Guest post

“Daddy, we’re afraid of you” – Life in Stu Aaronson’s lab

"Aaronson may have finally realized the need to modify his behavior when his young children confronted him one day and complained, "Daddy, we're afraid of you". After he told us this story he added that perhaps he was being too harsh at work as well."

Stuart Aaronson is a celebrity of cancer research, with the looks and the smile of a film star. As his 78th birthday present, I bring this guest post by a former lab member. Aaronson trained many of today’s cancer research bigwigs, his dictatorial leadership style helps explain how bad and irreproducible science flooded biomedical science.

Those who delivered as ordered or had an even stronger ego than Aaronson, thrived, others suffered and had nervous breakdowns. It is telling that Pier Paolo Di Fiore, who is certainly not a saint, is seen as one of the more decent alumni from that multi-million dollar heavy lab. On the other end of the narrow spectrum is the animal abuser and research cheater Sam W Lee, an Aaronson lab alumnus with 5 retractions.

Young Stu

Aaronson used to work at NIH, in early 1990ies he moved to Icahn Medical School at Mount Sinai in New York, to become the founding chair and professor. He does not think of retirement, as many old men of his kind, he is probably afraid of relinquishing his power and control, over people, institutions and entire research field.

I previously mentioned Aaronson in this post, while Di Fiore, whose leadership style is very similar to Aaronson’s, got a whole dedicated article. The following guest post is about both of these power players, the author prefers to remain unnamed.


“Daddy, we’re afraid of you”

By Anonymous

Disclaimer: These stories and opinions derive from my first hand experiences except as indicated, and I have related these to the best of my memory. –

As a sophomore biology major at SUNY Stony Brook I found myself taking courses in lecture halls containing as many as 500 students.  One professor for team-taught cell biology was discussing the scientific process and assigned us to read and analyze a research paper on snake venom bungarotoxin.  He challenged us to try to discover what was wrong with the paper. After studying the paper for several hours, I concluded that there was nothing wrong with it that I could tell.  The next time we met, the instructor revealed that if we had concluded that the paper was perfect we were correct. In fact, too perfect. It was made up by the author out of whole cloth.  He explained that science is only as trustworthy as the practitioners. Fortunately, peer review can uncover instances of wrongdoing but more often than not these slip by unnoticed. Even when caught, he explained, there is no mechanism for removing such articles from scientific journals or even flagging them as false other than to publish a short retraction in a subsequent issue.

No ivory towers

I graduated in 1977 and worked for a year as a technician in Jim Darnell’s molecular biology group at the Rockefeller Institute in New York.  Subsequent to that I enrolled in the Microbiology program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and began doing research on streptococcal infections with Pat Cleary.  He was very methodical and was worried that an important discovery I had made early on seemed too good to be real. But under his tutelage I developed a convincing case and published multiple papers on the subject before graduating in 1985.  When I thought about how to pursue my career, I decided that it was important to choose research projects that were both interesting and relevant.

I did not want to simply occupy space like a number of professors in the department who were suffering research stasis. One focused on playing tennis.  Several appeared to have run out of new avenues to pursue and were “digging the same hole deeper”. There seemed to be little relevance to studying out-dated topics, but scientists if anything are adept at promoting their own work to keep the grant money flowing and some were equally adept at dividing their work into the “least publishable unit”. 

One enterprising professor started a pioneering biotech firm with the dual aims of creating larger walleye (a fish) and curing hoof and mouth disease, became an instant millionaire, and in the ensuing whirlwind of his extracurricular activities left his students to their own devices. This apparently led to infection of the lab personnel by a wart-inducing virus due to poorly supervised lab procedures. 

More insidiously, the university hired an MD researcher who had a single claim to fame that he had parlayed into millions in grant money. The carryover of grant money for research is a driving force in university decision-making, since the school benefits financially, but it would be incorrect to state that the possession of money equates to better research ability and teaching skill. He also came burdened, but not bothered, by accusations of misogyny and sexual misconduct which unabated finally led to pressure for him to leave his position, according to several accounts.

This was the first indication I had that universities were not ivory towers on a hill but morally gray organizations run for the aggrandizement, financial and otherwise, of its stakeholders, organizations willing to paper over allegations of misconduct as the trade-off for maintaining their reputation. 

