Wackaloon Disgruntled Lab Tech Destroys Valuable Samples

Aug 06 2009 Published by under Ethics, Scientific Misconduct

Some wackaloon disgruntled lab tech destroyed thousands of protein crystals destined for x-ray structural determination:

A former SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory researcher who allegedly destroyed $500,000 worth of protein crystals earlier this month was arrested and charged on Monday for willfully ruining government property.
The 4,000 to 5,000 now-useless protein crystals represented a "whole variety of different samples" involved in the Protein Structure Initiative, a federally-funded project to expedite the discovery of atomic-level protein structures, says Ian Wilson, director of the Joint Center for Structural Genomics (JCSG), which oversees the initiative. Some crystals were aimed at matching three-dimensional protein structures with their corresponding DNA sequences; others were part of targeted research projects including the Human Microbiome Project and efforts to map every protein made by the bacterium Thermotoga maritima.
Wilson estimates that his research team now faces a "two- to three-month setback" to remake the protein crystals that had not yet been analyzed. "It's basically going to take time, effort, and obviously money to redo those," he says. But many of the lost samples cannot easily be replaced, notes Keith Hodgson, associate laboratory director for photon science at SLAC and the head of the JCSG's structure determination unit. "Lost were materials that had been archived as well as the current samples in production," he says in an email. The half-million-dollar price tag was based on the time it will take to replace both the crystals in active use as well as the loss of the legacy crystals that were being saved in the event of future need.
Silvya Oommachen, a former JCSG research associate, entered the SLAC facility on 18 July and removed the crystals from the freezer, according to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Matthew Quick. Two days later, researchers discovered the thawed samples on the lab bench in three cryogenic containers, each with handwritten post-it notes signed by her alter-ego "X black". Oommachen, who didn't show up for work after 17 June, said she was overloaded by her supervisors and felt that the vandalism would reverse some of the "bad karma" associated with her time at the lab, the affidavit says.

27 responses so far

  • JohnV says:

    My generally impassive self might be incited to violence, honestly, if some one sabotaged my work like that.
    Hell, when someone killed all of our cell culture stocks in grad school because he "accidentally" only filled the LN2 for 5 minutes instead of taking the time to fill it completely, I wanted to shove him down the stairs. And he I didn't even do any cell culture work...

  • Wowzers. I admit I have been driven close to the brink of my sanity as an academic researcher at times, but to deliberately sabotage someone else's work?? No way. I know how hard it is to get data. Why on earth would you wish even more setbacks on someone else just because your own stuff is going badly?
    And if she was trying to get back at her supervisors, she should have considered that it's the people in her own positions that will now be scrambling to reproduce those samples. The supervisors are out time and money, but someone else is doing the labor.

  • JSinger says:

    As infuriating as the chosen route of revenge was, this could have ended up a lot worse. At least she didn't escalate to acrylamide poisoning, as happened in several of these disgruntled lab personnel cases.
    Does it really take only two to three months to replace thousands of crystals? This must be some high-throughput thing, not thousands of crystals of known interest.

  • Eskimo says:

    It takes two to three months to produce 5000 crystals? How many people are working there? Makes SLAC sound like the River Rouge factory of crystallography.

  • Orac says:

    Hell, when someone killed all of our cell culture stocks in grad school because he "accidentally" only filled the LN2 for 5 minutes instead of taking the time to fill it completely, I wanted to shove him down the stairs. And he I didn't even do any cell culture work...

    Hell, when one of the lab techs didn't latch the incubator door securely on a Saturday, letting all the CO2 out and killing most of the cells that were to be used for our experiment on Monday, I got really, really peeved.

  • Kate from Iowa says:

    Wait...this chick destroyed months of other peoples' work, half a million dollars worth of time and effort and results all because she's ticked off that someone expected her to work hard...and she's worried aobut the LAB's bad karma?

  • Heh. Bad Karma sux, so I can see why it had to be done. They should be happy the tech didn't have Bad Juju...

  • WOW. I feel so bad for her lab mates. I used to get angry enough at the unknown person (although we had strong suspicions) who would turn off random centrifuge runs at various locations around the facility, for reasons known only to him/herself.

  • Lora says:

    "Does it really take only two to three months to replace thousands of crystals? This must be some high-throughput thing, not thousands of crystals of known interest."
    Most likely the crystals were made from protein samples generated by collaborators and clients, not the facility itself. Those collaborators and clients already have stable transgenic cell lines, purification methods and buffer formulations figured out before the crystal samples go to the synchrotron. In a good month, with reasonable cell culture facilities and established stable lines, it's not difficult to make a few dozen different protein samples--you only need a couple milligrams for crystallography, often not even that. SLAC just needs to contact all those collaborators and clients and tell them the bad news.
    Does Stanford not have a very rigorous hiring process? Or maybe they didn't think to apply it at the technician level?

  • Mike Olson says:

    Karma? Juju? For God's sake they could've lost their Mojo. Although I suppose $500K worth of vandalism might lead to a real experience in how the fickle finger of fate deals with improperly gruntled lab help.

