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I work at a molecular bio lab as a postgraduate student and I'm relatively new. My team currently focuses on antibody research and hence my post-doctorate team supervisor had ordered a lot of various antibodies. The antibodies arrived in autumn last year in 5 boxes, stacked together and stored in a -80 C fridge by me. My supervisor then appointed me to handle all the experiments involving these antibodies. Just like everyone else in the field, I only took a few tubes out and aliquoted them into small portions and stored the aliquots in separate boxes. After that whenever I have to use them for experiments, I would just take the aliquots. In other words, aliquoting the stock antibodies was the first and only time I have managed the boxes of stock antibodies (besides the day of arrival, of course). I am very sure that I have immediately put the box back at its exact spot after taking the few tubes.

More than a week ago I wanted to aliquot from a few new tubes from the same boxes of stock antibodies as my project progresses. However, to my horror, 1 of the 5 boxes of antibodies had gone missing. The remaining 4 boxes were still neatly stacked at the exact same spot. I then asked my colleagues if they have moved anything in that fridge recently and only one colleague confessed that she had extensively searched that fridge for something lately, so she might have messed up the arrangements and hence offered help to find it. After searching every inches of 3 fridges together (our lab had placed 3 fridges in that communal area), there was still no sign of the lost box.

I reported to my supervisor at once, with only unhelpful and uninvolved responses. My supervisor told me it is worth >usd$120k to pressure me to find it. Till now I have searched many times but to no avail. It feels like a waste of time now since I have been looking for the same locations. At this moment my supervisor is still urging me to find it. We are kind of stuck in a loop now.

Some relevant information:

  1. There were 3 fridges that belong to our lab placed in the communal area. More than 10 labs share that communal area with us so we all have access to each other's fridges. However it is not common for us to borrow stuff directly from each other's fridges, and we barely know each other, so I believe that no one outside of our lab would have thought of opening our fridges for any reason.

  2. Another 2 fridges were placed in our lab branch 2 buildings away. Only our lab members have access to the branch lab. I have searched through these two fridges as well, but it wasn't there. I also think that the likelihood of the lost box being brought to our lab branch 2 buildings away is very low.

  3. Relationships between my colleagues and me is quite distant, but professional. Interactions between us are mostly friendly (just being polite). I don't think anyone would have held grudges so deep that he/she has to do this to me or anyone.

  4. I am now trying to get as many people to be involved as possible (is that a good move?). I have asked another teammate for help, who is also involved in the antibodies experiments, to a lesser extent. The teammate was there when I first aliquoted the antibodies as well.

I know I am in big trouble and the helplessness is drowning me. Am I responsible for this? Is there any 'right or wrong' in this case? Could it be regarded as an accident? What should I do?

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    I see no reason why you are in big trouble. Mar 2, 2023 at 7:25
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    To be honest this sounds like it could be theft, not an accident. Something worth $120k is missing, you have searched and not found it. You should tell your manager the next step is to call the police to report a crime and let them investigate. Your manager may not want to do this but either way it should end the demands that you just find it.
    – Eric Nolan
    Mar 2, 2023 at 9:18
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    The extends of employee liability usually depend on local laws. Where I live and work, employees are only personally liable when it's provable they they acted grossly negligent. But we don't know where you live and work, so I have no idea if the same applies to you.
    – Philipp
    Mar 2, 2023 at 10:15
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    I believe it should be the management of the lab that should implement rigid monitoring and safety regulations when dealing with 'biochemical products' or valuable products in general, such as CCTV, access-control, 4 eye principle etc. when dealing with goods/products that are not just very expensive but also might fall under certain regulations (HSSE, HAZOP, etc..) - I'm sure the certification-authorities provide guidelines and rules to follow for certain scenarios.. So I wouldn't worry too much about personal liability on your side if something goes missing..
    – iLuvLogix
    Mar 2, 2023 at 14:00
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    Are there security cameras inside and outside the lab ? If yes, you can try to ask to view the footage. Ask for help from your department and from the university security team in searching for the box. They will do a thorough job in searching for the missing box. Mar 2, 2023 at 22:34

4 Answers 4

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At this point there isn't a whole lot you can do so it's time to have a heart to heart with your supervisor.

