Researcher or Burglar?

By Zachary Block '99 / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
On June 21 what had begun as a straightforward story about a possible scientific breakthrough took an unexpected turn.

A paper authored by Brown re-searchers in the June 15 issue of the scientific journal Blood had reported on the role of a particular protein complex, Arp2/3, in jump-starting the process of blood clotting. The researchers had shown that Arp2/3 is required for a blood platelet to morph into the shape-changing filaments that begin a clot - a discovery that could lead to new treatments for abnormal clotting, which causes about 80 percent of all strokes. The finding, the study's authors believe, may also help unravel the cellular mechanism that prompts all cells to change shape, a mystery that has puzzled scientists since they first observed the building blocks of life under a microscope 200 years ago.

But on June 21 the study's findings were overshadowed - temporarily at least - when the lead researcher, Zhi Li '02 Ph.D., who now lives in New York City, allegedly slipped into the Bio-Medical building on Brown Street and, using a key, entered his former lab, deleted computer files, and pocketed containers holding antibodies, cloned plasmids, and a herpes virus, along with a lab notebook and several computer disks. Much of the material was related to the Blood study. According to a Providence Police report, Li later admitted that he'd acted to prevent anyone else from re-creating the research and thus, in his view, taking some of the credit for his discovery.

A Chinese national, Li was arrested on August 2 in New York City and later extradited to Providence, where he was arraigned on two felony counts of breaking and entering, one felony count of computer-related crimes, and one felony count of larceny over $500. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. Bail was set at $100,000 cash.

Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Elaine Bearer, the senior researcher on the Blood study and Li's faculty adviser, says the paper was based primarily on work conducted under her supervision by Li and by Eric Kim '02, who completed experiments requested by the article's peer reviewers.

The break-in raises broader questions about research security on campus and echoes similar concerns that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks and, earlier, the 1998 arrest of a former graduate student for taking radioactive material from another campus lab.

At issue, Bearer says, is balancing the need for lab security with the open exchange of ideas and information that a university requires. Although the use and storage of radioactive and other hazardous materials are supervised by Brown's Office of Environmental Health and Safety, the day-to-day business of running the labs and protecting the intellectual property within them is largely left up to individual academic departments.

Following the June incident, Provost Robert Zimmer, who arrived at Brown only in July and who oversees research at the University, declined to discuss specific issues relating to lab security, but he did say the topic is being studied by school officials. "If the situation needs to be corrected," he says, "we're going to correct it."

Brown police chief Paul Verrecchia says the burglary, which was facilitated by a University-issued key that had never been returned, demonstrated that departments need to do a better job controlling lab and office access. "Departments are issuing keys," he says, "and they're either not keeping a record of who the key is issued to or [not] asking back for the key once the person leaves the University."

Stephen Morin, who heads the environmental heath and safety office, agrees: "If we can't count on a locked door being a true measure of security," he says, "then we need another measure of protection." He contends, however, that individual academic departments are in the best position to know who should have access to which labs. "I think it would be helpful if everyone understood what the University expects," he says. "I'm not sure that's true now."

Meanwhile, with the sound of betrayal still in her voice more than a month after the break-in, Elaine Bearer says she continues to believe that the need for security should not trump academic freedom.

"I very much hope," she says, "that neither this event, nor 9/11, nor any other fears people have will change that."

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Related Issue
September / October 2002