Postdoctoral researcher Robin Ricke and another lab member (whose identity is known and verified by me) speak out about the bullying and humiliations they experienced when working in the now quasi-defunct Mayo Clinic lab of the US star biologist Jan Van Deursen. Both authors left that Minnesota lab some time ago, having worked there for several years. Their accounts support statements from other anonymous employees which I quoted before.
As I previously reported, the Netherlands-born cancer and ageing researcher van Deursen was asked in December 2019 to resign from his position of 20 years, he has since physically left the Mayo Clinic. His lab and its research are being managed on his behalf by his wife (a former postdoc) while van Deursen negotiates about a new job elsewhere. The Mayo Clinic took over the supervision of his PhD students and postdocs.
Several whistleblowers got in touch, all speaking of bullying, discrimination and a toxic lab environment they experienced first-hand. In particular, these two former van Deursen lab members agreed to share their stories, one signed, another anonymous. Here they are, first one, then the other (highlights mine, illustrating image and all tweets added by me).
My Experience working at the Mayo Clinic
By Robin M Ricke
Several months ago, my phone blew up and the messages were surprising. Jan van Deursen was forced out from the Mayo Clinic, approximately one month after he was put on administrative leave. What I heard was he was trying to limit a graduate student’s maternity leave. I worked in Jan’s laboratory from 2007 to March 2014 and based on my interactions with Jan, the surprising part was that Mayo Clinic administration finally reacted to the bullying complaints. I personally witnessed his bullying behavior and was a target.
There is a clear difference between being a taskmaster and a bully. There just is. Jan was definitely both.
For context, I joined Jan van Deursen’s laboratory following my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota. I studied DNA replication as a graduate student and was excited to continue studies on cell cycle fidelity. In truth, my decision to join Jan’s lab was initiated also in part because my husband didn’t want to relocate for his career and Mayo Clinic was geographically a good choice. We lived in a suburb of Minneapolis and I made the one hour each way commute to Rochester. I strongly regret placing so much priority on my husband’s career. The two body problem is not easy but I wish we’d taken that time when we were young to find a compromise.
By many metrics, my time spent in Jan’s lab was successful, including two first-author publications and a postdoctoral fellowship from the Leukemia and Lymphoma society. I was offered a tenure-track position from a university in 2013. I think it would have been a great fit professionally but unfortunately I eventually turned it down because that small college town lacked any employment opportunities for my husband. That was truly heartbreaking for me. I received zero job offers from large cities which would have had job opportunities for my husband. My initial K22 NIH career grant was below the funding line but my second submission would eventually land in the funded range. I found this out in August 2014, after I’d left Jan’s lab in March. That was a gut punch.
Eventually my departure from Jan’s laboratory was a direct result of a deteriorated relationship between Jan and myself. I gave my notice over email and stated that his lab was no longer an environment that I wanted to contribute to. I offered between two to four weeks to aid in transition. Jan responded that two weeks was sufficient. I remember his email was reasonable and professional. However, he never ever communicated with me again – either speaking or emailing. He’d send technicians, students and postdocs to communicate whatever he wanted. This was a typical Jan tactic – he’d have lab employees convey his message indirectly.
For example, in the early days when I was there, someone called in on the phone and said they were taking a snow day after a particularly brutal Minnesota winter storm. I relayed this message to Jan while he was standing directly next to me and his response was to instruct me to tell that person to get into the lab. I tried handing him the phone and asked him to speak to this person directly and he just walked away.
This was one of the few times I personally would serve as an intermediary. During my final lab meeting, I purchased pizzas to share with the lab. Jan refused to eat any. He wouldn’t even look at me. Mayo clinic required that I have Jan sign paperwork on my last day for Mayo clinic HR. Because of Jan’s actions towards me over those two weeks and before, I requested via email a Mayo Clinic HR representative to accompany me to this meeting. In that brief meeting, I thanked Jan for the opportunity to work in his lab. I genuinely meant it, my experience wasn’t all bad. Jan refused to speak to me and would only speak to the representative. My perception is that it was behavior reminiscent of a petulant toddler.
So what triggered my departure? Issues surrounding Jan’s mentorship. For months and months and months, I had been trying to get Jan to read a manuscript I’d written and get submitted. Yes, PIs are very busy but this reached the point that I think that Jan was purposely delaying the manuscript. Was it a paper to submit to Nature or Science? No. But an additional first-author manuscript even in a lower to middle impact journal would have helped my job applications, not to mention my K22 NIH grant. There’s absolutely nothing supportive about a mentor delaying manuscript submission, particularly at this point in my career.