I was beginning to see the manipulations of process on behalf of favorite sons of department chairmen and others in positions of relative power and influence, and the helplessness with which these shenanigans were viewed.

The beneficiaries, once ensconced in their positions, usually proved their worth but were at the same time tainted by their means of advancement.

In another example, one postdoc from Yale was only hired reluctantly on the coattails of his spouse with the promise that they would work productively as a team.  When a couple is hired together in the same department, if the department wants to offer tenure to their favorite then tenure for the other is more pro forma than based on the same merit expected of other candidates.  This subverts fairness in the evaluative process by exerting political pressure on tenure committee members.  

By this time I had decided to transition into high school teaching but realized to get there would be a long, fraught process.  In fact, it took over a decade before I developed the requisite skills and confidence. In the meantime I accepted a fellowship in Stuart Aaronson’s lab at the National Cancer Institute of the NIH.  

Working with Di Fiore in Aaronson’s lab

I studied there with Pier Paolo DiFiore in 1989-1990 when he was a senior investigator at the LCMB, the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Biology.  Paolo was very charismatic and possessed a sharp wit and a profound scientific curiosity.  

I did some tricky enzyme activity assays for a team paper in Paolo’s lab, which worked very well but for a single outlier which I included in my figure. However, several years later I noticed that the published article lacked the outlier (which in itself is acceptable) but to my chagrin someone had inserted a data point to perfectly fit the trend line – this person had clearly altered the data to make it appear more perfect than it actually was. This case illustrates a common type of fakery employed as a convenience by researchers who calculate that better-looking data will result in less scrutiny in peer review.  Seemingly minor in isolation, it does call into question the veracity of subsequent work.  

Although many of the postdocs in Aaronson’s group were talented and hard working, I was singularly unimpressed by the esprit de corps, as people were fragmented into subgroups that rarely interacted on an intellectual level. 

I was especially alarmed by the machinations of a young postdoc, M.C., who had great ambitions and a loud voice, but little in the way of scientific acumen. Nevertheless, he developed a project that was simple and successful, leading to a valuable publication in the journal Nature.

On the strength of that success he pursued a job with a pharmaceutical firm, which I heard he later used to vault into a deanship at a major university. During the time M.C. was working on this project, along with B.D., he asked me and another investigator, R.D., to evaluate their work.  We listened to their presentation in private session. When they asked for feedback, R.D. said that it was interesting but the data was not entirely convincing. I was shocked when they demeaned her by openly calling her “stupid”. I then defended her position because she was correct in insisting that they had more work to do, but I was dismayed by their aggression and seeming misogyny.

To make matters worse, I later overheard M.C. boasting that he had obtained the reagents for his experiments from an outside group without their knowledge via a third party collaborator he knew. 

M.C. then used these purloined reagents to publish ahead of the group that invented them, which he laughed about and commented on their fury when they discovered what he had done.

One might assume that Stu Aaronson, by attaching his name to M.C.’s paper, was perfectly aware of the provenance of the reagents in question, yet given Aaronson’s reputation and influence in the scientific community it seems little surprise that the research group that was victimized held their tongue publicly.  

The winds were shifting at the NIH in 1989, and people who read the tea leaves were aware that greater accountability for the use of financial resources as well as standards of behavior were in the works.  Robert Gallo on the 6th floor of our building was under investigation for fraud and faced serious consequences (see John Crewdson’s seminal work “Science Fictions” (ISBN-13: 978-0316090049) detailing the fight over credit for the discovery of HIV.)  Gallo’s second-in-command faced similar charges, although in the end politics trumped truth and they were allowed to keep their jobs albeit with permanent damage to their reputations. Another researcher in Gallo’s lab did not escape so lightly and was convicted of steering contracts to his wife’s firm as well as theft of equipment.  

One would assume that Stu Aaronson faced similar restrictions, and in fact he left the NIH a few years later.  I heard that he was unhappy with new limitations on speaking fees, but that could not have been the whole story.  Speaking one day to an administrator I saw a look of disgust cross his face at the mention of Aaronson’s name and realized that he was detested in some circles.

In fact, it would be hard to find anyone there who had a positive opinion of him as a person, although one cannot help respecting his scientific accomplishments which included the discovery of viral oncogenes and a virtual tsunami of relevant publications early in his career.  But there was a sense of fear. 

