Guest Post: Gender Sensitivity in Neuroscience is a Work in Progress

This is a guest post from someone who wishes to remain anonymous.

[UPDATE March 2017: I have received a letter from a lawyer purporting to represent Mr. Galli. This letter expressed distress with alleged "defamatory" statements in this post and the ensuring comments. I have consequently gone through to edit this post, and comments, to make it as clear as possible that opinions are being offered so that they might not be misconstrued as a statement of fact by the average reader. -DM]
 


 

This week, the Society for Neuroscience opened its website allowing attendees to book their hotels for their annual meeting. The timing was couldn’t have been worse for the Vanderbilt neuroscience community given that on Monday, a former graduate student of the program leveled a disturbing series of accusations against neuroscientist Aurelio Galli. [UPDATE: The lawyer purporting to represent Mr. Galli has noted that this lawsuit was "dismissed with prejudice in December 2014". This seems to be a pertinent fact for readers to consider. -DM] At least 10 of the 60+ alleged events of harassment occurred at SfN meetings. The year before the defendant claims she was subject to harassment, The Society for Neuroscience named Vanderbilt their ‘Neuroscience Training Program of the Year’.

 

In a 20 million dollar harassment suit filled in Nashville, sordid details were laid out of alcohol fueled harassment both in the lab and at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meetings in 2012 and 2013. The student, a recovering alcoholic, alleges she was subjected to unwelcome and embarrassing commentary from Galli about her perceived lesbianism, her sex life and her looks both in lab as well as in front of male professors.

 

Vanderbilt fired back saying they had investigated the claims and would vigorously defend themselves.  The medical center director and the chancellor were named as defendants, as were Mark Wallace, the head of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and National Academy member and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Physiology, Roger Cone. Wallace and Cone were included for their failure to act on the student’s claims and protect her career.

 

For those outside the field, the neuroscience community seems to be holding down opposite poles in gender and racial equality. The leadership of both the Journal of Neuroscience and the Society are enviably gender balanced in the last decade. SfN was one of the first national societies to initiate meaningful career-long mentorship for women and minorities. Thanks in part to this commitment, women constitute 50% of most neuroscience graduate training programs. The national attrition of women from academic science is also evident in Vanderbilt’s neuroscience program which has an all male leadership and > 30% of its training faculty as women. The vast majority of these female faculty members are assistant professors.

 

Sending a female graduate student from a heavily male influenced neuroscience graduate program to SfN would present many sources of potential conflict. The first SfN meeting the student claims she was harassed at was in New Orleans, a city proud of its tradition of asking women to show their breasts for beads.

 

The female graduate student alleges that at SfN, her PI required her to attend a cocktail party on a boat where senior male scientists “became intoxicated and were allowed to make romantic and sexual advances on the students”. <I’ll insert my editorial opinion that news does not surprise me especially in light of the report this week from Kate Clancy that the majority of women in her survey of field scientists say they have been harassed with more than 20% reporting that they have been assaulted.>

 

Why would anyone attend boat party or any other kind of party where alcohol is flowing freely and fun is a much more clear objective than science?   For many trainees, this is often the only chance they have to spend time talking to well-published PIs. Presumably, at a party like this, senior investigators would be amenable to laid back conversations with trainees providing a rare chance to judge the character of potential future mentors.

 

These parties are the products of the bygone era of much larger gatherings held a decade or more ago by men who were SfN officers and investigators. Hosts had ample institutional ‘slush’ funds and open bar was the norm. [UPDATE: I have edited out a sentence in the original post that the lawyer contends "inappropriately conflates" allegations against Mr. Galli with the actions of another neuroscientist. I didn't read the authors opinion that way but in an excess of caution am removing it. -DM]

 

[UPDATE: I have edited out a paragraph in the original post that is related to the lawyer's contention about the "inappropriately conflates" issue mentioned above. I didn't read the authors opinion that way but in an excess of caution am removing it. -DM]

 

From the Venderbuilt lawsuit, “networking” was the reported benefit Galli touted as a reason for the trainee to attend the boat party. [UPDATE: I have edited out a half-sentence in the original post that is related to the lawyer's contention about the "inappropriately conflates" issue mentioned above. -DM] ...so these kinds of parties probably did help him advance his career. [UPDATE: The lawyer asserts this is "demonstrably false" but since this is a speculative opinion by the original author, I don't see how this could possibly be true. -DM] The expectation that a female recovering alcoholic would likewise benefit underscores a clear cultural clash that needs to be addressed by both the Vanderbilt community and the Society for Neuroscience.

