More On Education | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 24 | p. 4 | Letters
Issue Date: June 13, 2011

More On Education

Department: Letters

I read Rudy Baum’s editorial “Educating Ph.D. Chemists” with interest, especially the discussion about safety culture in academia versus that in industry and government laboratories (C&EN, March 28, page 3). We continue to hear about a weak safety culture in academia. After many years’ experience working as a research chemist and as a health and safety manager in government, I believe the gap in the knowledge of chemistry graduates is a result of the inadequacy of the safety education process for chemistry un der graduates.

Building a safety-conscious culture requires constant reinforcement of safety in all laboratory processes. If academic institutions would incorporate safety throughout the entire undergraduate curriculum, bringing up safety at each and every laboratory session over the four years of study, then they would begin to build stronger safety cultures. This in turn requires that faculty and staff become strong leaders and proponents of safety, not just in words but by their actions, demonstrating that safety is a critical and important component of all chemistry.

Realizing that many would not know what an undergraduate student should learn about safety, Dave Finster and I wrote an undergraduate textbook, “Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students.” Using this or some other resource to provide lessons in safety for each laboratory session will over time build the kind of safety culture that is needed in academia. This not only serves undergraduates who go on with their undergraduate degrees to become secondary school teachers and chemists working in industry, but it can also prepare graduate students to safely carry out their research in academic labs.

Skills in laboratory safety should be essential and critical elements in the undergraduate process. The reason that safety is a critical skill is that if you don’t follow safety principles and practices, you or others can be injured or even killed. This cannot be said of other areas of chemistry study. Current educational efforts do not adequately teach the knowledge needed to develop strong laboratory safety skills. There are many ways to incorporate safety throughout the curriculum, including prelab assignments, lectures, homework assignments, etc. Academia needs to develop a strategy to teach strong laboratory safety skills to its undergraduate students.

Robert H. Hill Jr.
Stone Mountain, Ga.

I was disappointed with the inference at the conclusion of Baum’s editorial that it takes “a superman or superwoman” to absorb the priorities and language of business within five years. On the contrary, the basic priorities and language of business can be grasped pretty quickly; you don’t even need an economics course or business management course to understand them.

What you do need to understand them is the realization that money does not grow on trees and salaries are not automatically supplied by a research grant or a big company just because it has deep pockets. It seems obvious enough, but from my experience as a student researcher, or even as a salaried employee of a large company (or government agency), employees are often completely insulated from the cost and profit structure—at least in part because people don’t think they need to know, and/or because the scale of the enterprise they’re working for makes it difficult to put them in touch with that.

By contrast, when I graduated and started work at a small consulting firm, the priorities and language of business were much more in focus: First, hard work or interesting discoveries in and of themselves do not get you paid; if you or the company you’re working for doesn’t bring in business, the money is not going to keep flowing. Second, you’d better damn well know the perspective of the potential clients, and not just your own.

It doesn’t take five years to learn those things, or even one; it just takes a level of awareness that if you want to keep your income stream coming, you have to produce and sell—services or products, or components thereof—just as the company you’re working for has to produce and sell.

Todd Tamura
Petaluma, Calif.

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