  1. Carefully document your entire search efforts so far. List all fridges that you have searched and write them down.
  2. Check your records (if you have any) and see if you can find when the box was last accessed.
  3. Present all your data to your boss and tell them that this is all you can think of doing. If they want you to do more, ask them specifically what that should be.

Am I responsible for this?

Not really. If this is a valuable asset, then the company should put proper access procedures into place. That means locking things up, tracking consumption with a spreadsheet or database, checking things out and back in again, etc. That's all fairly standard stuff. If none of this is in place and you weren't asked to manage it this way, than it's not really your problem.

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    And just because a supervisor says something is true, it doesn't mean it is. The supervisor is responsible for creating the security around the boxes in this scenario, so he's actually on the hook for letting half a million dollar worth of supplies sitting in an unsecured location. Has he secured the remaining 3 boxes yet?
    – Nelson
    Mar 3, 2023 at 1:20
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    I agree that he's on the hook. Our lab generally have a very 'relaxed' security, just like other labs that I know...although most of the supplies and machines are of extortionate prices (which is normal in biochemical field). Fridges don't come with locks. What's worth mentioning is, stealing the box of antibodies wouldn't be lucrative because it would be very hard to resell it, plus there are uncountable types of antibodies, so it has to be extremely coincidental that another lab/person needs the exact same type with us.
    – wkjnrt
    Mar 3, 2023 at 2:53
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    Never attribute malice which can be explained by stupidity, Someone may have taken it by accident, spilled it or something on it, let it get too warm and simply disposed of it, etc.
    – Hilmar
    Mar 4, 2023 at 0:26
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First of all, you are not financially responsible for the loss, unless you are a contractor, in which case it may get more complicated. You should check your contract in such a situation to understand your obligations.

Unless you had the power to implement a strategy that could have avoided the samples going missing, for example, by implementing a lockable fridge, it's unlikely you are culpable here.

My recommendation is to detail every aspect of your search in some sort of log book, that will show the efforts you have gone to in order to find the samples. Then when you are challenged if you have tried hard enough to find the samples, you can provide evidence on where you have searched.

In addition, you should carefully document to the best of your recollection, every instance that you dealt with the boxes themselves.

Because we don't understand what happened to the samples, we can't infer if it was an accident, or someone acting with malice.

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    One additional thing they can try: watch the video surveillance cameras, they might have caught something. It seems that the box left the room, not that is was spilled over the floor.
    – virolino
    Mar 2, 2023 at 9:16
  • We do have CCTV, however supervisor would very much like to keep it low... supervisor is keeping it from our boss since he wants to keep out of trouble. Asking for CCTV would definitely alarm our boss and more people high up (since something like this has never happened in our lab).
    – wkjnrt
    Mar 3, 2023 at 2:43
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    @krddovs CCTV has limited time of storage. So, delaying it now means it could have been overwritten by the time it was bought to the big boss's attention. That would be considered a malicious act. Mar 3, 2023 at 3:23
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Send out an email to the other labs.

There were 3 fridges that belongs to our lab that were placed in the communal area. More than 10 labs share that communal area with us so we all have access to each other's fridges. However it is not common for us to borrow stuff directly from each other's fridges, and we barely know each other, so I believe that no one outside of our lab would have thought of opening our fridges for any reason.

This is probably where you went wrong. Odds are, someone from one of the other labs took it, and it's now sitting in one of their fridges. So, I'd write an email to all of the other labs informing them of the fact that the box has gone missing from your lab's fridge in the communal area and of its value, and then requesting them to look through their fridges so that it can be returned to your lab.

I'd then send it to the supervisor to sign off on before sending it to all the other labs.

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You are not in big trouble. Unless you intentionally went against orders, and that caused the loss, or if your actions were gross negligence. (Basically, "negligence" is doing something wrong that people will sometimes do wrong, and you need to accept that it happens. "Gross negligence" is something that you should never do. )

The one responsible is the one who took the box. Maybe stole it, maybe used it without telling anyone. Maybe actually used it to create huge profit for your company but failed to tell anyone. The company might decide that better training is needed, or better protocols, but they can't hold you responsible. And they definitely can't make you pay.

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