6 Oct 2014

'Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance Well, they're no friends of mine*

Submitted by Anne Bentley, Lewis & Clark College

On being a scientist, a feminist, and a mentor…

Some of my primary childhood passions were natural disasters, math, and cooking. I ran the baking soda and vinegar experiment over and over again, gleefully causing the “lava” to overflow down the sides of the volcano I had made in a pottery class. I even added red food coloring for a more realistic touch.

Any chemist might have predicted that these interests would lead to a career in chemistry, and by college I had realized that chemistry combined my interests in math and hands-on experimentation. And of course, it was inorganic chemistry that provided the most color!

“But isn’t chemistry dangerous?” I thought. “Or evil?  Or both?” I managed to stash those concerns at the back of my mind. Yet at the same time, I seem to have avoided using the most harmful reagents and air-free manipulation techniques for most of my career. I don’t remember making a conscious choice to stay away from work I must have perceived to be dangerous, but I am cautious by nature. Despite my early interest in studying disasters, I make every effort to avoid accidents in the chemistry lab.

The fall semester is well underway, and lab students and student researchers have completed their safety orientations. How do we encourage and develop an ongoing safety culture in our teaching and research? How do we strike a balance between taking care of our students and not scaring them away? Our expectations, the rules we enforce, and our actions all communicate to students how much we value their safety.

As an instructor, I hope I am sending the message that “science is exciting, changing, and intriguing” and that “everyone can make contributions to science.”  But in all honesty, there is no room in most chemistry labs for someone for whom wearing shorts and flip flop sandals is at the non-negotiable core of their identity. Even barefoot students must put on sturdy shoes for lab.

I have sent all kinds of students home to change, or in one case, to borrow appropriate shoes from a classmate who lived closer to lab. But when women are the subject of my scrutiny, I feel like the fashion police. Are those pumps really “closed-toe”? Is that at-the-knee skirt okay if accompanied by thigh-high leather boots? I hope I communicate the importance of safety without also sending an unspoken message to women that they can’t be both attractive and a scientist.

VIPEr nation, how do you teach students about safe lab practices? What rules do you set and enforce regarding student apparel, contact lenses, and hairstyles? How do these expectations differ from general chemistry through advanced labs and research students?  Do you provide lab coats for students?

Resources and safety discussions already on the site are listed below, but we welcome more.


*Song lyrics from the 1983 hit, “Safety Dance,” by Men Without Hats. The song was written as an anti-establishment manifesto against some dance clubs’ bans on pogoing, a predecessor of slam dancing. VIPEr does not endorse pogoing or slam dancing in the lab.



Forum discussion of a 2011 Yale machine shop fatality:

Learning object based on the 2008 UCLA fatality:

UCLA pyrophorics safety video:

Assessing chemical hazards activity:

A virtual Schlenk line:

Also, a recent article in the Journal of Chemical Education describes the recent student-led safety initiative at the University of Minnesota in collaboration with Dow Chemical. McGarry et al. 2013, v. 90, p. 1414-1417, DOI: 10.1021/ed400305e

The Joint Safety Team at U. Minnesota website is a good source for resources.

Feel free to share your favorite resources in the comments.