Poisonous science: the dark side of the lab

The bullying and subsequent suicide of a talented Ivy League scientist exposes ugly truths about the cruelty and dysfunction at the heart of academic science

September 7, 2017
Source: Katherine Lam

My husband was a brilliant scientist who committed suicide a few years ago. While he and I talked, often, about ways to share what happened to him in the high-pressure world of elite academic science, I have chosen not to share his name because I do not have his permission. Nor – much as I want to – will I name any other names. Apart from the legal issues, my husband always shied away from identifying his tormenters because he was terrified that his reputation would be further tarnished. Also, he was well aware that he was no angel and wasn’t always good at handling conflict, so he didn’t think that anyone would understand – or even believe – his side of the story.

But that side of the story is emblematic of the cruelty and dysfunction at the heart of cutting edge science, and, as his widow and as a fellow academic, I feel obligated to tell it. What happened to him reveals ugly truths and exposing them will, hopefully, concentrate some attention on how to address them.

In the hypercompetitive, unmanaged environments of big-time laboratories, senior scientists are free to bully, pressure and otherwise torment their graduate students and postdoctoral researchers without consequence – all just to get results that will help them to win research grants, publish papers and accrue accolades. In the US, these scientists are tenured, and therefore about as accountable for their actions as any 18th-century Southern planter was to his slaves.

In my husband’s case, he was placed under so much abusive pressure by a ruthless senior Ivy League scientist that he resorted to a desperate act of scientific misconduct that cost him his career. I know that some people will say that he got what he deserved. But that will only serve to illustrate the lack of compassion that is at the heart of what is wrong with academia and that led, directly or indirectly, to the death of a kind, thoughtful man who loved science more than anything in the world.

For the purposes of this essay I will call my husband Patrick. A bit about his background demonstrates his ingenuity, drive and commitment to knowledge, and illustrates why his loss is all the more tragic.

Patrick’s life was an exemplar of the American Dream, that rare Horatio Alger story in our increasingly stratified society. He was born in California to a very working-class couple; his Sicilian grandfather was a butcher and the only job his father could get after the Korean War was as a city playground supervisor. On the meagre salary this paid, and with the help of public food assistance, his parents raised four sons. But it wasn’t easy. Patrick had to learn to grab what he could at the dinner table lest his older brothers eat everything first. I will never forget the look of stark terror in his eyes the first time that I brought home powdered milk to keep in the pantry for baking. Powdered milk was all that he had had to drink as a child, because it was free from the state. That small packet of Carnation brought back all the fear and insecurity that he had lived with as a small child. I had to reassure him that I would only use it in an absolute emergency, and that he would always have fresh milk to drink.

Perhaps because of this poverty, but more likely because he was brilliant even at a young age, Patrick became an inventive child. Aged five, he and his friends would ride the train into San Francisco and, pooling their pennies, head to Chinatown to buy as many fireworks as they could to sell to other neighbourhood kids for a modest profit. By the time he was eight, he was spending his nights at the local bowling alley, where he would record scores for drunken bowlers in exchange for a dime or quarter per game. Patrick always credited that experience with two things: his ability to light a match with one hand and his knack for the kind of maths wizardry you normally only see in movies.

Coming of age in California in the 1970s, his teen years were an American Graffiti stereotype of post-war American adolescence. After taking the bus to the top of a hill, he and his friends would ride their skateboards all the way to the bottom at breakneck speed, screaming with fear and excitement. Despite hearing loss caused by measles in his infancy, and piercing, permanent tinnitus in his only hearing ear, he regularly went to open-air rock concerts with his friends. By contrast, his weeks-long solo backpacking trips in the Sierras allowed him to revel in the peace and solitude of nature. When he spoke of his youth, it was with a passionate joy about the kind of freedom that children had back then but don’t have today, as well as deep gratitude that this freedom did not lead him into irreparable danger or harm.

In fact, Patrick got to experience some of the more formative events of the late 20th century. He was bussed out of his generally middle-class town to attend high school in one of the most crime-ridden cities in the state. While other white families rebelled against it, he was always grateful for the experience and remembered his high school years as a fruitful lesson in tolerance and diversity. Well-liked by everyone, his talents were so diverse that he was on both the football and chess teams. Like many boys his age, he fooled around with old cars and revamped the high-performance “muscle cars” so in vogue with young men at that time. At night, he and his friends cruised their local main streets, freewheeling across fog-ridden golf courses, filled with the daring and bravado of reckless youth who have no sense of their own mortality.

