On Nov. 2, 2018, chemistry PhD student Shiva Dastjerdi was working in her Boston University research lab synthesizing candidates for cancer drugs. She was walking across the lab carrying a small vial containing trifluoroacetic acid when her foot slipped on a wet spot on the floor.
Dastjerdi was wearing gloves, goggles, and a lab coat, as her work required. But her lab coat, like many, didn’t button all the way to her neck, and Dastjerdi was wearing a V-neck shirt. As she caught her balance, a few milliliters of the acidic solution splashed out of the uncapped vial and onto her upper chest.
Not wanting to take off her shirt to use the lab’s safety shower, which had and still has no curtain, Dastjerdi ran across the hall to the bathroom. There, she poured water over her chest for several minutes. When she emerged, a lab mate and her adviser, chemistry professor Aaron Beeler, helped her report the incident to campus emergency services and BU’s Environmental Health and Safety office and Research Occupational Health Program, following university protocol.
The burn felt like hot water seeping deep into her skin, Dastjerdi says.
She remembers the next few hours as frustrating: The ambulance crew didn’t seem to know how to treat her injury. The emergency room staff initially thought her accident involved a few liters of hydrofluoric acid. After she sat for several hours in an exam room using a wet paper towel to soothe the burn, doctors sent her home with instructions to wash the area with soap and water, saying there wasn’t much else they could do.
But that frustration was minor compared with what happened over the next several months, as Dastjerdi landed in the maddeningly complex world of US workers’ compensation laws and how they do—or do not—cover medical expenses for graduate students injured while working in a research lab. Dastjerdi dealt with collection notices for overdue hospital bills and confusing and contradictory information from BU officials. Eventually she hired a lawyer who convinced the university to pay some of her medical expenses.
Dastjerdi is far from the only US graduate student or postdoctoral researcher to be injured while at work. She is also not the only one to have been surprised that collecting a paycheck does not safeguard against personally paying medical bills for work injuries. Nor is BU the only institution with unclear policies—a C&EN review found that other schools’ stances seem similarly vague, and a federal fight continues over whether graduate students are considered employees for certain purposes. It’s yet another vulnerability for graduate students in a system in which they have the least money and power.