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Size imge Credit- hns s vi flickr Rights Informtion ISNS In ugust federl officils sent letter to Yle University formlly criticizing its sfety prctices in connection to the ccidentl deth

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By Carrie Arnold, ISNS Contributor
Inside Science News Service

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Credit: hans s via flickr

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(ISNS) -- In August, federal officials sent a letter to Yale University formally criticizing its safety practices in connection to the accidental death of a student.

Undergraduate physics and chemistry major Michele Dufault was just weeks away from graduation when she died inside of a campus laboratory in April from injuries caused by a lathe -- a mechanical tool used for cutting and shaping materials.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the lathe that was used by Dufault did not meet required safety standards, a finding that Yale currently disputes. OSHA could not fine or impose other penalties on Yale because the student was not an employee of the university.  However, Dufault's death, along with several other high-profile laboratory deaths, has left universities wondering how best to keep students safe.

Each year, colleges and universities must teach thousands of undergraduates proper lab safety protocols, which can vary widely between different schools and disciplines. Universities must also impart this information in very limited amounts of time, says Sheila Kennedy, the director of lab safety in the chemistry department at the University of California, San Diego, which can make it difficult for students to absorb everything they need to know to stay safe while in the lab. The goal of any lab safety program is to help students identify and minimize their exposure to any hazards. Kennedy said her campus uses a variety of techniques from lectures to web tutorials to help explain lab safety essentials. Although the bulk of formal lab safety training is concentrated at the beginning of the term, learning continues throughout the course.

"Rather than teaching safety, you teach chemistry -- with one eye on safety," Kennedy said.

P.J. Alaimo, a chemist at Seattle University, also seeks to create a culture of safety in his research lab. Alaimo said that most professors are "mainly concerned with compliance [with legal standards] and not a whole lot more than that. That’s not to say they didn’t want their students not to get hurt, but safety always came secondary to the science."

He believes that labs can do better than settling for just compliance.

Alaimo's solution is to create "safety teams." Instead of the instructor going over any safety issues at the beginning of each lab, Alaimo tasks two or three students to research and present the safety talk. Alaimo said that this approach has transformed how students think about safety. Instead of passively waiting for an instructor to tell them what to do, the students have collectively shouldered some of this responsibility. The students actively question lab procedures, and they have integrated safety concerns into how they think about doing experiments.  Alaimo said that now, “students are thinking about safety as part of experimental design.”

"A lot of people design their experiments with a 'safety first' mindset," Alaimo said. "But most people don't involve undergraduates in that process."

Educators hope that new and innovative ways of teaching about lab safety may help students learn the material better, but there is no documentation as to whether these new methods actually prevent accidents and injuries in the lab. Ironically, the fact that teaching labs have so few incidents makes it harder to measure the impact of new teaching methods; proper research requires collecting a copious amount of data over a long period of time in order to determine whether new methods have actually improved lab safety. Because this process is expensive, and time-consuming, university scientists have little or no results on the best way to keep students safe.

Nancy Wayne, chairperson of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety  and a physiologist at UCLA, said that lack of awareness is another reason evidence-based safety practices don't exist.

"For a lot of [scientists], including myself, lab safety was very important but it wasn't something we thought about all the time," Wayne said.

The University of California Center for Lab Safety wants to fix this mindset, both by bringing safety to the forefront of thinking and by developing evidence-based lab safety practices. Having this data will also help scientists implement these practices in their labs, said executive director James Gibson.

"[Scientists] had a lot of questions about the things we were putting into place, and what kind of proof we had that these things would work,” Gibson said.

That data doesn’t yet exist, although Gibson and Wayne hope to change that.

Although ensuring lab safety depends on the type of lab, science research, and experiment in process, professors say a few basic steps can help prevent a majority of mishaps. To Kennedy, the solution is a matter of “close supervision.” It sounds obvious, Kennedy said, but having a teaching assistant or professor nearby can often keep minor issues from becoming major ones.

To Alaimo, students can go a long way in ensuring safety by knowing their limits. Attempts to single-handedly manage something like a small spill may inadvertently make things worse if a student isn't cleaning it up properly. Students need to understand when it's time to ask for help and get someone more experienced, he said. Plan for safety before you start your experiment, Alaimo say,. "Safe experiments don't just happen, they have to be designed."

