A Stellar Rise
Harran and close associates refused or did not respond to interview requests for this story, but his remarkable research life is a matter of public record.
Harran’s career as a scientific star began early, with honors at Skidmore College, Ph.D. studies at Yale and two postdoctoral years at Stanford. In 1997, at the strikingly young age of 28, he landed his first faculty job in a competitive labor market as an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He advanced with exceptional speed.
He beat out a dozen other labs in a race to synthesize a toxin that attacks cancer cells. Nearly alone among anti-cancer agents, diazonamide A did not harm normal cells, suggesting the possibility of a drug with few side effects. In 2001, Harran’s tour de force research also uncovered and corrected an error in the initially published chemical structure. He also showed that diazonamide A could kill cancer cells by a method previously unknown, making him not only a master of chemical synthesis but a contributor to cancer research.
He gained tenure in five years and full professorship in just seven — a time when most academics are first up for tenure. Less than a year later, he had an endowed chair in biochemistry.
Beyond technical mastery, Harran reportedly finds aesthetic and humanitarian value in crafting molecules. “Synthetic chemistry is like painting or architecture,” he told the Glens Falls Post-Star, published near his childhood home of Corinth, N.Y. “We have almost infinite possibilities in the ways we can create new materials. . . . Discovering a new type of reaction or finding something out about a molecule that, for example, could be very useful, or could change people’s lives? That’s remarkable.”
In July 2008, Harran moved to UCLA, and the university provided $3.2 million to get his new research operation underway. Naveen said Sheri told her that Harran pushed his staff to help him win “the Nobel Prize in six years.”
Safety Standards on Trial
State investigators soon began seeking answers. As a university employee, Sheri came under the jurisdiction of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA. Had she been a student, the agency would have lacked jurisdiction because occupational safety laws cover only paid workers. No government agency had the power to exact penalties, for example, when a lab explosion in 2010 critically injured Texas Tech University graduate student Preston Brown or when a lathe strangled Yale University senior Michele Dufault in 2011 in a university science building.
Sheri’s case would be different. In May 2009, Cal/OSHA fined the University of California $31,875 on four violations of the occupational safety law: lack of required safety training, lack of needed protective equipment, failure to maintain an “effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program” and lack of required training records. It classified the first three violations as “serious,” indicating a likelihood of serious injury or death.
These findings and fines were hardly the inquiry that Naveen had expected. The family wanted “a full investigation and want to see a more comprehensive questioning into how my 23-year-old sister lost her life from injuries sustained while working at UCLA,” she says. In the Journal of Chemical Safety, lab safety expert Neil Langerman wrote, “The death of Ms. Sangji was the direct result of management failure throughout the UCLA administration, from Chancellor Gene Block through Professor Harran and the [Environmental Health and Safety] department.” Later developments would confirm this view.
Much of the academic scientific community, however, agreed with UCLA and, amid expressions of shock and sorrow, argued that Harran had done nothing that lab chiefs across the country do not do every day.
Scientists in industry took a different view. Officials at three major chemical companies published an open letter citing lax university safety standards that require companies to provide new hires arriving from campuses “weeks of remedial safety training before [they] are allowed to work in their labs.” William Banholzer, then technology chief at Dow Chemical, says in industry, “If you can’t do the work safely, you can’t do it in our company. . . . If somebody violates our safety protocols, we’ll dismiss them. I’ll go into a lab and shut them down.”
Determined to force the authorities to seek deeper causes, the family appealed the Cal/OSHA citations and pressed for the opportunity to express their concerns to the agency, as did Sheri’s labor union, the University Professional & Technical Employees Local 9119 of the Communications Workers of America. UCLA, which initially paid the fines, also filed an appeal of the findings.
