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Mar 22 2014

The kind of thing that would give me nightmares

Laboratory sabotoge. Magdalena Koziol was baffled about why her zebrafish experiments were all failing: the fish were all dying, every time. So she did a simple experiment, setting up some fish labeled with her initials, and others without the label. The fish with her initials all died, the others were fine, proving that the initials “MK” carry a curse.

No, wait, that’s not it. She put in hidden cameras and revealed the true cause of the dead fish.

The experiment was a key step in proving that someone was tampering with her experiments, according to a lawsuit Koziol filed with the Superior Court in New Haven on 7 February. When hidden cameras were installed in the lab, they revealed a fellow postdoc poisoning her fish, the complaint says. Now, Koziol is suing the alleged perpetrator, Polloneal Jymmiel Ocbina. According to the complaint, he left Yale after he was caught on video.

Ocbina is now working at a communications company in New York. He was clearly ethically unsuited to work in biology, that’s for sure. Heck, he shouldn’t be working in science, period.

All’s well now, though, right? Villain caught, sent shuffling off in disgrace, etc.? Nope. Her advisor seems to have resented losing the rascally Ocbina.

From then on, Koziol’s relationship with her boss deteriorated. The complaint says he refused to provide her with a letter about the sabotage, which presumably would have helped explain her lack of data to future employers. Koziol alleges that he criticized her work and character, didn’t help her make up for the lost time, gave her "angry looks when passing in the lab," didn’t list her as a contributor to a Nature article, and threatened to fire and "destroy" her. Koziol became depressed, suffered from sleeplessness, and gained weight; when she and Giraldez talked for 3 hours in August 2012, Koziol "cried throughout the meeting," the complaint says.

Koziol filed a grievance procedure against Giraldez, which she lost; Yale, in its statement to Science, calls her allegations against Giraldez and the university "factually distorted and legally baseless."

It would have been so easy to do the right thing here — Koziol was the victim, and she was treated like the bad guy.

But some good things have come out of it; she’s left Yale, she’s gone back to the UK, and she has an appointment in the lab of John Gurdon (The John Gurdon, I should say, and definitely a step upwards), who is wonderfully supportive.

Koziol left Yale in March 2013 and returned to the lab of Nobel laureate John Gurdon in Cambridge, where she had done her doctoral work. “I was very happy to have her back,” Gurdon says, “because her work is excellent. She was a model student.” Gurdon helped secure a small grant for Koziol and donated some of his personal money to keep her going. He’s optimistic about her chances against Yale. “They wrote her a letter promising her circumstances in which she could conduct her research,” he says. “And they quite clearly did not provide even remotely adequate circumstances.”

We can tell who the good guys are in this story, at least.

I’m just wondering how Ocbina could escape so lightly. Any student in my lab who dared to both do harm to a colleague and to do willful harm to laboratory animals would face some fearsome wrath. There would be criminal proceedings, not mere expulsion.

56 comments

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  1. 1
    Reginald Selkirk

    Just a civil suit? Why has Ocbina not been criminally charged?

  2. 2
    Olav

    PZ:

    Ocbina is now working at a communications company in New York. He was clearly ethically unsuited to work in biology, that’s for sure.

    At least he found his proper place then. So he is now a liar-for-hire. That is what “communications companies” do, innit?

  3. 3
    Reginald Selkirk

    Among other things, she’s asking for an unspecified amount of compensation for the lost time and funding—she had a grant from the prestigious Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO)…

    Are they a party in the lawsuit? Having a large institutional partner could be a big help in such a suit.

  4. 4
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    @Olav:

    Maybe you’re thinking of public relations. Usually when I hear the term “communications company”, it’s in reference to a company that does more infrastructure than content.