"Most labs are quite safe," Kennedy said. "We always tell students as they're leaving safety training that going out and driving their car is far more dangerous statistically than anything they're likely to do in the lab."

By Chris Gorski
Inside Science News Service

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Credit: ISNS & via flickr theseanster93 and AMagill

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(ISNS) -- The new movie "Moneyball" stars Brad Pitt as the general manager of a Major League Baseball team who is compelled to find a new way to put together a winning team because of his shoestring budget.

Based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," the film follows Pitt’s character Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics general manager challenged to field a squad despite his team’s limited resources. The book discusses the strategies employed by Beane and Oakland's staff and shows that the team acted on a long-established discrepancy between the player attributes many front offices focused on and the attributes that could most help teams win.

Although the A's never won a championship in this era, Oakland did overcome their payroll disadvantage to make the playoffs each year from 2000-03 at a time when writers, fans, and even the commissioner of the league were all lamenting the inability of smaller-market teams to compete with the big-budget "boogeymen" teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

The statistical analysis used as the basis for Oakland’s decision making was not all original. Much of it was drawn from work by baseball statistician Bill James and others that began at least two decades earlier. This research reexamined the game down to its foundation in an attempt to quantify the true value of the skills that lead to winning in baseball.

The real stars of the book are math -- and those who had the audacity of using it as the basis for baseball decisions.

"For many, many years everybody in the management of a baseball team came from the same group of people," said Michael Fry, a professor of operations and business analytics at the University of Cincinnati. "That promoted a lot of similar types of thinking."

Baseball's obsession with numbers notwithstanding, for decades management left unexamined the idea that perhaps they were not bidding on players based on the best numbers. Oakland found that hitters who walked frequently were inefficiently rewarded -- meaning that they earned less money than they were worth considering what they contributed to winning. This left a pool of players systematically undervalued by baseball teams. Oakland identified them by focusing on a statistic called on-base percentage, which is essentially a hitter's success rate at getting on base.

"The skill of just getting on base and avoiding an out is really important in terms of a team being able to score runs and win," said Raymond Sauer, a professor of economics at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Oakland put a lower premium on qualities such as pure athleticism, batting average, and home run power. They ignored strategies that gave away outs, including sacrifice bunts and stolen-base attempts.

In the late 1990s, Oakland began exploiting this difference to build an offense that scored more runs and helped the team win more games. This provided them with a considerable, but temporary, advantage.

"The surprising thing to me is that it took so long for the innovation to be built into a strategy and exposed," said Sauer. He and Jahn Karl Hakes, an economics professor at Albion College in Michigan, wrote two papers examining the baseball labor market before and after the era of "Moneyball."

The pair found that on-base percentage was under-rewarded all the way back to the 1980s. For some years they found no statistically significant connection between a player's salary and his ability to get on base.

"Were the prices really that out of whack? The answer that I found was, yeah, they were," said Sauer. "Every year [on-base percentage] is robustly, strongly correlated to team winning,"

But very soon after Oakland began using the strategy the rest of baseball had recognized what was happening.

"By the time people started reading Lewis' book the market had already adjusted," said Sauer.

"The minute other teams learn what your strategies are, they adapt and your strategies then become less successful, less attractive," said James Cochran, a professor of quantitative methods at Louisiana Tech University, in Ruston. "It's no different than the stock market." 

When rich teams like the Boston Red Sox began adapting similar methods to Oakland, it drove up the price of the previously undervalued players, wiping out the advantage the A's had enjoyed. Oakland hasn't had a winning season since their last playoff appearance in 2006.

Opinions differ as to whether the book properly highlighted the contributions of Oakland's standout starting pitchers during this era -- especially Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito.

"I think the book may have not given enough weight to the pitchers," said Sauer. "But everybody knows that if you have a bunch of good pitchers, you're going to win baseball games. That's not news."

"They definitely had an advantage even above the three pitchers they had," said Fry.
Although the book only touches on strategies to identify value in other parts of the game, Oakland might have identified new market inefficiencies. In 2010 they allowed the fewest runs in their league. Despite that, they finished 81-81.

"I don't see [defense] as being enough to take a bottom payroll team to the top like focusing on on-base percentage did for the Oakland A's," said Sauer. "There will be something out there in some sport that somebody figures out; I just don't know what it is offhand."

The success of the movie "Moneyball" may determine if that as-yet-to-be identified story also becomes a film.

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