31 responses so far

  • MoBio says:

    [Update: I've removed the part of this that offers specifics about SFN parties that are not directly connected to Mr. Galli. I have no reason to question the depiction of such parties in the original post but I am trying to address the "conflation" issue in an excess of caution for the less careful reader. -DM]

    Hmmm....I guess unless you have direct knowledge of this you should probably have held this one back or at least said 'allegedly' and then provided some documentation in the form of a link.

  • Busy says:

    Are you suggesting we ban (boat) parties simply because some dickewads cannot behave themselves in those settings?

    This is not a rhetorical question, it's unclear to me where you stand on this.

  • kevin. says:

    Whoo-hoo!!! Charlie's moved the party to Miami, baby!!!!

  • becca says:

    Do not attend a boat party visibly pregnant. It's not worth the loss of faith in humanity hit.

  • I've been to conferences with alcohol-free receptions. The problem is that they tend to be rather poorly attended, especially by the big name PIs. You have to give them a good reason to stick around -- and for most, an open bar works.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Why do you imagine the author *doesn't* have direct knowledge?

  • neuropolarbear says:

    It's a teeny tiny thing but I was happy to see a statement of acceptable behavior at the most recent Gordon Research Conference at the start of the meeting.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    There are those that are sad that SfN will not be returning to New Orleans. I am not among them. Sure, the food was good, and many people will argue about how helpful it would be to the city. But the most famous tourist destination in New Orleans, which you will not fail to visit if you are attempting to network, is Bourbon Street, which is littered with strip clubs. It beggars belief that men could be exposed to these environments which largely demean women, and then take their female colleagues seriously at 8 am the next morning. It sets the absolute wrong tone for a professional meeting.

    This criticism of venue is predicated on SfN being a professional meeting. I know that there are a lot of older dude PIs who treat SfN like Bacchanal. Woe unto the trainee who thinks that they are being taken as a scientist first, particularly at after-hours social events. There, if you are a younger dude, you can hope to be taken in as one of the young bucks who can show the older male PIs a rip-roaring good time. If you are a young woman, you had better be ready to be "fun" - don't be a wet blanket, laugh at this sexist joke, and endure getting hit on with grace and poise. One of my most valuable mentors told me (after a particularly bad experience with a dude coming on to me) is that these experiences have only gotten worse for her as her career progresses. So us ladies have that to look forward to, if we are lucky enough to stay in academic science.

    I have had similar experience with ACNP, but less so with smaller Gordon-y meetings - I think the imposition of the hierarchy, where young people are trying desperately to network up the ladder with inaccessible bigwigs, either increases bad behavior from senior PIs (anonymity of the crowd?) or are the kinds of meetings that fluff the egos of these kinds of pricks.

    I feel for this student and wish her triumph.

  • NatC says:

    @neuropolarbear - agree. And it's not a tiny thing, it's HUGE.

  • Dave says:

    I read that entire lawsuit, and to be honest the boat party thing is just the tip of the iceberg although, in isolation, bad enough. Some of the other accusations, if true, are outrageous. For example, the PIs alleged behavior towards her in the lab over a long period of time must have really affected her personally. He would allegedly make sexual comments regularly in front of the other lab members, and discuss her alcoholism in a public and demeaning way ('you would be more fun if you were still drinking'). This kind of bullying over time can do some real damage, and the fact that Vanderbilt is attempting to defend itself when it appears that she did all the right things and covered her ass appropriately, is indicative of what women are up against in the old boys network of academia.

    There are two sides to every story, but then there is no smoke without fire. After the initial bravado, Vandy will settle this one quietly, admit no guilt, force the poor woman into signing a non-disclosure agreement, pay her a few million bucks, and be on their jolly way.

    t's a teeny tiny thing but I was happy to see a statement of acceptable behavior at the most recent Gordon Research Conference at the start of the meeting

    For fucks sake. Is that what it has come to? It's ridiculous that grown men with advanced degrees need to be told how to behave in public.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's a teeny tiny thing but I was happy to see a statement of acceptable behavior at the most recent Gordon Research Conference at the start of the meeting.

