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Impact of a Principal Investigator

We are in the business of education.  Teaching is one of the three cornerstones of academic tenure and advancement: research, teaching and service.  I would like to include safety as one of those cornerstones.  Research, teaching, service and safety should all be evaluated when deciding tenure and promotion.  Unfortunately tenure and promotion of faculty is most often decided by research only with little emphasis on teaching or service and safety is completely left out of the equation.

The influence a teacher has on a student goes beyond what is found in the textbook or what is taught in class.  A teacher’s actions are also closely watched and emulated by students as they strive to advance their education and careers.  Many graduate students model themselves after their teachers in hopes of succeeding in research and the academic world just as their mentor did.

Faculty should be leading by example when it comes to safety.  Think back to when you took your first chemistry class or your first visit to a laboratory.  I’m sure you were in awe of the instruments, fume hoods and chemicals.  You watched the laboratory staff closely.  You watched their mannerisms such as what precautions they took when handling hazardous materials and you then patterned your behavior off of what you witnessed in the laboratory.  Now years later you are a faculty member and you have forgotten how closely your actions are watched by your students.

What lesson is taught to the graduate student when his mentor walks into a laboratory wearing a pair of flip-flops and shorts while drinking a cup of coffee?  What is the message that is taught when a graduate student is allowed to make a cluttered mess in their work area, is never asked to replace and segregate the chemicals he has removed from storage, is never required to wear appropriate personal protective equipment and is allowed to eat or drink in the lab?  What had the student working in a UCLA laboratory without a lab coat been taught when the pyrophoric material she was handling splashed onto her and ignited her clothing?  Had she witnessed others handling this material without appropriate PPE and was she simply emulated their actions?

Accidents are much more common in the academic world versus industry.  If you have never stepped into a laboratory outside of the academic world, take a trip to one of our nearby industries that houses laboratories, such as Eli-Lilly, and visit one of their labs.  Try walking into a laboratory while wearing  flip-flops, shorts and holding a cup of coffee.  What reputation does our institution gain when one of our previous students accepts a job outside of the academic world and shows up at their lab wearing cut off shorts and sandals and when asked to go home to change clothes states “That is what my mentor taught me to wear in a lab at   IUPUI”?  Always remember that a teacher’s legacy reaches far beyond simply what was taught in the classroom or laboratory.

We perform an inspection on all laboratories annually.  We continue to find personnel wearing sandals, sloppy cluttered workspaces, chemicals not properly segregated, personnel not wearing lab coats, food items in labs and other unsafe practices.  The sad truth is we often find that the Principal Investigator of the laboratory is guilty of these same unsafe practices.

What would happen if the Chemical Hygiene Officer was asked to give his input on all faculty tenure and promotion decisions?  What if results of laboratory inspections and laboratory accidents were included in these decisions and tenure and promotion was based on research, teaching, service and safety?  We must put an emphasis on laboratory safety and thereby create a safe place for our students, faculty and staff to work and learn.

As educators I hope you realize the importance of setting the example by practicing safe science in your laboratory and following all laboratory safety rules and regulations.  Remember the honor it is to have young minds wanting to emulate you and understand the responsibilities that comes with that honor.  I hope that none of you ever have to live with the horror of a student being seriously injured because of unsafe laboratory practices that they learned from you.

dipLead by example, practice safe science and continue to be the leading educators and researchers that you are.  Together we can create a world class University that is a safe place to work and learn.