But his life wasn’t all California sunshine and roses. His mother’s health was poor, and one day, when Patrick was 13 or so, his father took her to hospital. Three days later, he returned home and told Patrick that she was dead: she had succumbed to leukaemia. And that was that. Patrick had not even known that she was sick. There was no funeral, no relatives to grieve with and to help his young boy’s heart understand what had happened. His older brothers were, by this time, drug dealers and prison inmates, all members of hardcore biker gangs. And his father sank into a dark and deep depression, withdrawing from the world and unable henceforth even to acknowledge Patrick emotionally. “You’ve got a roof over your head until you’re 18. What more do you want?” he once told him.

The only time his father ever addressed him in a substantive way again was when he told Patrick: “Your mother died because of you. If she hadn’t had you, she’d still be alive.” A few months after that, Patrick accidentally found his mother’s ashes in a box in the garage when he was looking for some tools. He eventually moved in with a friend’s family for almost a year during high school, just so that he didn’t have to be alone all the time.

The remarkable thing about Patrick, though, was his character and integrity. Through all of these traumatic episodes, he came to the realisation that his friends were a bad influence, so he eliminated them from his life, buckled down, finished high school, and after some academic ups and downs, completed an undergraduate biology degree at a renowned university. After a few years working as a lab technician and publishing well-received research, he was awarded a full scholarship to a premier Ivy League institution, where he earned a PhD in genetics.

Katherine Lam

It was at his doctoral institution that Patrick first noticed problems with the ways that researchers conducted themselves in the labs. Although he had a supportive mentor, he was tormented by the behaviour of other faculty and graduate students. Stress in graduate school is fairly common, as are competitive relationships among students and selfish behaviour among supervising faculty. I certainly remember it in my graduate programme. But what goes on inside the literally rarefied air of the laboratory is an entirely different order of things.

Patrick told me that sabotage of experiments was common, and the stories shared on online forums by graduate students and postdocs today indicate that such behaviour still goes on. (Stories of poisonings in labs at Harvard in 2009 and Stanford in 2015 suggest that lab reagents are sometimes put to even worse uses.) He also told me of suicide attempts, including some successful ones, among science graduate students across the country. Once he even told me about getting into a physical altercation with one such saboteur, a faculty member who physically threatened him to such a degree that he had to defend himself. When Patrick appealed to the administration, nothing was done to reprimand the faculty member.

Nonetheless, he succeeded in completing his doctorate, and was offered many postdoctoral positions. The boy who came from the saddest house on the block could now go anywhere he wanted. He chose another high-powered lab at a different Ivy League school. And that’s where everything began to fall apart.

His work involved investigating various infectious diseases, and he even hoped one day to discover a cure for the leukaemia that had killed his mother. Unfortunately, Patrick quickly realised that the work he loved was imperilled by a vicious culture of competition, back-stabbing and more sabotage. He wrote a letter to a leading international newspaper expressing his concern over the competition that drove some scientists to hoard valuable research materials, for which he was attacked. But much of the bad behaviour came from a place he least expected it: his own mentor.

While I am not a scientist, I understand the incidents he told me about with enough clarity to realise that these things should never have happened in a professional environment. According to Patrick, his boss regularly reduced graduate students and postdocs to tears in front of the entire department. Lab members were required to account every week for what they had found and those with no new results to show were often threatened with dismissal – threats that were sometimes carried through. In Patrick’s case, his supervisor also refused to fund further investigation of one of his successful results because the process would take “too long”.

Scientist alone in lab
Katherine Lam

This continual stream of pressure and intimidation took its toll. One of Patrick’s fellow postdocs nearly suffered a miscarriage and was hospitalised, while another signed himself into a psychiatric ward. These should have been red flags to any responsible manager, but when Patrick sought assistance from the departmental chair and then the dean, he was rebuffed, and no one investigated what was going on in his supervisor’s lab.

A man who had survived the loss of his mother, overcome a childhood of neglect and loneliness, and used his brilliant mind to propel himself to the heights of academic achievement was now so plagued by the stress of never knowing from one day to the next whether he would have a job that he sought counselling. However, the antidepressant he was prescribed caused him so much distress that he ended up in a psychiatric ward himself.

During his 10-day observation, the university counsellor from whom Patrick had sought help repeatedly called him to ask if he would participate in an experiment she was conducting for her own research. She persisted despite Patrick repeatedly telling her that he needed to focus on his own health and well-being.

While in the hospital, he was put on five different psychoactive medications. These exacerbated his previously undiagnosed ADHD and led to impulsivity and a lapse of judgement that would ruin his career. Desperate to get the recommendation letter from his supervisor that he would need to move to another lab, Patrick decided to take his good data and manufacture the replications that he needed.

When he presented the data, his boss promptly took them and published them, no questions asked. Results were all that his supervisor cared about.

A year later, a scientist at another university claimed to the National Institute of Health’s Office of Research Integrity that Patrick could not possibly have done those experiments successfully because he himself had not been able to. That was not true, of course. Patrick had successfully completed important work that was the basis of the published papers: he just hadn’t been allowed to try to reproduce his findings. But, because he was no longer on all of those psychoactive medications, he knew that he had done the wrong thing by faking the replications. So he told the truth.

