Harvard Launches Review of Lab Mishap

After LPSA students are hospitalized, University investigates

Daniel M. Lynch

Students in LSPA visited UHS after observing DNA samples placed by using UV light without goggles. Instructors may be revising lab procedure as a result.

Harvard has launched an investigation into an incident that occurred during the lab session  of an introductory science class on Tuesday, according to FAS spokesperson Jeff Neal. At least five students were sent to the hospital for treatment of eye injuries.

“Harvard closed the lab as soon as the incident was reported,” Neal wrote in an email to The Crimson, adding that the review has been “designed to determine what occurred and to prevent any recurrence.”

As of Sunday night, the teaching staff of Life and Physical Sciences A who were repeatedly emailed for comment remained mum on the incident.

Course head Gregory Tucci, Head Teaching Fellow Joshua I. Rosenbloom, and University Spokesperson Nanci Martin declined to provide information about the incident, instead deferring to Neal.

On Tuesday afternoon, about 60 LPSA students headed to Science Center 117 to complete the last lab of the semester, which involved observing DNA samples placed on a transilluminator that emitted ultraviolet light.

Although a protective shield is supposed to cover the device whenever students make observations, some students did not use the shield correctly while viewing their samples. Some were also not wearing safety goggles, resulting in temporary injury to their eyes that caused irritation and blurry vision a number of hours later, according to students in the course.

Printed instructions for the lab made no mention of the need to use safety goggles or to view the gel through a clear protective screen.

It is unclear whether verbal instructions regarding safety procedures were issued to the students.

According to Neal, “the exposure caused some superficial dermal and ocular irritation and/or inflammation in some students. Some students also experienced discomfort from mild corneal abrasions.” He added that students are expected to suffer no permanent damage.

Just days after the incident, course staff in at least one life sciences class may be striving to institute stricter laboratory safety policies.

On Wednesday, Ahmet S. Vakkasoglu, who is a teaching fellow in Life Sciences 1a: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Chemistry, Molecular Biology, and Cell Biology,” sent an email to the students in his section, who would be using transilluminators similar to those used in LPSA in their own lab on Thursday.

“Very recent events in other classes regarding the misuse [of] UV [boxes] made us to be more cautious in the lab,” Vakkasoglu wrote.

He added that “no students will be allowed to place the gels onto (or work with) the UV lightboxes—only TFs can do so” and that “any students who do not wear proper lab attire and safety goggles will not be allowed in the labs.”

Alexander G. J. Bonorris ’15, who was one of the students in the 12 p.m. LPSA lab on Tuesday, trekked to UHS by himself with only limited vision in his left eye at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

Bonorris was quickly put in a taxi after an initial check-up and sent to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, where several students had already been sent earlier that night.