    It was no tiny thing the first time I experienced this (last year). It was really great to hear.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh, and while I doubt many of my regulars will have forgotten Professor "supermodel type" Maestripieri, any newcomers may wish to read:

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2012/10/17/sfn-2012-professors-behaving-badly/

  • proflikesubstance says:

    the fact that Vanderbilt is attempting to defend itself when it appears that she did all the right things and covered her ass appropriately, is indicative of what women are up against in the old boys network of academia.

    This about sums it up. The penalty for reporting this shit is so high compared with the penalty for *doing* it, that it's no wonder it continues to occur. The Clancy studies shows the same effect, where only 18% of the women who reported an incident were satisfied with the results and only half of those who experienced harassment reported it (which actually seemed high to me). Meaningful ways to report and actual punishment for harassing are virtually non-existent. Until that changes, we can't expect these assholes to police themselves.

    By instilling consequences and easier reporting, we'll also chip away at this societal bullshit about women "being crazy" or "doing this for the money" or "not understanding Dr. XXXX". Because I bet if most people polled the men in their department (at all levels) about this case, way more than half would come down on the old dudes' side. Way more.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Hmmm....I guess unless you have direct knowledge of this you should probably have held this one back or at least said 'allegedly' and then provided some documentation in the form of a link.

    Yes, we all know that it's incredibly important to cite irrefutable proof (preferably with multiple videos of actual bad behavior that we can debate the "true" meaning of) before we say anything could be going on. I mean, there's no way that kind of stuff actually happened.

  • dsks says:

    In the wake of all this revenge porn outrageousness, what the internet needs is an angry individual to build a website that allows women to anonymously post pictures and video of their aggressors. Crikey, I'd do it - probably make a packet - but I can barely figure out Google Sites.

    It would be worthwhile if only to see how it gets immediately shutdown within 24 hrs and the owner put in jail for 3 months and fined a billion dollars, thereby casting into stark relief the double standards at work in our society (did that revenge porn magnet even see the inside of a cell?)

  • Jo says:

    I read the original lawsuit and it was outrageous. Indeed, it wasn't really a "feminist" issue. It was just out and out bullying, and would have been terrible whether leveled at a man or woman.

    But to drag SfN into this, as though they are somehow culpable, is just wrong in my opinion. They had nothing to do with arranging the Vanderbilt party, and as far as I know, all of the official SfN events tend to be rather (literally) sober affairs.

    And we should quash this whole notion of these parties being good networking opportunities.* They are not. Good networking opportunities arise during the day by visiting the lab's posters or emailing the PI prior to the meeting. (If they are too busy to meet with you they are unlikely to be a good mentor). They do not occur when the PI is propping up a bar at midnight and is unlikely to remember anything about anything the next morning. Skipping those kinds of parties isn't going to make a jot of difference to your career prospects.

    * I realize this doesn't apply in the Vanderbilt case where she was apparently required to attend the party (double ugh) but I'm speaking generally here.

  • dsks says:

    "Good networking opportunities arise during the day by visiting the lab's posters... "

    That's been true in my experience. The only conference parties I've ever ended up being at, and having any fun at, are with people I already knew. Hell, the last thing I want to be around strangers, let alone strangers I might want to form a professional relationship with, is in the scuppers drunk. That makes no sense at all, and if students are being sold that line from their supervisors they have every right to be wary.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    Au contraire. The best networking occasions for me have been casual interactions over a drink (sometimes soft drink on my part) at some bar or party occurring because of a larger scientific meeting. I would say that this boat cruise is probably an excellent networking opportunity for "the right kind of people" (see my description above).

    However, my own positive networking experiences have been punctuated by terrible experiences with awful people, and I can easily imagine this cruise devolving similarly. The problem is not people getting together less formally, since that will happen no matter what and is actually good for social apes like ourselves. The problem is that a certain type of person translates "less formally" to "boner party".

  • Yeah, maybe the sorts of conference parties I've been to are different from SfN, but typically people are not getting "drunk" (although they might not pass the limit for driving) at them. Poster session and party networking are different but both valuable. The point of networking during a party isn't to get scientific details but more to see if you can actually deal with this person; if they are obnoxious at a party, they will probably be worse as a collaborator or boss.