  • Physiogroupie IV says:

    Mmmm, she's not getting a good recommendation now.

  • Venerial Apparition says:

    That will teach bosses not to be such assholes maybe.
    In the meantime, who cares?

  • Julie Stahlhut says:

    Unfortunately, it's not always possible to predict the strange things that people will do when angry. It's not always possible to predict which people will do them, either. Psychological screening might be able to weed out some obviously dangerous or destructive people, but there's no way it'll ever be perfect.
    As for Ms. Oommachen, she's in a heap o'trouble now. And I really feel sorry for her former labmates. I've worked in labs that kept tremendous archives of field specimens that are absolutely irreplaceable, and wouldn't even want to THINK about the mess such a loss would make of innocent people's hard and expensive work.

  • Anonymous says:

    when my former postdoc advisor suddenly announced he was replacing me with a brand new postdoc for no reason other than for political reasons of gaining a collaborator in the new postdoc's PhD advisor, I contemplated smashing all the expensive equipment (about $30K worth of physics related equipment) I had built over the years before leaving the lab. I didn't because I didnt want to go to jail.

  • qaz says:

    This sounds more psychotic than simply an angry student. (Caveat: I'm not a psychiatrist or medical professional in any way, but "signed by individual post-it notes" sends off alarm bells to me.) I wonder if this person had some sort of psychotic break. This is not the first such incident that I know of (although it is the largest $-wise). And it raises a very interesting (and difficult) issue that was discussed extensively on Dr. Isis' blog (http://scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist/2009/06/ask_dr_isis_--_mental_illness.php). Did the PI have warning that this person was disgruntled? Was the PI able to get rid of the person?
    Note: Before everyone jumps on this, I'm not taking a stand here. I'm just pointing out that this is a complicated issue.

  • Anonymous for obvious reasons says:

    I once worked for a supervisor who threw out most of her grad student's samples as she was trying to finish her PhD... to "tidy up the freezer". The two did NOT get along, and I think the general belief was that the supervisor acted out of negligent indifference, even if it wasn't outright calculated malevolence. She (the boss) was really weird, and either hypothesis could fit depending on how one interpreted her personality.
    Science can really suck sometimes 😛

  • megan says:

    GREAT was looking through the RSS blog feeds for a topic to post this funny cartoon of similar bent.
    http://d.yimg.com/a/p/umedia/20090802/cp.08556f6e1a419ff06d0a563b5182959e.gif

  • expat postdoc says:

    I you guys had any idea how a high-throughput protein crystallography unit is run, you'd probably understand as well 🙁
    The SGCs are the worst ... especially the human membrane protein crystallization sub-initiatives.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh, BS, MT(ASCP) says:

    Eskimo - That's 5,000 DIFFERENT crystals from multiple sources.
    Yes, it's going to take a while to remake the proteins and crystallize them.
    BACKUPS! Where were the off-site, or at least "in another building's frig" backups of these?

  • Eskimo says:

    I should have added the word "only". I worked briefly in a crystallography lab and I figure it might take months for a single person to make a dozen crystals.

  • Ralph Spoilsport says:

    #
    I just did a search on her name and came up with a post on fugitive.com with this commenter:
    The Omega Concern on Tue, 4th Aug 2009 7:14 pm
    It’s possible Dr. Oommachen is a hero. The goings on at SLAC are dubious when dealing with interdimensional potentialities with these crystals.
    There is so much more to this story than what is being reported locally and even nationally. Internationally however, those in the know understand Dr. Oommachen’s motive beyond the short shrift you are giving this story.

  • JohnV says:

    Ok, in light of comment 22 I'll amend my first post:
    "My generally impassive self might be incited to violence, honestly, if some one sabotaged my work like that, UNLESS THEY WERE SAVING US FROM AN INTER-DIMENSIONAL INVASION."

  • Odyssey says:

    It’s possible Dr. Oommachen is a hero. The goings on at SLAC are dubious when dealing with interdimensional potentialities with these crystals.
    It takes a wackaloon to defend a wackaloon...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Ha, the damn technician! And all the pissed off PIs who crying bloody murder for this unbelievable misconduct. Do not misunderstand me! I strongly condemn the behavior of said technician yet, when a PI is being caught committing a scientific misconduct, the level of outrage expressed by his/her peers is usually significantly less vocal and violent. That's called hypocrisy. How many of you, who are ready to be violent against that technician, are also willing to expose your fraudster colleague? How many of you will stand by a whistleblower who has exposed your fraudster colleague? How many of you will be willing to forgive your fraudster colleague and give her/him another chance? Would you forgive your technician saboteur and give her/him another chance?

  • pinus says:

    Rivlin, if said PI was safeguarding us from interdimensional beasts (HAVE YOU EVER SEEN HOWARD THE DUCK?!?!), I would cut him some slack! If not, then no!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    pinus, my questions were essentially rhetoric. Check out Dr. Free-ride's blog (Adventures in Ethics and Science) and compare the responses to her post about a major scientific misconduct case at UAB to the responses here to the technician's misconduct. The technician is being held here to a much higher ethical standard than the PI and her MD postdoc at UAB.

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