Today at Berkeley Lab

Profiles in Safety: Director Paul Alivisatos

Each year brings a new crop of students to Dr. Paul Alivisatos’ nanotechnology laboratory on the UC Berkeley campus. As soon as they walk in the door, they are going to hear about safety. With a team of 40, his Hildebrand Hall lab is a bit smaller than the 4,000-employee Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory he directs up the hill; but Alivisatos is equally insistent on building a “safety culture” in both places.

At the annual three-day retreat where his young recruits and post docs get acquainted, Alivisatos requires an entire day be devoted to discussions about safe lab technique. “There are lots of students coming from all over the world,” he says. “There’s a lot of turnover.” Newcomers must learn quickly how to minimize risk in their new surroundings. It’s not just the novelty that poses a challenge. A nanotechnology lab is equipped with a diverse set of tools that must all be mastered.

“We are organized around a class of materials, rather than a particular technique,” he explains. If everyone in the lab used one technique, everyone would quickly become familiar with the hazards. In a lab with a broad array of tools and techniques, there is more to learn. “It imposes on you a need for a stronger safety culture,” says Alivisatos.

The same thing might be said for the broad spectrum of scientific pursuits at Berkeley Lab, where research is interdisciplinary by design. At both UC Berkeley and at LBNL, Alivisatos wants to build a safety culture based on the same logic that drives the scientific method. “If you are going to do an experiment,” he says, “you need to think two or three moves ahead: ‘This is what I think is going to happen…This is what might happen instead…This is how I’d respond if it does.’”

In other words: Thinking ahead – it works for science. It works for safety.