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5 ASU researchers who are making lab spaces safer

A student researcher in Scott Sayres' laboratory uses safety gear developed at ASU to conduct experimental research using ultrashort laser pulses.

February 18, 2020

Innovation emerging from research labs makes for intriguing headlines. But sometimes it is the lab itself that is being innovated. Arizona State University is recognizing and rewarding researchers who are finding creative ways to make their labs safer. 

Meet five ASU researchers who invented ingenious solutions to play it safe in the laboratory and were recognized at a recent ASU Laboratory Safety Innovation Awards event. The annual competition supports principal investigators who are making their ASU research labs safer places to work with up to $8,000 to advance their efforts. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers working in qualified labs are eligible to apply for a $700 lab safety culture award. 

A leading light in laser safety

Innovation Award

Scott Sayres, an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, leads experimental research using ultrashort laser pulses to observe how electron motion influences chemical reactions. 

“Laser technology is one of the fastest-growing technologies that we have out in the market today,” he said. “With the innovations, we’re constantly reaching shorter pulse widths and higher laser intensities. There’s more power and increasingly more danger. The safety measures of a few decades ago are not appropriate for today’s innovative laser designs. When we produce a white laser source, there’s not a laser safety eye goggle on the market that can block all of those colors and give you a safe experience. The only thing that could work is a blindfold. And you can’t run experiments that way.”

His research team’s solution is high on ingenuity and low in price: webcams that cost between $10 and $20 each. 

“We have discovered that simple webcams can be modified to allow them to observe the infrared emission of the laser beam, which are invisible to our eyes,” he said. “We can use the webcam to search for any stray light scatter rather than exposing our eyes and risking blindness.” 

The devices are paired with software the team developed to run on Raspberry Pi devices and large screens or monitors that remain on, a similar setup to a security camera.

Sayres says his research team plans to develop and implement more devices for his lab while sharing his innovation with other research labs using ultrafast lasers on campus. 

“We’re working on a manuscript to detail our methodology on how we’ve created this system,” he said. “Our goal is to spread the knowledge.” 

Scott Sayres uses safety gear that includes webcams that can detect stray laser light scatter invisible to the human eye.

Assistant Professor Scott Sayres makes safety a priority in his lab.

A researcher with 'shelf'-determination

Lab Safety Culture Award (postdoc)

In the School of Molecular Sciences laboratory where Telpriore “Greg” Tucker conducts research, handling various strong acids, pyrophoric metals, carcinogenic compounds and flammable gases is all in a day’s work. The postdoctoral research associate devised a cloud-based inventory system and shelving and retrieval method for the laboratory’s more than 1,400 bottles of stock chemicals. Tucker says the system saves researchers’ time, reduces overhead expenses by eliminating the purchase of chemicals already on hand and closely monitors chemicals’ shelf life, thus reducing hazardous chemical waste. 

If implemented universitywide, the system would promote lab safety uniformity and create real-time inventory updates of chemical stocks and other materials from all registered labs. 

“This could encourage sharing resources among fellow scientists, spur collaborative efforts and minimize the dreaded ‘orphan chemical surplus,’” Tucker said. “The entire method would require a relatively easy onboarding process and online training sessions similar to the fire and safety videos offered at ASU.”

Making a course correction

Faculty Laboratory Safety Award

As the School of Molecular Sciences associate director of academic affairs, Professor Anne Jones has a track record of leading major teaching innovations, from spearheading the launch of the first online biochemistry degree in the United States to guiding the creation of a massive open online course (MOOC) in general chemistry for engineers. She has now set her sights on improving laboratory safety training, modeling her new system after the “personnel qualification standards” (PQS) training method used by the U.S. Navy. 

“Like a research lab, the Navy must train a diverse group of individuals on technical skills with unique hazards within a short time frame,” she said. 

Her research lab adapted the PQS training strategy, which includes written training guides for each instrument or technique and binders for lab personnel to keep their guides for personal reference. An authorized trainer guides the trainee through the series of tasks in each module, and the trainee must demonstrate their knowledge or ability unassisted before the trainer marks the task as complete. 

“This ‘trainee-driven’ approach rapidly identifies knowledge gaps, whether in fundamental chemistry or safety hazards,” she said. “We will continue to develop new training guides and standards for all techniques and instruments in our lab, and we hope to share these PQS guides as templates with the broader research community at ASU.” 

Getting into gear

Faculty Laboratory Safety Award

Joshua LaBaer, Biodesign Institute executive director and professor, has developed an engaging reward system that provides incentives for biology lab workers to always wear personal protective equipment (PPE) — lab coats, gloves, closed-toe shoes, safety glasses and long pants — in the lab. 

“Unfortunately, researchers in biological laboratories often have the misconception that because it is not easy to be harmed by aqueous buffers and common macromolecules — such as antibodies, DNA, bovine serum albumin — PPE is not necessary. So they feel lulled into a false sense of safety,” he said. 

Under the reward system, lab workers can earn “safety chits” by wearing PPE consistently, observing and correcting safety violations, and more. The safety chits can be used for a chance to win a monthly raffle.

In sharp focus

Faculty Laboratory Safety Award

Under Director Bruce Rittmann, the Biodesign Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology is developing a program to prevent accidental needle sticks in the laboratory. The program includes in-person training and a training video to increase mindfulness on how to safely use needles and sharps, followed by a short quiz to review what students have learned and reinforce key take-home messages. Since the team invented and implemented a needle guard in June, there have been no needle sticks.

Safety first

Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of the ASU Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer, commended the award recipients at the second annual ASU Lab Safety Innovation Awards event in December. 

“I am very proud that ASU is a place where lab safety is emphasized at the highest possible extent,” he said. “At the end of the day, lab safety is not just about a policy or an institutional statement, but about the individuals and culture. A safety culture cannot be propagated on campus unless every faculty member practices it.” 

Each awardee received a medallion designed and hand-forged by Daisy Nolz, an artist and teaching assistant at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. 

Are you a researcher with an innovative idea for making your lab safer? Learn more about the Laboratory Safety Innovation Awards and how to apply.

Top photo: A student researcher in Scott Sayres' laboratory uses safety gear developed at ASU to conduct experimental research using ultrashort laser pulses. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

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