Aaronson’s leadership style was one of intimidation, although tempered by an eagerness to listen to new ideas.  Senior investigators in his group became expert at steering his psychology to their advantage. Di Fiore wanted no part of that.  Where others pandered, he attacked Stu like a bull.

Finally they had a loud angry fight over publishing rights. Paolo was adamant that only participants should be awarded a coauthorship on his papers.  Since Aaronson provided little more than a workspace and funding, Paolo refused to put his name on any of his lab’s papers. This was definitely a novel concept that flew in the face of standard practice, yet he was successful.  

My prior experience at the Rockefeller Institute was profoundly different.  Although the lab was organized in a similar fashion, all work centered on a common theme – gene regulation in adenovirus.  Jim Darnell was detail-oriented, methodical, calm, and highly respected as both a scientist (he co-wrote the first and most famous textbook on molecular biology) and as a human being. 

By contrast, Stuart Aaronson viewed people as machines to be controlled. He was arrogant, impatient, and if someone displeased him he was prone to sneer dismissively or indulge in an extended public tongue lashing.

Some thrived in this environment, either because they had thick skins or perhaps had a similar nature.  H.M. was a bright, young postdoc who I finally concluded was sociopathic. His reaction to another’s pain was instructive.  One summer we put together a soccer team to play in a city league on Sundays. During one game I was badly hurt by a sliding tackle from behind. No one came to my defense, which I found disheartening.  In spite of a torn ligament I hobbled alone to the opposing team to excoriate their captain. H.M. walked up to me the next day and said with a frown, “It’s your fault you got hurt”, turned and strode off without waiting for a response.  I never forgot that, and I never played league soccer again with that crew. The next week another teammate came in on crutches. Wash, rinse, repeat.  

The technicians in Aaronson’s lab were generally unhappy.  Poor pay, little respect. As a former technician myself, I made a point to spend part of every day talking to one tech or another as time allowed.  One day, T.B. told me that Aaronson had ruined his life. That was a startling assessment, so I said, “How did he do that?”.

He replied that Aaronson would get so mad if he made a mistake that he would berate him for hours on end, day after day, until he had lost all confidence in himself and was no longer capable of looking for another job.

Another tech, who I’m quite sure suffered from anxiety and paranoia, accidentally dropped a valuable tray of tissue cultures. Aaronson gave her a choice: retire voluntarily or be fired. She adamantly refused to leave. He recruited me to negotiate with her because apparently I was the only one she would talk to. Unfortunately she felt so threatened by that time she fled in a panic. It was an ugly situation, especially since she risked losing her pension.

Aaronson may have finally realized the need to modify his behavior when his young children confronted him one day and complained, “Daddy, we’re afraid of you”. After he told us this story he added that perhaps he was being too harsh at work as well.

R.J. was a former internist who transitioned into research.  Using HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) to separate fractions from mouse keratinocytes, he was able to identify and ultimately purify a new molecule called KGF, or keratinocyte growth factor.  This was one of the Aaronson lab’s most important discoveries of the late 1980s. But R.J.wanted to try to follow up his discovery by seeking another growth factor using the same method. He recruited me to make the attempt, but after finding it rather labor intensive and unsatisfying work  I transferred to Paolo’s lab where I was convinced I could exercise my creativity. After two years I was finally scheduled to present my work. I realized that Stu had developed some antipathy towards me after he discovered that I had taken a needed vacation.

Aaronson was the kind of leader who expected everyone to be in the lab if he was there, no matter how late, an expectation which I ignored as idiotic. 

Now, a friend warned me that Stu was planning to ambush me during my talk. Fortunately I had excellent data for my presentation (and in fact had made several original discoveries) and my tone was assertive and convincing. But it was what happened next that bothered me to no end. The following week Paolo was away on business. R.J. took the opportunity to drop by our lab and baldly attempted to recruit me.  He acted like this was a normal request, but I told him in no uncertain terms that he should have known better than to ask.    

