientists work.