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A Lesson in Learning

The creator of James Bond knew a thing or two about weaving a compelling story of intrigue, deceit, and high-stakes action. Reading the story of a breach of implicit trust between scientists wouldn’t be the setting one would expect to find eyebrow-raising acts of sabotage. Still, in 2010 we were given such a story at the expense of a student named Heather Ames. 

Heather was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. She was conducting experiments with cell-culture media. Cell-culture media involves live cells and requires strict quality control not to affect the outcome of experiments. On the journey from hypothesis to theory, one must design and conduct an experiment with reproducible results. Reproducible results allow peers to objectively critique your work, companies to make decisions, and even aid governments in making policy, the basis of which is the level of trust that we would assign someone’s work that others can verify. 

Reproducible results (or through other essential experiment design principles) can help keep harmful drugs off the market or debunk dangerous misinformation regarding public health. 

So, when Heather’s work started going off the rails, she didn’t just shrug her shoulders and produce shoddy work; she focused on finding the issue. When she’d fix one, another would pop up. Labels were switched, so she created a system that couldn’t be tampered with. Then contaminates showed up in her media. She tried running experiments in a different lab – where perhaps someone couldn’t tamper with it – and everything went as expected. 

It took some effort by Heather to win over folks to her sabotage hypothesis – she was interrogated, accused of being paranoid, and accused of sabotaging her work and trying to blame it on someone else. That accusation led to campus police installing cameras in her lab – set there to catch her. 

Instead, the cameras caught a fellow post-doc student, Vipul Bhrigu, an amiable student that the lab director, Theo Ross, said he’d never have suspected. The reason for this month’s long sabotage? “Internal pressure,” according to Bhrigu. 

We all face pressure in life. To relieve that pressure, we are often presented with options. Most of the time, those options fit within a moral framework that society has deemed acceptable. Sabotage typically doesn’t fall into that framework. 

In this case, several underlying questions take it from the world of James Bond to the boring but consequential world that you and I inhabit. 

Why did it take so long for Heather to get the help she needed? Beyond being dismissed, she was accused of sabotaging her work. While Heather was able to determine with undeniable proof that it was sabotage, it seems like there could or should have been other controls in place that would have put a stop to Bhrigu’s actions. 

If Bhrigu was coming in at night, presumably alone, why wasn’t that available in a log somewhere? Why did it take cameras to find the culprit? An electronic key-card system would go a long way to identifying who was coming and going in a lab. Should cameras have been in place all along, set to record during certain hours, or at least the first few seconds of doors opening and shutting after hours? 

We all could think of ways we would design a process to identify people entering and operating in a lab, and we wouldn’t need to be 007 to do so. 

In medical technology, identifying who is accessing the system is just as important as logging what they are doing with it. If you can’t trust who entered a record, how can you trust the record? And yet, there are systems out there that allow one user access to others’ passwords and login information and proceed to operate as if they were someone else entirely. There is no system surrounding something as critical as patient safety that should allow for any user to access or utilize another’s access credentials. 

This information can be used to cover for a colleague, or as in this situation, sabotage another. We just read in Heather’s story what can happen, right now, digitally with some medical quality management systems. 

Could you imagine if rogue state actors were able to do this to scale? It would be devastating. 

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