  • The Author of This says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with anonymous postdoc's comments that anyone who thinks that you can fully network with ALL people without going to these kinds of parties is mistaken. I've made these events tolerable for myself by having a wing-man who just sometimes stands there, being harassed a bit occasionally and asking the party attendee for what I want (tissue, reagents inc. constructs that haven't been published, insight on how their methods work that my lab people can't reproduce). Sometimes get in a picture and smile nicely.

    Could I do this by email without this form of 'networking'? No. There are many of the aforementioned items people are under no obligation to share. Writing "Hey...awesome to see you at the boat party...could I score some XXX reagent' off you?" is highly effective. There are all kinds of people who ask these elite labs for things (including poster sessions) and I need an edge. My follow up emails often progress not just as reagent sharing but also get me invited to their Uni's (stories for another time). Again, an invite to give a talk is not something you can get as a younger investigator without networking.

    Some of the folks are on these [UPDATE: Minor edit relevant to the "conflation" issue. -DM] parties are total assholes and I feel like crap interacting with them. I've also had an equal number of interactions go in the direction of approaching someone who joins me silently eye rolling the drunkenness and misbehavior of their colleagues.

    And Dave, yes, it has "come to this". Grown men (and women) need to be told how to behave at professional conferences. Scientists aren't alone in their lack of professionalism. Tech industry, investment banking and the atheism activist community is rife with men behaving abhorrently. Educated men. They consider themselves hilarious. I’d argue that any man could diffuse these situations with a straight-faced arm on the shoulder and “lets go hold our creepy male conference over here” and walking the guy away. (I’ve seen this done by pros and the drunken offenders think its hilarious. It becomes hilarious to me when the ally walks them over into a corner and leaves them).

    FTR, I attended three [UPDATE: Minor edit relevant to the "conflation" issue. -DM] parties, so I speak from experience, but way to miss the point MoBio.

  • rxnm says:

    "Hmmm...I guess unless you have direct knowledge of this you should probably have held this one back or at least said 'allegedly' and then provided some documentation in the form of a link."

    I haven't snort-laughed like that in a while! MoBio you have a promising future working for one of those "online reputation" businesses. The concern-trollery, the douchiness, the insinuation that there may be liability where there is none... you've got the makings of a pro.

    "documentation in the form of a link." Seriously, wiping tears.

  • Ageing PI says:

    Abject failure by the PhD advisory committee. Its their job to ensure that this type of behaviour does not occur, and to report it when it does. Give the woman her PhD now.

  • Nashville says:

    I certainly hope that the described behaviors in the lawsuit did not occur, as they are horrifying; however, I will say that I was a good friend to the plaintiff for quite a long time. Knowing her history, personality, and prior behavior, I am very skeptical about the validity of the accusations. Unless the plaintiff has massively changed her own behavior over the past few years, I would be very skeptical about her claims.

  • The Author of This says:

    I am stunned that all of Nashville got together and decided to backstab Erin. Your comments are uncalled and hateful. Maybe she wasn't nice to you because you are an slanderous asshole? You seem like a pretty crappy person and terrible 'friend'.

  • Misleading says:

    While I'm not discounting the issues of gender discrimination and of women being objectified in the name of "networking" at conferences (which I think was the whole point of this article?), I think the author instead has painted a misleading picture about the Watt vs. Galli issue, by making one too many uncalled-for assumptions. Unless the author was present while the plaintiff was being harrassed, I think she's going too far in making assumptions like "[UPDATE: Minor edit relevant to the "conflation" issue. -DM]...so these kinds of parties probably did help him advance his career." and " The expectation that a female recovering alcoholic would likewise benefit underscores a clear cultural clash that needs to be addressed by both the Vanderbilt community and the Society for Neuroscience."

    Now the author could've made these assumptions based on one of two things - She (and evidently many contributors to the comments section) have made Galli the scapegoat for a problem he might not have even been involved in. Don't get me wrong, this is a problem and we all need to do something about it, but piling the blame on someone that "allegedly" harrassed a student is not the solution. While the claims in the lawsuit are horrific, I doubt anybody would sit and take that sort of abuse for 4 years. The lawsuit says the defendant was harrassed and abused, and then forced out of grad school against her own will. That doesn't make too much sense to me.

    This brings me to the other possibility the author could have been going for when she wrote this - she wanted to slander the defendant in an article disguised in favor of gender insensitivity. I hope this isn't the case and that the author of this post isn't a slanderous asshole, but calling someone who is well aware of the plaintiff's shortcomings one (while the author clearly isn't) isn't the way to respond now is it? And it seems to be working, because most (if not all) comments are about Galli vs. Watt and how the poor girl got screwed over. Guys, please reserve judgement on someone until you know the entire story. Don't play blame game just because you now have someone to blame.