  5. 5
    davidbrown

    It’s stunning how little backup people can get from officialdom. Some twenty-five years ago a woman of my acquaintance was doing postdoc work in biology at a major university. She shared a lab with a number of other postdocs, one of whom had serious problems with the idea of women being in science – well, with women being anywhere outside the kitchen or the bedroom. This man was so obnoxious, so intimidating, that my friend and a female colleague of hers became afraid to go into the lab. They complained to the man’s supervisor, who did nothing to alleviate the situation. (The supervisor seemed to be intimated by the male postdoc as well.)

    My friend eventually complained to her supervisor about both the male postdoc and the lack of action by the other supervisor. Her supervisor went to the lab and quietly observed what was going on. He then grabbed the male postdoc, held him with his feet off the floor up against a wall, and promised to break every bone in his body if he so much as looked sideways at a female postdoc again.

    This seemed to do the trick. The male postdoc vacated the lab posthaste whenever my friend or her colleague came in, and they were left to do their work in peace.

    I know this is wrong on so many levels. Her supervisor was very fortunate not to be charged with a number of criminal offenses and the system failed totally to deal with the problem – yet I cannot help but feel a certain amount of satisfaction with the way things turned out.

  6. 6
    Fionnabhair

    The article just says that Ocbina “left Yale”; it doesn’t say if his leaving was due to expulsion or whether it was voluntary.

  7. 7
    anuran

    @5 davidbrown
    It’s good that he was able to establish rapport with the male postdoc and communicate with him on a level where they could mutually connect :)

  8. 8
    brucej

    Sadly sabotage like this is not at all uncommon. I’ve personally witnessed three cases in my own career at a research-oriented college.

    None of them had the kind of sexist connotations as this one, but they were quietly covered up.

    In only one case did the police get involved, and that one involved someone spreading radioactive tracers around the lab in an effort to sabotage other’s work.

  9. 9
    Inaji

    But some good things have come out of it; she’s left Yale, she’s gone back to the UK, and she has an appointment in the lab of John Gurdon (The John Gurdon, I should say, and definitely a step upwards), who is wonderfully supportive.

    I’m glad for Ms. Koziol, however, this whole thing speaks very badly of trying to do science work here in the states, especially if you happen to be a woman.

  10. 10
    jba55

    Let Ms Koziol have her “evidence” and “ethics”, Yale will always be first in gentlemanly club life.

  11. 11
    gillt

    I can’t even imagine. We’ve been wringing our hands over a shifting baseline in gene expression in our zebra fish line going on two years now, and while I seriously doubt it’s something as nefarious as tampering, the second-guessing and stress and time lost is depressing enough without the added horribleness of sabotage among colleagues.

  12. 12
    raven

    Being a scientist is no guarantee of being a good person. It’s unfortunate but true. Some labs and places are amazingly dysfunctional.

    1. I know of three people poisoned with significant amounts of radioactivity. One found out when they set off a geiger counter by walking by it.

    2. One scientist was poisoned by a neurotoxin but survived. And wrote a paper about it.

    Being a scientist is no guarantee of being sane either. I’ve seen a few crash and burn. Spectacularly. Having a very high IQ just means they flame out in weird and highly imaginative ways that other people can’t easily understand. Or want to.

  13. 13
    raven

    It’s stunning how little backup people can get from officialdom. Some twenty-five years ago a woman of my acquaintance was doing postdoc work in biology at a major university. She shared a lab with a number of other postdocs, one of whom had serious problems with the idea of women being in science – well, with women being anywhere outside the kitchen or the bedroom. This man was so obnoxious, so intimidating, that my friend and a female colleague of hers became afraid to go into the lab. They complained to the man’s supervisor, who did nothing to alleviate the situation. (The supervisor seemed to be intimated by the male postdoc as well.)

    I saw something similar. It was the woman’s ex boyfriend, who came across as the next mall or college mass murderer.

    The PI, the department head, and the U. did nothing. And fuck you all for that. Eventually he crossed the wrong line and the police ended up settling it.

  14. 14
    chris61

    @6 According to another source Ocbina was fired.

    At least one of the accusations in the case should be relatively easy to prove. Did the university and/or lab supervisor report the misconduct to NIH or didn’t they?