Second, there was a huge disagreement about a live cell imaging microscope in the weeks prior to my resignation. Jan accused me of misusing it, threatened to pull my permission to use this piece of equipment and brought in Mayo Clinic HR to discuss it. The entire experience was horrible. My perspective is that it was a massive powerplay. Interestingly, only weeks later, following my resignation, Jan requested (via a graduate student intermediary) that I complete live cell imaging using the same microscope. These experiments took 4 to 6 hours daily for two weeks. This was for a project I never worked on before. If Jan thought I was not to be trusted with such an expensive piece of equipment, would he assign me two weeks of work on it? Clearly my use of the microscope was not a problem.
Third and definitely the tipping point, Jan assigned me to a project with two other male postdocs. We met weekly to go over our results, formulate hypotheses/models and make a plan.
Authorship was thought to be equal. But Jan wanted only me to take notes of these meetings. The sole female. It felt wrong and I told Jan calmly in the weekly meeting that all the postdocs should take note-taking turns. I’d discussed it prior to the meeting with the other two postdocs and they both understood and agreed. Jan erupted. Literally screaming and shaking fingers at me, saying that if I didn’t want to take notes then I should just leave and not be on the project any more.
His reaction, over-the-top-screaming, was not unique and I had witnessed that kind of behavior before, but in that moment, it was the last straw. The writing was on a wall for months in terms of Jan’s lack of support for my career. Without a word, I picked up my materials, left his office and wrote a resignation email. My resignation was for all these reasons and personal reasons as well. Because we prioritized my husband’s career, I could just quit. I didn’t need the job for financial or immigration issues and that made me very unique in Jan’s lab.
Working in Jan’s lab had always been a pressure cooker. My first daughter was born in November 2008. I was back working in the lab only six weeks after she was born, the earliest we could find daycare for her. To be clear, although Jan never explicitly stated I couldn’t take the whole 12 weeks legally allowed, after multiple meetings I thought that there was a strong implication that I should return early. The week I came back I was diagnosed with shingles. I continued working. Jan’s comment? Everyone in his lab has had shingles at some point and I was no different.
Similarly, earlier I had an unexpected appendectomy when I was 12 weeks pregnant. I received phone calls (again through an intermediate) that I needed to make a probe for a southern blot that a technician in the lab was doing for my project. So I returned earlier than my doctor recommended to scale up probe, a task that the technician was easily capable of. It was a method to nudge me back.
Jan also had a penchant for odd and often highly inappropriate comments. Many, many times I heard him draw an analogy equating our responsibility to monitor lab mice and care for our children.
Finally, I told him I thought it was an idiotic analogy. Why? he asked. Because, I responded, we LOVE our children. He paused for a moment and remarked, well how about your car then? To which I responded, that is an inanimate object. He simply walked away. I’m not sure why he needed this analogy at all but comparing how I feel about my kid with the mice in the lab is utterly bizarre.
An example of an inappropriate joke that Jan told multiple times was that he wanted to treat poorly performing students or postdocs like how Kim Jong Un had treated his uncle, by feeding his uncle to wild dogs.
Jan also mentioned he wanted to tell this to new PIs in the biochemistry department whose grants didn’t get funded.
But Jan’s bullying behavior was larger than poorly timed or racist comments. My impression is that Jan’s bullying would migrate from individual to individual. That is, you might be a target for a while (sometimes lasting months) but then he’d move onto to someone else. I thought he was mercurial determining his target. Sometimes it was because that person was working on a project that he was hot on, but more often than not, I think he picked people he viewed as weak or alternatively, a threat in some way. Non-native English speakers were a particularly favorite target. I myself was his target over many different lab presentations. I’m very capable of standing my ground, but even in the scientific community, there is a difference between critically analyzing scientific work and attacking the individual. Jan also attacked postdocs who participated in our lab meetings from the neighboring lab.
I think it’s important to point out that this bullying behavior could have had horrific consequences (excluding future career options). Although I’m not a mental health expert, I can think of at least four individuals who I specifically considered suicide threats at various times. Three of these individuals were on immigrant visas that requires current employment to stay in the US. One was sending money to a child who remained in their home country. One was concerned about what others would think if they left as culturally, quitting was not an option. Everything in their life was connected to being successful in that job. Walking away was not an option. The pressure was immense. Besides these specific people, I witnessed many other members of Jan’s lab who were bullied. I’d like to point out that despite this hostile work environment from Jan, there was often sympathetic camaraderie among lab members and there’d be text messages of support or counseling sessions over coffee.
The number of times I advised crying postdocs, graduate students, or technicians is immeasurable.