Several days before I was scheduled to leave my employ with the NIH I overheard a disturbing conversation between Stu and an inexperienced but ambitious and arrogant young M.D. attempting to earn his research creds.  He proposed to spend $100,000 (which was the yearly budget for a senior investigator) to buy a large amount of a single antibody reagent (anti-phosphotyrosine) with the goal of isolating novel tyrosine kinase substrates potentially important to growth factor signaling and cancer progression.  Aaronson thought this was a great idea and committed on the spot to funding it. I rolled my eyes and kept my opinions to myself.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Paolo had assigned a small scale version of this project to F.F. in his lab, which is the normal way to assess feasibility and estimate a scale-up factor if successful.  I knew instinctively that this was not a viable approach for several reasons, and this was born out by F.F. in preliminary work. Paolo adopted a more common sense approach – to directly clone genes using an expression library screened with anti-phosphotyrosine antibodies. Within two years after I left his lab he developed this method and made several important discoveries that served as the basis for his research effort when he returned to Milan.  


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6 comments on ““Daddy, we’re afraid of you” – Life in Stu Aaronson’s lab

  1. Interesting read, but not terribly surprising that labs can be this toxic.

    I have read Crewdson’s book on Gallo several times, and commit to reading it once a year, because it is so entertaining and is a good picture of how some labs work. Interestingly, I am reading it now. What I am struck by was the number of papers (at least 10) that got out of Gallo’s lab into CNS and turned out to be irreproducible mistakes. Many times these papers made careers (eg Flossie Wong-Stahl and her attempt at sequencing HIV with Bill Haseltine, which turned out to be completely wrong) and she went on to be faculty and is highly respected as a “brilliant female scientist”. I wonder how she would have done in her career if she did not have an affair with Gallo?

    Also striking about the book was how a pre-conceived notion from the top of the lab (Gallo) about how HIV should be cultured (like HTLV-1) could really ruin progress in the lab to get the facts correct. It was Milkus Popovic’s contamination of the LAV from Montagnier that got things correct.

    I have worked in 5 labs, and all of the things you could mention I can relate to, as some of my advisors had similar behavior.

    I am also struck with the arrogance of MD’s as well. My observation is that MD’s tend to think they are smarter than anybody else, and that would translate to them making good progress in the lab. Really, the most important determinant of research success is whether the project works (positive results in a narrative) or not (negative or irreproducblie results), and I don’t care how smart you think you may be, you really need to be on the right project to succeed.

    I had an advisor that got extremely angry when someone made a mistake. It was ironic, because everybody in the lab thought that he was shockingly incompetent (he could not write a grant or a paper on his own, he needed help from a bitter research associate professor). The saying about this advisor was “that irony was to subtle of a concept for him to understand”. Even my present advisor cringes when I make a mistake (which I always admit to), which is laughable because the few times he comes in the lab to do an experiment, he does something wrong which ruins the experiment.

    I think a big problem with advisors (maybe like Aaronson) is that they get overly excited by their hypothesis and think for sure they are right, but have forgotten just how rare it is one that is conceived is correct. Then they get angry when your experiments don’t support their brilliant idea.

    I think truly good advisors are rare. The sign of a good advisor is when their graduate students publish several papers. However, this is a sign of a good advisor, but not a guarantee. The grad student could have gotten lucky.

    Like

  2. ” Really, the most important determinant of research success is whether the project works (positive results in a narrative) or not (negative or irreproducblie results), and I don’t care how smart you think you may be, you really need to be on the right project to succeed.”

    Yup.

    There are talented MDs, but one problem for science is established MDs. They will be there for a long time, if not the duration of their careers. They will make sure they fit the department’s remit (wish list), and have time to hire and fire those who do the work an also have the ideas. In many ways they are very clever. Constantly surveying the horizon, but not put directly to the test themselves. Avoiding the risky business of experimentation.

    Like

    • Yup. I work for a tenured established MD, and just got done spending three years on two risky projects that I could not get to work, and therefore we had nothing for publications and grants. Now the money is running out, and he yelled at me to get a paper out by Thanksgiving (I did not then, but recently submitted), on other stuff I got to work. Ill probably lose my job, but he will continue on at 0.25 million/yr salary (paid not so much for research but his clinical responsibilities in the med school).

      Is he smarter than me? Absolutely. But should he make about 5x my salary? I think not. This is what causes things like the Bolshevik revolution.

      Like

  3. Ana Pedro

    Not so many years ago these type of situations were very common in any university of the world were renowned Professors simply were considered “God”. I just hope this fear is replaced by global and democratic sharing of original data and named peer-review.

    Like

  4. Pingback: Whom to sacrifice for Human Challenge Trials? – For Better Science

  5. Pingback: New JACS EiC Erick Carreira: “correct your work-ethic immediately” – For Better Science

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