Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lab Tales: How A Chemistry Lab Experiment/Explosion Changed My Life

I was grateful for Dr. Robert Hill's insightful article "Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions" in this month's issue of the Bulletin.

Why I am interested

Whenever I hear about lab accidents it makes me feel a little nauseous. This is because I have several inches of permanent scar tissue on my arm and a smaller scar on my face to remind me how chemical burns can have a lasting impact. I don't think about it most of the time until someone I am talking to or waiting in the elevator with fixates on my arm and then turns away like they weren't looking.

Long story short

 It happened one night some years ago when I was a third year grad student. I needed to do a deprotination to make an alpha hydroperoxy. I had flushed out the system using Argon. I had carefully set up the drop-wise addition of a pyrophoric compound via cannulation. All at once, a bright flash, loud sound and extreme pressure and heat invaded my senses. I remember being stunned and gazing into the glass hood where I could see the hair near my forehead was on fire. I ran to the showerlike I had seen in too many different lab class introduction videos as a T.A.stripped off my lab coat and shirt, and pulled on the shower knob. I saw some of the skin was peeling off my left arm. A postdoc in the next door lab gave me his jacket, helped me over to his car and proceeded to drive me to the hospital emergency room. Another postdoc helped clean up the water on the floor (thank you kind postdocs!). The drive to the emergency room only took minutes but felt like an eternity. I kept asking the postdoc driving the car if my face was 'real bad.' I knew my arm was scarred but I was more worried I had permanently scarred my face. At the hospital I was treated for second and third degree burns to my arm and my graduate adviser arrived. Luckily there were mostly only first degree burns on my face but I did look like I had a severe case of acne for a while. (Nothing is quite the same kind of awkward as sitting with your very distinguished adviser in the middle of the night with burns over your arm and face while dressed in a hospital gown in the emergency room.)

Why any of this matters

 You might wonder if and how I was irresponsible that night of the accident, what I could have done to prevent it, or what I could have done differently. All I know for certain is that my view on the importance of safety training in academia has changed greatly since then. After the accident, I no longer see any part of lab safety training as just a theoretical discussion or mandatory obligation.

When in the lab, there is so much at stake. We have not only our immediate safety to think about (avoiding fires, spills, etc.), but also potential repercussions to our future-permanent scars, cancers, reproductive systems, etc. It is so important to take advantage of the safety resources we have.

Side note: Other than my dissertation, my most prized possession that I took from the lab is an old pair of safety goggles I wore that night. It has a big white splotch where there was back-splash from the explosion just over the lens that was protecting my right eye.

-Corrie K. Ph.D.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The PhD Movie: A film adapted from Piled Higher & Deeper

By: Stephanie Prosack
       ACS, Education Assistant

The 244th ACS National Meeting has come and gone! Can you believe it? One of my favorite activities was viewing Jorge Cham’s movie, The PhD Movie, adapted from his well-loved comic strip, Piled Higher & Deeper.

As depicted in the comic strip, The PhD Movie follows the characters—in human form—who we have come to love: Cecilia, Mike, Tajel and someone we assume to portray Jorge. All combat many of the same encounters and obstacles commonly faced by graduate students in the real world: nonstop
research, disinterested and ungrateful professors, and lack of personal growth. The moral of the movie is to keep pursuing your dreams and passions. Wise words to follow, yes?

Although the acting is mediocre, at best, one of the coolest aspects of the movie—witty and entertaining—is the fact that it is acted and directed by graduate students. (Let’s give them a break! It’s not their day job!) Written and produced by Jorge, the director is a graduate student in aeronautics, and the actors are students in different sciences, too! Most are graduate students, except for the actor who portrays Jorge’s character; he is an undergrad. Jorge Cham even makes a few guest appearances; they’re discreet and short, so you may want to keep a close eye out for the author.

After the screening, Jorge Cham joined us via teleconference. He explained how he began the comic
strip as a stress-relieving outlet and way to procrastinate during his graduate school days at CalTech. In this discussion, Jorge took time to discuss the personalities of the four main characters, Cecilia, Mike,Tajel and Jorge. Interestingly, he said he often receives comments from people commenting on Cecilia’s attractiveness, but she is Jorge’s cartoon character, so people shouldn’t get too comfortable with her! Jorge finished the teleconference by highlighting the importance of Piled Higher & Deeper: to help graduate students felt less alone through the storm, and of course, encourage procrastination.

If you missed the movie screening at the ACS National Meeting or want to watch it again, you can
stream the movie here for a fee. The PhD Movie is also able to be screened at institutions after approval
from staff. This would be perfect way to honor Jorge Cham by procrastinating.

Did you see the The PhD Movie? We want to hear your thoughts! Share!