Some people might wonder if Jan was so terrible, why did people work there in the first place. For graduate students, I always found this perplexing because students had completed a rotation of about six weeks in the lab. If they hadn’t seen Jan’s bullying actions firsthand, they’d definitely heard about it from existing lab members or other Mayo clinic employees. So why did they join? Partly I think people always think it won’t happen to them, because they are smart and hard-working, as if fairness contributed to the selection of targets.
For postdoc recruitment, Jan had a system to prevent recruits from hearing bad reviews from current employees. The vast majority of postdocs were international and there was zero interaction with lab members until they arrived to start work.
For postdocs that interviewed in person, he would pair current lab members to interview the recruit 2-on-1. The idea here was that if current lab members said something negative, the other lab member would report it back to Jan. On one occasion, we were recruiting a candidate from Boston. Jan requested that I drive the recruit back to Minneapolis at night following the interview. Privately I voiced my concern to a senior fellow that the 2-on-1 system also protects me because if the person doesn’t join, Jan cannot accuse me of giving a bad review. Interesting, the first thing that interviewee said when we were in my car was that she heard from three different females throughout the day that they would not advise joining the lab. Clearly the 2-on-1 system had failure points.
Not everything in Jan’s lab was bad and I think it’s also important to point out that my relationship with Jan was often professionally respectful. For example, Jan repeatedly asked me to peer review manuscripts that he had received from various journals from all impact levels. The level of trust was high. Jan would give me his log-in and password. Our routine was that I’d submit reviews for manuscripts without him reading either the manuscript or the review that I wrote; it was completely hands-off. Honestly, I quite enjoyed this, although my work was always claimed in Jan’s name.
Twice, Jan asked me to write the introduction for research articles for graduate student or postdocs in his lab without any credit or authorship. It was quite clear that the request was to write it myself, not to assist the primary author with mentorship or editing. I refused on both occasions as I have personal limits for someone claiming my work as their own.
In terms of his work ethic, Jan himself is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He spent nearly every waking hour in the lab. Part of the problem I think was he expected the same from everyone else.
I left Jan’s lab in March 2014. So why write about his bullying behavior now? First, I’m unique in that I have nothing to lose. That this behavior continued after I left bothers me. I know people left the lab in unfortunate circumstances both before and after me. I feel like my silence makes me somewhat culpable. How many destroyed careers are in Jan’s wake? Future trainees in Jan’s lab should know exactly what kind of mentorship they are signing up for. Second, Mayo Clinic has finally reacted. That in combination with the NIH policy on hostile work environment means that Jan’s bad behavior should have some professional consequences in addition to bad karma.
Looking back, the personal what-ifs linger. I quit working in March, our second daughter was born in October. While I certainly know that Jan is not the entire reason I exited science, his bad behavior was a contributing factor. What if instead I worked for a PI who offered a supportive work environment? What if my third first-author manuscript had been submitted in a more timely manner? Might I have succeeded in getting a job offer from an institute or university in a large metropolitan city, where my husband could have found employment as well? I would have had a K22 in hand then. Science was a passion for me and I enjoyed it immensely. Some days I miss it. It’s a big what-if. I think about these issues often for my daughters. In the future when I talk to my daughters about balancing work-life issues I’ll convey how complicated these issues can be. I never regret having my girls and I’m more than fortunate to have a beautiful life with people I love. I hope science continues to move in a direction that supports women scientists and finds creative approaches to work-life issues. But, most importantly, when I talk to my daughters about career choices, I’ll convey to them the importance of not tolerating workplace abuse.
People succeeded despite him, not because of him
By Nova van Mayo (a pseudonym)
I have had difficult bosses, and every boss has their own idiosyncrasies and personalities, and different approaches in how they manage people. With Jan van Deursen, I’m not complaining about the demanding schedule (although it was absolutely tiresome and excessive), or even him being in bad moods. Any one or two things in isolation would have been tolerable.
Instead, my criticism of Jan van Deursen stems from him producing an environment that was hostile, damaging, demeaning, sexist, and counterproductive. I truly believe that people succeeded despite him, not because of him.
Jan was a bully. It seemed like the bullying manifested for two different reasons: pressure to publish in high impact journals, and pressure when he had a new idea and the subsequent data just didn’t support it (or historical data from his own lab wasn’t reproduced). A former lab member is quoted with:
“He can’t see beyond what he thinks the result should be, and won’t accept the answer if it doesn’t match with what he’s made up in his mind.”
Jan would come to a conclusion in his mind, and then insist that it had to be the correct answer.
