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Chemistry professor to face trial over burning death of researcher

Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji (centre) at her graduation from Pomona College in 2008, just months before she suffered fatal burns in a lab accident at UCLA. The professor in charge of the lab, Patrick Harran, has been ordered to stand trial and face three felony counts related to her death. (CREDIT: SHERISANGJI.COM)

On December 29, 2008, a 23-year-old UCLA research assistant named Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji was performing an experiment with t-butyl lithium, a compound that bursts into flames spontaneously if exposed to air. 

Sangji had only just graduated that spring and for the past three months had been working in the laboratory of Patrick Harran, an accomplished UCLA chemistry professor.  

Mid-afternoon that day, as Sangji using a syringe to drawing the t-butyl lithium, the compound made contact with the air, bursting into flames. She suffered devastating burns and died 18 days later in hospital.

On Friday, Harran, the chemistry professor, was ordered to stand trial and face three felony labour-code violations. The Nature news blog reports that "as far as anyone knows," this is the first time a scientist has faced trial after an accident at a U.S. academic lab. 

According to media reports from the court, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lisa Lench said that "This is not the run of the mill case, not the run of the mill crime." But she dismissed Harran's defence lawyer's argument that while Sangji's death was a tragedy, it was not a crime.

Lench found that there was sufficient cause to proceed. If found guilty, he could go to jail for 4.5 years.

The case has stunned some in the science community, and is being closely watched. 

"If you told me this was going to happen, close to 4-and-a-half years later, I would have never believed it," one chemistry blogger wrote. 

Sangji's family had very different expectations.

"As Sheri’s family, friends, and loved ones, while we grieve for our loss, we live with the knowledge that had UCLA and Patrick Harran followed the law, Sheri’s suffering and death could have been avoided. We request the District Attorney to continue his pursuit of justice, and prevent other families from such a devastating loss," Sangji's sister wrote before Friday's decision.

UCLA chancellor Gene Block released this statement on Friday, after Harran was ordered to stand trial.

"The accident that took Sheri Sangji's life was a terrible tragedy for our campus, and I can't begin to imagine the devastation to her family. We must remember, however, that this was an accident, not a crime. Patrick Harran is a talented and dedicated faculty member, and our support for him is unwavering. Ever since the accident, UCLA has been working to enhance lab safety, and we will continue that work in the years ahead."

The governing body of UCLA was also originally charged along with Harran. But last July those charges were dropped in a plea deal that saw the university accept responsiblity for the conditions at the lab when Sangji died, set up a $500,000 scholarship in her name and strengthen its lab safety policies. The school had already examined and strengthened its safety policy and also paid tens of thousands in fines. 

A date for Harran's trial has not yet been set, the Nature blog reports.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.



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