Homeland scrutiny

UMass Worcester grad student R---- is missing. He was last heard from this weekend, on the way to his uncle's home in Pennsylvania. Some faculty at the school are raising the possibility that foul play was invovled, because R---- works in an Infectious Disease lab affiliated with biodefense efforts.

This is front-page, over-the-fold news in Worcester (subscription required). It seems to me, though, that Telegram & Gazette reporter Martin Lutrell has trumped up what's most likely a sad, sad car accident. The idea of terrorists ambushing or chasing this grad student hundreds of miles from home, to steal his ID and gain access to a Level 2 lab... it strains credulity.

One of R----'s mentors, Dr. I----, was the one who raised specific concerns about his access to the lab, and the lack of an apparent vigorous search:

"This could be a serious homeland security case. This isn't a joke," she added.

Worcester police confirmed that a missing person report was filed over the weekend, and the detective bureau is handling it.

But Ms. I----, a Ph.D. in her field, said police are not actively looking for Mr. R----.

I wouldn't call myself an expert on these matters, but I do think the Ph.D. entitles her, literally, to be called "Doctor." I'm curious, though, why Dr. I----'s background and status give her any special insight into police operations (it's like saying I have insight into journalism, but I digress...) If this reporter was comfortable using her as a source on search procedures, he should press on, and explain how the Worcester Police Department might look for a missing adult lost somewhere between Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Buried in the middle of the story are the calming voices of reason:

UMass Memorial Medical Center spokesman Michael Cohen said the FBI got a copy of the missing person report before it was understood that Mr. R---- lacked access to the Level 3 labs, which contain dangerous biological agents.

"These are colleagues who are concerned about another colleague," Dr. A---- said. "I think they're worried and that they created some angles to help get things done. There would be no reason for anyone to target him."

Dr. I---- is doing what she can to help find her student. I don't think what she did was appropriate, though I can certainly understand her motivation. I further doubt that raising these concerns about SARS, kidnapping, and homeland security to the press will help the effort to find R----. But she spoke to an experienced journalist who gathered dissenting opinions from other faculty. That reporter should've caught on to her attempt at manipulation, and responded by downplaying her unwarranted fears. Instead, he passed them along to the general public.

This is not responsible behavior from the media, or from infectious disease researchers involved in biodefense. My thoughts today are where they should be: with the family, and classmates and colleagues close to R----.

UPDATE: Just after posting this, it was publicized that R---- has been located, alive and recovering from an auto accident in a New Jersey hospital. He is well and expected to be discharged today.