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Meting Out Just Deserts

March 19, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 12

Rudy Baum suggested that “teaching lab courses and lab safety in Los Angeles high schools” would be appropriate community service for a person found guilty in a UCLA laboratory accident (C&EN, Jan. 16, page 3). I agree.

A significant national issue involves educational preparation of science students before they enter college or university. Every student needs hands-on experience in laboratory techniques and laboratory safety in science courses taught by qualified teachers in high school and earlier. Moreover, students need that laboratory instruction in modern facilities, with safety equipment that meets current codes and regulations.

I learned experimental chemistry in a small rural town. My father, who spent 48 years as a science teacher, taught the high school chemistry course. Each of my 40 years as a college chemistry teacher involved extensive laboratory instruction, with an emphasis on educating students to work safely with hazardous chemicals. Appreciation of chemical safety is learned incrementally; it’s best when that learning begins at an early age and is accompanied with knowledgeable mentoring.

Progress in chemical safety will be painfully slow at research levels until feeder schools—especially high schools—are well staffed with credentialed science teachers who are provided appropriate support.

By George Fleck
Northampton, Mass.

Being the left-leaning, environmentally minded ex-chemist that I am, I generally agree with Baum’s editorials. However, as a California prosecutor I was surprised to read his take on the punishment that UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran should receive for his part in the death of Sheharbano Sangji. A young woman, who received no safety training and wasn’t even wearing a lab coat, died while working unsupervised with a pyrophoric liquid, and Harran should face only community service because safety lapses in academic labs are “all-too-common”? Imagine if we applied that logic to DUIs and other “all-too-common” offenses that result in injury and death.

This letter expresses my opinion only and not that of my employer.

By Dije Ndreu
Monterey, Calif.


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