  15. 15
    raven

    It’s stunning how little backup people can get from officialdom.

    QFT.

    I’m going to have to repeat this.

    Most of the time they are good at kicking the can down the road and not rocking the boat. And that is about it.

  16. 16
    williamhyde

    This reminds me of some strange events that took place in an engineering department at Texas A&M over a decade ago.

    Graduate students A and B directly plagiarized the work of student C, A for a course project, B for his Master’s thesis. A was allowed to graduate without any noticeable punishment, B was expelled, then immediately brought back to do a PhD, with the Department head as his supervisor, no less.

    Students A and B were hired by Intel, A in particular was fast-tracked for promotion. C was rejected by Intel. Only when a very good researcher who knew C’s work, D, was hired by Intel was he able to convince the company that they had blundered, and C was hired for a position that definitely paid less than A was getting, and I suspect less than C.

    The plagiarism didn’t matter in the least.

  17. 17
    LykeX

    Why even bother with the sabotage? Ruining someone else’s experiment doesn’t make your work any more impressive (unless the evaluators are complete idiots).

    And who the hell would hire a person with a reputation for sabotaging their coworkers? Seems to me that would be a big minus for any hiring board.

    Finally, if a person reveals professional misconduct, isn’t that a good reason to praise them, rather than make their life harder?

    Noting about this makes any sense. What’s wrong with people? Why do so many smart people act like fucking morons?

  18. 18
    Sastra

    Ocbina is now working at a communications company in New York….I’m just wondering how Ocbina could escape so lightly.

    Let us hope that Ocbina’s job at the communications company involves a phone and a script: “Hello, ma’am/ sir, and how are you this evening? I’m calling with a wonderful opportunity … ”

    Still giving nightmares, but easier to hang up. Not a job I’d normally wish on anyone.

  19. 19
    chrisv

    Another black eye, among many, for overpriced, over rated, snot nosed Yale.

  20. 20
    llamaherder

    Not lab work, but one of my employees got caught deleting other people’s work out of a shared folder once. They were fired, obviously.

    It’s the most confusing thing in the entire world. What could a person possibly have to gain from doing that?

  21. 21
    gijoel

    Any student in my lab who dared to both do harm to a colleague and to do willful harm to laboratory animals would face some fearsome wrath.

    I imagine the last thing they would hear would be, “Unleash the Kraken.”

  22. 22
    Allan Frost

    It’s the most confusing thing in the entire world. What could a person possibly have to gain from doing that?

    Just personal pleasure for sadistic pieces of shit. I’m not sure how, we as a species, are going to survive these fuckers. There seems to be too many them.

  23. 23
    cuervocuero

    @21 That is such a satisfying image. Is there a pzt-shirt with that yet?

  24. 24
    brucej

    It’s the most confusing thing in the entire world. What could a person possibly have to gain from doing that?

    In one of the cases I witnessed it was a rather dysfunctional sense of competition and need to be ‘first’. One was someone simply being a massive dick because they could, the third was genuine insanity.

  25. 25
    Trebuchet

    Just one more reason I’d support a constitutional amendment to prohibit anyone who ever attended Yale from holding any public office whatsoever. Of course, I’d also prohibit anyone who attended the Harvard Business School from holding any management position in any company in the US.

  26. 26
    Bronze Dog

    It’s the most confusing thing in the entire world. What could a person possibly have to gain from doing that?

    Just personal pleasure for sadistic pieces of shit.

    One of the hard lessons in life is that there are indeed some people who just want to watch the world burn.

  27. 27
    Arkady

    The worst example of sabotage I’d heard of previously wasn’t at the experiment stage, it was a senior academic (FRS!) preventing the acceptance of a student’s PhD thesis because it contradicted his own pet theories (thankfully not at my postgrad university). Shockingly to the postdoc who told me about this, the university backed the senior academic at the expense of the student not being able to graduate. And the postdoc was also told this wasn’t the first time the FRS had done it. Was apparently a very toxic atmosphere, the postdoc was very glad to get out of there.