Cal/OSHA authorized a new investigation. Senior Special Investigator Brian Baudendistel interviewed Harran, as well as the postdoc who was said to have demonstrated the transfer to Sheri, the two postdocs who tried to help her and her boss at Norac Pharma, where she worked before UCLA. Baudendistel’s 95-page report, released in December 2009, detailed how, more than two months before the fire, a university safety inspection noted inadequate use of lab coats and other protective equipment in Harran’s lab and ordered improvement within 30 days, a requirement Harran failed to fulfill.
“Dr. Harran,” Baudendistel wrote in his report’s conclusion, “simply disregarded the open and obvious dangers presented in this case and permitted victim Sangji to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death.” He sent the report to the district attorney, recommending a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
By now a surgical resident in Boston, Naveen feared that the DA would not prosecute so powerful an institution and its prominent faculty member. In all the time she could spare, she worked to bring pressure on the DA and keep the case alive in the media. She made calls, wrote letters and collected thousands of signatures urging prosecution. “There is no doubt in our minds,” Naveen wrote to the DA just days before the statute of limitations expired in late 2011, “that criminal prosecution, against the university and the professor, will be the single most effective deterrent to unsafe laboratory conditions in the future at UCLA, and at other universities.”
In December 2011, the Los Angeles DA charged Harran and the regents of the University of California with three felony counts, later raised to four, of willful violations of California’s labor code with a resultant death. Conviction on all counts carried up to four-and-a-half years in prison.
Chancellor Block denounced the charges as “unwarranted” and again pledged UCLA’s “full support,” including legal defense. Some scientists objected to Harran being “railroaded” for conduct most considered ordinary. Others, especially lab safety experts, saw conviction as the well-deserved — and cautionary — consequence of neglect.
In July 2012, the university regents settled with the DA. They agreed to “accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated,” to create a law school scholarship in Sheri’s name and to establish, in all the chemistry labs on all of the system’s 10 campuses, an extensive program of required safety training and compliance for all lab workers. In exchange, the DA dropped the felony charges.
Never before had an academic institution come under a legal standard equivalent to that found in industry, where management enforces safety from the top down.
Harran, however, did not settle and continued to maintain his innocence. Given the high risk of conviction should a jury hear Baudendistel’s conclusions, his defense team used every possible means to prevent a trial. They made repeated motions to dismiss the charges, knowing that the statute of limitations precluded the prosecution ever bringing them a second time. Delays postponed arraignment dates. On Sept. 5, 2012, over the defense’s objections, a Los Angeles judge entered four not-guilty pleas for Harran. That November, a judge ordered him to stand trial.
Harran’s lawyers eventually petitioned the California appeals court to dismiss the charges because the university, not Harran, was Sheri’s employer. The appeals court asked for briefs, raising the possibility of a dismissal, but it never heard arguments. In May 2014, the district attorney settled with Harran.
Harran would accept “responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated” but would not plead guilty. The district attorney will dismiss the charges if, during five years of probation, Harran teaches summer courses in chemistry to disadvantaged high school graduates, lectures incoming UCLA chemistry students about lab safety, performs 800 hours of service in the UCLA hospital and donates $10,000 to the burn center where Sheri died. Because the settlement allowed Harran to avoid criminal penalties, the landmark case that many had hoped would set a new standard for accountability in labs across the country ended without settling the legal question of whether the lab chief has personal responsibility for the safety of students and workers.
In the courtroom on the last day of proceedings, after nearly six years of anguish and effort, Naveen rose to tell the judge of Sheri’s dauntless spirit and ruined future, of her sister’s agony and her family’s desolation. With many of her listeners in tears, Naveen called the settlement “barely a slap on the wrist for the responsible individual. . . . We do not understand how this man is allowed to continue running a laboratory, and supervising students and researchers. We can only hope that other young individuals are better protected in the future.”
The agreement, one of Harran’s lawyers told reporters outside the court, will “allow professor Harran to continue with his life-saving work.”
Harran said nothing as he left the court.
UCLA spent nearly $4.5 million on his defense.