Pressures on student linked to lab explosion His Hopkins adviser had requested work

April 15, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

It was no secret that Bogdan Dabrowsky was nervous about working with perchloric acid, one of the nastiest chemicals in the laboratory. He had expressed his concerns to both his faculty adviser and other Johns Hopkins graduate students.

He would even wait until the lab was empty to work with the acid. He wanted to make sure no one else would be at risk.

So Mr. Dabrowsky was alone in a Hopkins lab the night of March 23, when a beaker of hot acid mixture exploded in his hand. Robert Oberle, a student working in a nearby lab, heard the boom. It sounded like a door slamming, he recalled. Rushing down the hall, he found Mr. Dabrowsky crawling out of the lab.

The blast had blown out a wall and shot pieces of glass into his face and eyes. A television crew that came to campus captured Mr. Dabrowsky screaming in agony on his way to the hospital.

Three weeks later, Mr. Dabrowsky can see a little out of one eye, hardly at all out of the other. His career as a respected electron microscopist may well be over. As one friend put it, "There are no one-eyed microscopists."

While Mr. Dabrowsky recuperates in his Charles Village apartment, many in the materials science and engineering department are still angry about the explosion.

What led up to the explosion in the lab that night has been reconstructed by The Sun, based on interviews with six of Mr. Dabrowsky's fellow students, his adviser, outside scientists and Hopkins officials. Mr. Dabrowsky declined to be interviewed, and the students requested that their names not be published.

Two of Mr. Dabrowsky's fellow students in the materials science and engineering department who have talked with him say he felt he was under pressure to do an experiment that he considered dangerous and irrelevant to his full-time dissertation work.

A shy 44-year-old from Poland, Mr. Dabrowsky was supporting his wife and two children on a stipend of some $14,000 a year.

Mr. Dabrowsky's fellow students say he was in no position to refuse to help his adviser, the person with the most control over his professional future.

Set against the students' view is the opinion of Moshe Rosen, the Hopkins professor who advised Mr. Dabrowsky. Mr. Dabrowsky did express nervousness about the chemical lab work, Dr. Rosen said, but he never was coerced to do anything.

"He talked about concerns, yes," Dr. Rosen said. "But, he never said, 'I'm not comfortable doing this,' that type of thing. . . . No one is forced to do anything, at any time."

Hopkins officials say they don't know what went wrong in Mr. Dabrowsky's lab the night of March 23. But, they insist, there was nothing inherently unsafe about the experiment.

In any case, they say, there are risks in science. Researchers such as Mr. Dabrowsky understand that and accept it.

Mr. Dabrowsky last week said friends had advised him not to discuss the accident publicly.

"I am a foreigner in this country," Mr. Dabrowsky said. "I am very scared of everything at this moment."

*

Mr. Dabrowsky was cleaning man-made diamond dust that night in the lab.

Ironically, the microscopic-sized diamond particles were created by exploding dynamite in a controlled setting at a Virginia army base. The stuff created by the explosion came to Hopkins for cleaning and analysis. The dust might be used in the future, for example, as an insulating material for electronics.

Russian scientists created the dynamite-diamond process a few years ago. The American replication of the project, funded by the federal Office of Naval Research, might show researchers how to concoct new materials through lab detonations.

Professor Rosen was a partner in the project, working with a researcher from a private firm, Science Applications International Corp.

Dr. Rosen, who has been at Hopkins since 1982, drafted Mr. Dabrowsky, one of his advisees. Mr. Dabrowsky would use his expertise in electron microscopy to analyze the material. He wasn't a chemist, but part of his job included cleaning the material in a mixture of perchloric and nitric acids, water and ethylene glycol.

Mr. Dabrowsky began working on diamond samples early this year. He would usually devote at least 12 hours a week to the project, purifying a sample of diamond powder, a Hopkins official said.

One friend, who provided The Sun with a written account of a conversation he had with Mr. Dabrowsky before the explosion, said Mr. Dabrowsky complained to him that both Dr. Rosen and a representative of the company that had contracted with the federal government to do the work were pushing him for quick results.

"I am not a chemist. These are very dangerous chemicals. I cannot work faster," the friend remembers Mr. Dabrowsky saying a week before the explosion, as he recounted a conversation he had with his adviser. "You do not pay me and I do this for you. I work through the night. It takes time. It could be very dangerous."

Another student said: "He felt as if he had to do this work now."

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