  28. 28
    Zugswang

    This reminds me of when Vipul Bhrigu sabotaged Heather Ames’ research at Michigan. Except Ames’ PI was actually supportive of her, and Bhrigu was convicted of research misconduct and had to pay $30,000.

    http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/full/467516a.html

    It’s really sad these types of people get into science, but they’re also hardly isolated cases, merely the ones that get attention. But scientific research has become increasingly cutthroat. We had a former PI at one of the universities I worked at who sent grad students to conferences to collect preliminary data and research ideas from posters, then do their own research to get a publication out ahead of the other labs’ students (basically, targeted scooping). Before she was ultimately found out, she moved her lab to a new university, and switched from doing developmental biology research to neurology because she had effectively burned every bridge she had in dev bio by that point.

  29. 29
    ajb47

    It’s a nightmare for me is because science is all about observable, repeatable (and ultimately predictable) events. The only thing screwing up an experiment accomplishes is giving ammunition to the anti-science brigade.

  30. 30
    chrislawson

    I want to know why her supervisor wasn’t sacked.

  31. 31
    Seize

    I am both impressed and horrified by the idea of Koziol devising her simple experiment. She must have spent so many months thinking she was crazy or that her technique was flawed. Then she comes back and the unlabeled fish are swimming around and those labeled with her initials are dead. Nope. Nope. Nope.

  32. 32
    magistramarla

    DavidBrown@ #5
    My hubby told me about this before I read it. My reaction was that this reminded me of my daughter’s ex- the Jerk. An authoritarian type only responds to someone whom he perceives as having more authority than he has, and that sure as hell isn’t going to be a woman.
    Bravo for the supervisor who did exactly what was needed.

  33. 33
    Hortan

    The fact that this is even possible with out a team of specially trained chimps tearing the antagonists junk off is chilling…

  34. 34
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Her supervisor was very fortunate not to be charged with a number of criminal offenses

    It’s nice to see that yes, the law DOES occasionally take a break from being a club for bad people to hit good people with when they try to oppose or otherwise react to badness.

  35. 35
    astro

    the focus here shouldn’t be on the other postdoc, but on the advisor. i think there is a strong case here that ocbina was acting with the direct support, or at least encouragement, of the advisor. male faculty feeling threatened by the promising careers of female grad students is all too common.

  36. 36
    hyperdeath

    All the papers coming out of that lab should be treated with great suspicion. I certainly wouldn’t trust anyone who grossly violates professional ethics with scientific ethics.

  37. 37
    madscientist

    That’s disgusting. Yale of course is true to form and only cares about its own ass. It’s a very solid White Boys Club over there. Not good enough Yale, this is the 21st century, not the medieval ages.

    Unfortunately many women in science are still treated very badly like that; there are still a lot of pigs even in the so-called ‘elite’ schools (perhaps especially in the elite schools). I suspect many women are simply treated badly regardless of the institute or workplace.

  38. 38
    Athywren

    But lets make sure we remember that women being less common and successful among postdocs is a natural fact of nature springing from the fact that females are icky dumb-dumb heads!

    I get that science is a highly competitive field, but surely this kind of behaviour should be grounds for blanket expulsion from the scientific world? We have enough trouble with pseudoscientists muddying the waters without actual scientists going out of their way to hold the progress of scientific understanding back, just so they can fulfil some pathetic need to hurt their colleagues.

  39. 39
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Athywren:

    just so they can fulfil some pathetic need to hurt their colleagues.

    I doubt that he considered her a colleague.

  40. 40
    stwriley

    One wonders what Koziel’s outcome would have been if she hadn’t been able to go back to the UK and have the support of a proper mentor behind her (and a Nobel Laureate, no less.) Unfortunately, too many others in her situation would have fared even worse (and what she suffered was bad enough you’d never wish it on your worst enemy.)

