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.