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Staying Alive in the Lab

This week’s two Science Careers stories offer an interesting juxtaposition. First, there’s Mitch Leslie’s profile of Liz Cirulli, a young researcher who, when she’s not raising king snakes, is trying to help figure out what factors allow some people to live long, healthy lives. Next there’s Beryl Benderly’s column, Taken for Granted: When Will They Ever Learn?, which focuses on the early, senseless death of a different young researcher, Michelle Dufault, in a machine shop accident.

On the one hand we have a vibrant young person doing research aimed at extending and improving the lives of older people. On the other hand we have a brilliant young woman who will never have an opportunity to grow old.

Beryl’s column — like two previous columns (here and here) — focused on laboratory safety and the inadequate emphasis placed on it by faculty members, administrators, and academic institutions. As in two other recent incidents that Benderly describes, Dufault’s death was avoidable. Compliance with well-known safety standards — never working alone with dangerous machinery; tying back hair securely when working with a lathe — would have ensured her survival.

When I was in graduate school, studying physics, I did many potentially hazardous things. I once was shocked rather badly by an old vacuum pump that had been mis-wired, hot and ground wires reversed in a trap unwittingly set by some student, postdoc, or faculty member years or decades earlier. I survived. In a typical sample-prep day I worked with hydroflouric acid, molten quartz, intense UV radiation, gamma rays, and halogen gases — all part of the same procedure. I could have died or been seriously injured in any number of ways. But I survived. (For the record, I always utilized appropriate safety gear.)

In editing Beryl’s column I found myself, reflexively, defending academic institutions with familiar arguments. Science is sometimes dangerous, I argued, so get used to it. We can’t afford to be over-cautious. We can’t let bureaucracy (for isn’t that what the Health and Safety Office is?) get in the way of doing good science. Sterile, immaculate spaces and over-cautious researchers do not promote scientific discovery. And so on.

As Beryl had no trouble convincing me, my reflexive response was wrong. I was employing the wrong metaphor. Safety isn’t a straight-jacket, inhibiting discovery. Safety is professionalism. Safety is being properly trained to do the work you’re doing, and doing it with meticulous attention. You learn it and forget it, like a pianist’s technique.

I am reminded of an old science friend, a German mountaineer, the most experienced and accomplished “alpinist” I have known. When in the mountains he always carries a heavy pack, full of essential safety and rescue gear. He has been involved in — and prepared for — several rescues of climbers and others who were less skilled and less prepared than he was.

I am reminded too of my experience, years ago, working in a well-run nuclear power plant. For the employees there — electricians, mechanical experts, engineers, others — donning safety gear and doing it properly, doing all the necessary contamination swipes, monitoring radiation levels, and ensuring proper shielding, was habitual. Safety was a manifestation of their meticulous attention to detail. It was part of their professionalism and they took pride in it.

It’s natural for young people to be incautious. An aversion to risk aversion is a characteristic that makes young scientists so valuable. And that’s precisely why it’s so important for those who are older, wiser, and — hopefully — more cautious to protect them. We accomplish that by training them. 

Taking unnecessary risks is not an indication of bravery.  It indicates, rather, a lack of skill. It’s to be expected in young people but its unforgivable in the people charged with keeping those young people safe. Dufault and the other young scientists Beryl’s column mentions died or were injured because no one had taken the time to teach them the proper, careful way that science should be practiced.  No one had taught them the most essential professional skill of all: how to stay alive.