    In a slightly related note, the kind of casual disregard Ocbina showed for the welfare of specimens or other creatures being studied is far more common than it should be. I was just having to slap down a milder version of this in my own high school students this week. We were working on population studies, and I had them running the wonderful simulations created by Virtual Biology Labs in order to learn the technique of population estimation using mark and recapture. I purposely set them a difficult challenge, skewing the parameters of the sim in order to make it very difficult to get a proper estimate (basically, I used a large population, a limited number or marked individuals and a small set of recapture samples) so that we could discuss the results and have the students suggest how to “fix” their application of the technique. It’s a good teaching method for teenagers, since it gets them thinking about the deeper self-corrective aspects of doing science in the real world.

    While they did hit on the correct ideas to improve what they’d done in the sim for a more accurate estimate, every class also came up with a suggestion that surprised and (at least a bit) shocked me. Since I’d stressed that the odds were stacked against them in the sim because of the ratio of marked to unmarked individuals, one student in each class suggested that we could fix this by reducing the population (and yes, they did mean “kill some off”; I questioned them carefully about the idea to make sure that’s what was meant.) While I had to concede that this could indeed change the ratio in question, I also took the opportunity to stress that it had serious scientific and ethical problems. We did have a good discussion about why it would be wrong to do this in reality, especially the idea that, as biologists, we are supposed to be studying living organisms, not destroying them simply for our own convenience. My students certainly seemed to grasp this and even the ones who’d suggested the idea admitted they’d never have suggested it if this hadn’t been a sim (i.e., nothing was actually being killed.) But it shows how easily that kind of idea can come to even good kids who have an ethical base that opposes the casual destruction of life.

  41. 41
    Karl Mann

    I’ve worked at a few research universities and it seems that about ten-percent of the people doing research are actually smart enough and passionate enough to do worthwhile things, and the rest the people spend their time and energy messing with each other and scheming to get a better office.

  42. 42
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    It’s possible that his motive was not just to watch the world burn/smack down the uppity woman – some labs will have two people working on the same umbrella project, but pursuing different hypotheses. His motive could have been to trash her work in order to “win.”

    In any case, the PI is as much fault here as anyone, for not supervising his lab properly and coming down like a ton of bricks on that creep.

  43. 43
    atheist

    @astro – 23 March 2014 at 5:55 am (UTC -5)

    the focus here shouldn’t be on the other postdoc, but on the advisor. i think there is a strong case here that ocbina was acting with the direct support, or at least encouragement, of the advisor. male faculty feeling threatened by the promising careers of female grad students is all too common.

    That’s the part that most troubles me… why did Ocbina do this anyway? The Science magazine article is behind a paywall so I can’t read it.

  44. 44
    devilsadvocate

    Liberal academia at it’s best: cut-throat, merciless, brutal to anyone who dares set foot inside. Thanks progressivism!

  45. 45
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Yawn, boring DA is boring….zzzzz

  46. 46
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    devilsadvocate #44

    Liberal academia at it’s best: cut-throat, merciless, brutal to anyone who dares set foot inside.

    You’ve confused academia with libertarianism, old chap.

  47. 47
    atheist

    @devilsadvocate – 23 March 2014 at 10:10 am (UTC -5)

    Satan Is Boring.

  48. 48
    Anri

    devilsadvocate @ 44:

    Yeah. You go with that.
    Meanwhile…

  49. 49
    WhiteHatLurker

    @atheist #43
    The Science article didn’t get into the motivation for killing the baby zebrafish. However, I have seen nothing to support @astro’s assertion in #35. There are a number of female grad students / postdocs in this lab.

    Certainly something seems fishy with the PI’s described behaviour after the fact. And with the school’s – I can’t imagine Yale’s lawyers letting something go so far as to become litigious.

    Publicly available coverage:
    Yale Daily
    Hew Haven Register (which indicates that no-one knows why)

  50. 50
    chrislawson

    @49:

    1. The existence of female students/postdocs in the lab does not indicate that women aren’t treated badly in the lab. And even if women are treated fairly by most supervisors, it does not follow that all supervisors or the school admin itself does so.