    Knowing Erin Watt, I can go a step further and not only endorse Nashville's comments, but say that all of her claims are untrue or taken completely out of context. The thing that pissed me off is that she claims she has "PTSD". Really?! Don't cheapen something victims of extreme abuse undergo for your 2 minutes of fame. I pity Erin Watt - having to claim something so spectacularly false to get back at a program she clearly didn't belong to, and the author of this post - for having to resort to reporting on unvalidated claims to highlight an otherwise extremely important point.

  • drugmonkey says:

    While the claims in the lawsuit are horrific, I doubt anybody would sit and take that sort of abuse for 4 years. The lawsuit says the defendant was harrassed and abused, and then forced out of grad school against her own will. That doesn't make too much sense to me.

    This suggests you are woefully ignorant of abuse and of victims. It *never* "makes sense" to those on the outside. This attitude seriously questions your credibility here.

  • Misleading says:

    Drugmonkey - My "credibility" isn't really the point here, is it? You, like the author seem to miss the point, be it for this article or my comment, which is evident by how you cherry-picked something that would suit your argument.

  • The Author of This says:

    So Misleading and (all of) Nashville have no evidence to support their claim that the plaintiff is imbalanced, and this community and others should 'just take your word'? I'm afraid that's not how it works. You want to defend Galli....go for it. Offer a different take on the events outlined in the the filing...totally fair.
    However, suggesting we reserve judgement until the whole story comes out is hilarious and out of touch with the last 30 years of sexual harassment cases as well as other career ending events about professional conduct.
    The blog I wrote was based on an actual lawsuit and the facts of where meetings were held and individuals trained. And no, we likely will never know the whole story. You telling people to wait and find out is absurd. These cases almost invariably never fully disclose the events. Money is exchanged and non-disclosure agreements signed.
    The plaintiff might have been the next Nobel Laureate. She might have ended up a skilled bead stringer. Her fit for this program or a PhD in general is utterly beside the point. She was interviewed, accepted and passing benchmarks of success.
    People should be in a work place free of sexual harassment. Since Nashville and Misleading are so keen to share their victim-attacking opinions of Erin, it seems odd to me that not one of them who seem so involved in the events have yet to claim Galli would be incapable of such acts. I absolutely look forward to you getting on this forum and sharing the stout professionalism you can attest to of this investigator. How he doesn't drink to the point of stupidity, party like an asshole in professional settings make lewd comments even when sober, have a hot temper and desire to destroy those who speak against him. Please....share those insights. I'll get the popcorn ready. [UPDATE: The lawyer specifically referenced the prior two sentences in an ambiguous context but appears to be suggesting these comments are "demonstrably false and intended to damage Dr. Galli's reputation". I read this as the original poster clearly making an assertion of direct personal experience and thus it is not demonstrably false. -DM]
    Also, I don't believe anyone in this forum disclosed their gender. Its sort of hilarious you assume so many of those in this space are women.

  • Someone says:

    I just read through the comments and, knowing the culture in Vanderbilt's MP&B Department (which hosts their neuroscience research), Galli's behavior is typical for several of the PIs there (not just sexual harassment, but an abusive PI or 2, as well). I'm sure that MP&B, VUMC, and VU are all rushing to quiet things down. VU has a slew of lawyers for that reason. They may leave Galli to hang, though. I've seen that happen to another PI there. But, he does bring a lot of funding to the department, so maybe not.

    A very good friend of mine was sexually assaulted by another PI in that department, but she was too afraid to tell anyone in administration about it, instead opting to leave the program early with her Masters degree (and many first-author publications that would have undoubtedly qualified her for a PhD). I remember encouraging her to take action, as there were individuals in the lab who witnessed the assaults (yes, it happened on more than one occasion). She did, after she left, via the school (she should have sued) and the department just made the PI undergo a little bit of counseling. However, there were people who defended that PI (one of his male trainees, especially) - so that slap on the wrist didn't really make an impact on the department.

  • […] These hopes were soon dashed when a neuroscience trainee detailed harassment at SfN in a new lawsuit filed this summer against her mentor and other BSD scientists.  All very depressing things. But I […]