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Safety First: Inaugural Weeklong Event Launches Grad Student Initiative

Di Wang

Di Wang, a third-year graduate student in chemistry and president of the Research Safety Student Initiative, helped organize Northwestern’s inaugural Safety Awareness Week, which is taking place February 19-23.

When Di Wang returned to campus after an October trip to DowDuPont, the world’s largest chemical company, she knew it would take hard work to apply the insights learned there to help further strengthen the University’s research ecosystem.

In the four months since, the third-year graduate student in chemistry and president of the newly formed Research Safety Student Initiative (RSSI), has helped coordinate Northwstern’s inaugural Safety Awareness Week (SAW).

“Student leadership is key to enhancing the culture of safety that already exists at Northwestern because these researchers are an integral part of nearly every lab,” says Mark Bachrach, a chemical hygiene officer at Northwestern’s Office for Research Safety and RSSI advisor. “The vision is that this and other RSSI initiatives will help bridge the safety gap between academia and the strict standards in industry.”

The Office for Research Safety spearheaded the trip to DowDuPont and is working with Wang and RSSI leadership to produce tangible enhancements to the University’s research ecosystem.

SAW launched on February 19 with an event that included an expert panel featuring Jay Walsh, vice president for research, Peter Stair, chair of chemistry, and representatives from DowDuPont, BASF, and Argonne National Laboratory.

SAW events throughout the week will encourage students to take ownership of laboratory safety, but programming will also be geared to principal investigators, postdoctoral fellows, and research specialists.

The fall trip to DowDuPont allowed students — alongside representatives from the University of Minnesota and University of Chicago — to participate in a Lab Safety Academy workshop at the company’s headquarters in Midland, Michigan.

Dow hosted its first Lab Safety Academy workshop in 2012 with the intention of improving the safety culture in academic research space and align it more closely with rigorous industry standards.

After the initial workshop, the University of Minnesota developed a Joint Safety Team and members from that group were on campus to participate in SAW activities February 19 and 20. They shared how the first student-lead safety team successfully improved and sustained the safety culture in University of Minnesota research laboratories.

“Their experiences will be immensely valuable to RSSI as we embark on a similar journey,” says Wang, who works in the lab of Julia Kalow, chemistry. “Our guests from industry and Argonne will also be an integral part of the week.”

Information booths set up on the second floor of Pancoe will feature a range of materials, including details about RSSI initiatives (February 20); proper waste disposal (February 21); personal protective equipment (February 22); and chemical compatibility, storage and spills (February 23). Representatives from vendors, including Fisher, Heritage, and Salus, will also be present throughout the week.

“The University has invested significant effort into research safety and views it as an integral part of research itself, and now there’s an opportunity for graduate students to make a greater commitment to laboratory safety,” says Wang. “SAW represents a renewed culture of care at Northwestern and serves to raise awareness, encourage discussion, and make lab safety an ever-more personal endeavor.”

By Roger Anderson