That’s the kind of man Patrick was: once his head was cleared of the fog of stress, multiple medications, and fear of losing his job – the most terrifying thing in the world to a kid who grew up poor and neglected – he was able to acknowledge and take responsibility for actions that he had taken when he was not really himself. He told the truth despite being told by his attorney that the majority of scientists do not tell the truth when they are accused of scientific misconduct because there is no way to prove falsification: it’s the scientist’s word against the accuser’s. The end result was that Patrick agreed to a three-year ban from applying for NIH funding.

All of this occurred as the era of internet shaming began, and Patrick’s scientific misconduct was broadcast far and wide by people who never bothered to contact him to ask him about what happened. It soon became clear to him that he had no future in science.

So he tried to redirect his life. He went to law school and passed a gruelling one-year investigation by his state’s bar association, which concluded that his misconduct had been caused by a combination of irresponsible mentorship and inappropriate medications. But he finished law school during the onset of the recession, and was unable to find a job.

He became increasingly despondent during the following years of unemployment. When he interviewed for legal positions, he was always forthright about his scientific misconduct, but that honesty cost him many opportunities. When he could no longer see a way out of his situation, he took his own life.

Some people will respond to this story by insisting that scientific misconduct is scientific misconduct no matter what the circumstances. I certainly used to think that way. In my own work, I have always been obsessive about verification and citation. I have had nightmares that wake me up, breathless and panicked, in which I discover too late that there is something in my book manuscript that was influenced by something I read when I was a child but that I failed to cite because I didn’t remember it. I was lucky, though – I had supportive and responsible mentors who never placed their own reputations above their concern for their students.

That very training in the humanities also allows me to see the larger problem in the sciences that led to the tragedy of Patrick’s experience. I know that context is everything. I know that scientific research occurs within the complicated spectrum of human behaviour. Of course it is important to highlight instances of scientific misconduct. But it is also important to learn from them, to understand how they arose and to take steps to prevent such situations from reoccurring. In a community of scholars, it is respect, cooperation and heart that produce the best and most useful knowledge for mankind, not pressure, ego and intimidation.

It is true that Patrick did not handle conflict well and probably made his situation worse without him realising it. I have heard other perspectives on what he was like at that time. But, immersed in an environment in which underhand practice was rife, in which the creation of nurturing, self-reflective and respectful academic relationships is trumped by the pursuit of fame, money and power, can he really be judged so harshly?

My own personal loss is catastrophic, but the loss of Patrick’s scientific genius is greater. All he ever wanted to do was serve mankind by trying to solve the great riddles of destructive diseases. He helped so many people with their own medical situations – including my own mother, for whom he created a medication regime that gave her the only relief that she had ever had from her agonising rheumatoid arthritis.

The one thing I know, though, is that neither my pain nor our collective loss bears any comparison to the pain and loss Patrick felt when, sick with stress and fear, he resorted to a desperate act that he would never have condoned in other circumstances. No one could have been more critical and unforgiving than Patrick was of himself. In his last email message to me, which he wrote in his upstairs office a few moments before he took his own life, he said: “The world has no use for me. I am poisoned goods.”

But it’s not Patrick who was poisoned goods. It is the academic sciences. And until something is done about this, we will continue to lose great minds and sabotage our chances at scientific progress. 

The author has chosen to remain anonymous.

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Reader's comments (3)

This is a sad story. But there are lots of truth.
Irresponsible mentoring, scapegoating junior students and the pressure to publish are the root of all evil in academia. I am now hesitant to report a flawed publication because the first author was a graduate student who was pressured by her irresponsible mentors to publish a poor study in a journal whose editor was one of her mentor's friend. Yes, how do we approach flawed publications when we know that those who will suffer the most are previous unfortunate students who were supervised by irresponsible incompetent mentors?
I'm very glad you wrote this article and I sympathize with your loss. The subject of academic misconduct is rarely discussed and you have raised some important points regarding the sources of misconduct. It is true that academic science is cut-throat. This will not likely change because scientists are naturally unemotional. They can be cold. You have got to have guts of steel to work there or a good strategy. Personally, I have spent some free time studying criminal psychology to give myself the skills to identify and avoid threats and maneuver this environment. During my doctoral degree the students of one lab in the vicinity of my own freely admitted they never replicated anything. They published their work and all journals require replication so, surely, some misrepresentations were made. This and other forms of misconduct are probably very common. My super pet peeve is gift authorship. I worked very hard for all of my publications but some people are just given this recognition as a friendly pat on the back. This is fraud and it is so common it has lead me to believe that unless you participate in this fraud, you will never have the publication power to work in science.

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