    2. Yale’s lawyers may well have been the reason this became litigious by being overly protective of Yale’s reputation and insisting that nobody talk about it…even though it had a major negative impact on one of their researchers who was told not even to talk about it among colleagues.

    3. Quoting Yale Daily on this case is hardly an unbiased source. That the report says Ocbina “was either terminated or resigned”. Why isn’t this perfectly plain fact public? It seems to me that if Yale’s own news service isn’t allowed to report on this very simple matter of factual record, there is a lot of covering up going in inside Yale.

    4. The New Haven Register article does NOT say that no-one knows why Ocbina sabotaged the experiment. It quotes one person, Koziol’s attorney, saying he didn’t know why.

  51. 51
    astro

    WhiteHatLurker @49:

    let me tell you a story of four female phd students, two chinese and two korean. even though their advisor has grant money for data entry, he has them do the data entry for his grant. he also has them make coffee, one picks up his laundry, and three of them “volunteer” their time for a consulting program the department chair runs for clinicians – a program the clinicians pay for.

    one of those grad student complains to her fellow students that their advisor is exploiting them. but the other three women lash back: we have it good here, he’s a highly respected professor who can get us good jobs after we graduate, and besides, that’s what we asian women do anyway. but the fourth doesn’t buy it, stops doing the menial work, and insists on focusing on her dissertation.

    suddenly, she’s struggling with her quals. her advisor begins to drop hints that she’s not phd material, even though she’s a better student than the other three, all of whom sail through their quals. she later learns that she passed the theoretical component but was “conditionally passed” on the applied part – which has never happened to anyone in that department, because the theoretical is so much more rigorous. she finally gets to her defense, everyone on the committee passes her – everyone except her advisor, who wants more work. she overhears the other four men on the panel comment how the dissertation was really too much for a ph.d. student, and that the advisor should have passed her too. by this time, the other three women have already received their phd’s with no trouble at their respective defenses.

    tl;dr version of the story: some male faculty expect women to “know their place.” the women who do, get along just fine. it sounds like Koziol wanted to be judged by the merits of her research, and not on her coffee-making (or other “female”) skills.

  52. 52
    Louis

    A very similar thing happened to my wife during her PhD. One of the postdocs was forging their results by adding reagents to their cell cultures to get a specific conclusion that was meant to be obtained via a different mechanism. My wife was working on a closely related project and was asked to repeat the results. When she couldn’t the postdoc and the prof both put my wife under and enormous amount of pressure (and the postdoc was genuinely unpleasant) to reproduce the results.

    Luckily the postdoc got caught (revealing how would reveal too much about my wife’s identity, this was all reported in the relevant journals when retracted) and my wife had only (HA!) wasted a year of her PhD trying to reproduce faked results. The annoying part was her relationship with her boss never recovered despite her being the “good guy” and acting impeccably.

    Louis

  53. 53
    Louis

    Oh the postdoc is a woman, by the way. The prof is male. (Read into that what you will!)

    Louis

  54. 54
    Louis

    I say “is” because the prof is still there and the postdoc lady is alive as far as I know.

    I’ll stop now!

    Louis

  55. 55
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    Why does Giraldez have all of the love for Ocbina (the perpetrator) and none for Koziol (the victim)? Was Ocbina’s family some sort of donor? It could be simple sexism, I suppose. Anyone have any insight?

  56. 56
    Lynn

    Big research universities like to solve their problems internally. It’s not necessarily a ‘white boys club’ situation, although it can be. It sounds like there was some level of lab politicking going on, and a less scrupulous PI will pick favorites, scape goat employees, and try to cover their own ass instead of doing what’s right. I’ve seen it happen at a ‘lesser’ university than one of Yale’s caliber. Basically, before taking a lab job, trying to get a feel for the department is a big must. You can’t always predict things like this, but after working for a crap PI, you learn to recognize the warning signs.

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