The discovery that former Gustavus student Timothy Shay took two potentially dangerous chemicals from the chemistry department brings up questions about chemical security at Gustavus. Some members of the campus community are concerned that the department does not secure chemicals well enough.
The two chemicals Shay took, when combined, produce an explosive compound called Lead Azide. According to police records, campus authorities were notified that Shay had taken the chemicals on Jan. 29, 2010, but the College was unable to determine if any chemicals were missing. The chemicals were found on Feb. 4, 2010, when his family came to clean out his dorm room.
It is still unclear from where Shay managed to take the chemicals. “[The TA who conducted the lab] put everything away, but I think some of the group members knew where she had put the things away. Somehow … he came back and got the two compounds … and that was what was found in his dorm room,” Assistant Professor of Chemistry Amanda Nienow said. “We’re not sure at what point he got his hands on it by himself, but the potential option would be [when the TA left the room to use the bathroom].”
According to Laboratory Program Coordinator Angela Archer, who manages the stockroom, Shay did not get the chemicals from the stockroom. “The chemicals Tim had were not taken from the stockroom; they were issued to the TA,” Archer said.
According to some, however, the security of the chemicals may be lax. “Security is fairly minimal,” one Chemistry student said. “The doors are usually open, and there isn’t always someone [in the stockroom].”
According to Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair Brian O’Brien, they always try to keep someone in the area. “We try to always have someone in the stockroom. So when classes are going on, we have a work-study student in there, and our lab curator is in and out, but during regular hours there’s supposed to be someone in there all the time. The stockroom is locked up at night,” O’Brien said.
The current system of inventory tracks bottles of chemicals. “When we get a bottle, we inventory the bottle, and it goes into our stockroom. Whoever checks it out has to sign out for it. We don’t weigh the bottle, at least at this point, when it leaves and when it comes back. If there is only half a gram or a gram taken out, that’s really hard to see in the bottle,” Nienow said.
The department could possibly implement a new policy so chemicals would be weighed before they are taken out and after they are returned. “We have the capability, I think, with our software, but there would need to be a lot of up-front work. As a department, we would have to decide we want that kind of security. That would change the way professors and everyone has access to chemicals,” Archer said.
However, this may be difficult to implement. “It’s a possibility, but I’m not sure how practical that would be, actually,” O’Brien said. “It is something to think about.”
Another option could be “putting in cameras if we can find the money. We are definitely in discussion on how [to] handle this a little differently,” Nienow said.
The chemistry department has already taken some precautions to protect against future thefts. “The things that we know would make explosives or make drugs are now in [a secure room],” Nienow said.
According to Director of Campus Safety Ray Thrower, his department is working with the chemistry department to make changes in security, including adding key card access to some research labs and possibly adding cameras.
Some people have also questioned why a student would be taught how to make an explosive. According to chemistry department professors, explosives are a fairly typical area of study in forensic science, which was the topic of Shay’s January Interim Experience class where he learned to make the compound.
The compound is farily simple to make. “You don’t really have to be taught how to make it; it’s very, very easy to make. You can get that information just about anywhere,” O’Brien said.
In hindsight, Nienow would have taught the class differently. “In theory, I could have done [the explosive experiment] on paper, and I should have done it on paper, but we are the chemistry department, and we wanted to learn the different techniques of doing the chemistry analysis and synthesis. … If I did the class again, I would say, ‘no, just draw a picture’ rather than have a real explosive,” Nienow said.
The incident has made the department take a new look at its security measures. “It’s just so unfortunate, I think. We lost a level of trust. It’s definitely a wake-up call. We try to keep the stockroom doors shut and locked,” Archer said. “When chemicals are issued and out in the laboratories, that’s a whole different level of concern, because we don’t know if we need to keep all the labs locked at all times.”