Make no mistake — Jan did have brilliant ideas, and with high risk comes high reward — but he also had many outlandish hypotheses. Being able to generate data that lived up to his expectation was a huge problem, for me and for many. This meant doing experiments over and over ad nauseam until he FINALLY believed it was not correct, and it could also mean him demanding a “better” scientist repeat the experiment, and only when they could also not produce/reproduce it, did he believe it. Essentially, it took Jan a long, long time to be convinced to drop something.
Jan never DIRECTED any sort of data fabrication/tweaking or that type of misconduct, and in fact he voiced that he would never permit it (he could have just been posturing). That said, he inadvertently (or intentionally) moved goalposts on what were acceptable controls, and it seemed to shift when it would benefit his narrative. For example, the imperfect actin blot might be good enough for one experiment, but he would lose his mind over an imperfect actin blot on the next experiment.
He would also go back and forth on “statistically significant data” versus what we called “trending,” where the average might be different for one group but the standard deviation rendered them equal.
One day he would be excited about results that were ‘trending’ even if they weren’t statistically significant, and the next day we would be idiots if we thought there could potentially be a difference between the control and experimental groups.
Jan trusted his lab’s historical data above all else. That makes sense — you assume it was done initially with a certain scientific rigor and that it is correct. That said, I found myself unable to reproduce data, and that meant I was “stupid” and had “poor technique” rather than “we could both be correct, something has just changed since then” or more alarming, that “the original data was fabricated/false/misinterpreted”. It felt like I could only successfully reproduce my own data sometimes, and I know others felt the same way.
A couple examples:
· I couldn’t reproduce the lifespan curve of one of our mouse models where the experimental group had a different lifespan. I had colonies of WT mice and the experimental mice – and there was absolutely no difference between the two.
Jan was incensed. The word ‘retraction’ escaped his lips, but we shifted focus to a different aspect of the model, and I forgot how we explained it to ourselves. Probably that lifespan was but a small part of the larger picture.
· I was routinely unable to reproduce historical western blot results from Jan’s lab. For example, if the dogma was that low protein X caused high protein Y, I couldn’t see the increase of protein Y. I know others in the lab also had this problem.
A former lab member is quoted that Jan refused to let a mouse technician leave.
“When the mouse tech decided to leave the lab, he yelled at her telling her she was a shitty person and if she went to HR he would give bad recommendations to her boyfriend (graduate student in the lab).“
This was the SECOND mouse technician he tried to prevent from leaving, which resulted in a terrible, awkward battle with Jan, her and Human Resources. MT (mouse technician) was worried about having a candid, open discussion about moving out of the lab and so she started negotiating and making plans behind Jan’s back. MT had been there a couple of years, and Jan started treating her poorly, and she didn’t like how he treated everyone else. One reason she cited for wanting to leave was from a meeting that she sat in on with me and Jan. I had made a mistake with a mouse breeding, and he told me if I ever made a mistake like that again, that I “was done” and he would kick me out of the lab.
When Jan finally found out that MT was leaving, he went on a witch hunt, trying to find who was ‘poisoning’ MT against him. He met with every single person and grilled them. MT had apparently cited the aforementioned meeting as one example of his toxicity, and he simply claimed he never said that.
So, he sat with me while we wrote an email to her telling her that she had mischaracterized his words to me, although he said I didn’t “have” to send it – but that it would be the right thing to do.
I regret to this day that I sent it, but I was afraid of the repercussions, and knew that MT had the full support of HR already.
Jan insulted me frequently. If I made a mistake, he told me “if you had the choice between left and right, you would choose wrong more than half the time.” He said “You will never succeed anywhere else” and that it was me, not him or the environment. And what did I know, besides he must have known what he was talking about? It was incredibly damaging to the psyche of a developing scientist.
Jan was flippant and rude. If I accidentally used the wrong font size or line size in a figure, he would ask me to see my glasses and he’d look through them, and tell me I need to get my prescription changed. Or more simply, just ask “are you blind/stupid?”.
He would routinely shout at lab members, including cursing, and slam his hands on his desk, and otherwise intimidate members in his office and in lab meetings.
He was proficient in gaslighting. He constantly told people they didn’t care (either because they didn’t rise to his baiting, or were tired, etc) which was extremely frustrating, as we were essentially breaking ourselves to further our projects. It was sickening to work that hard and be dismissed.
Jan constantly interrupted his students when they presented at work in progress meetings, or journal clubs. Granted, it reflected more poorly on him but he routinely derailed the conversation and it was very unproductive.
There is also this quote from a former lab member:
“Jan van Deursen did a lot of things…including stating that Muslims are terrorists, women are able to get jobs because they probably slept with someone, bullied an employee with cancer, physically intimidated women in 1-1 meetings and insulted people during lab meetings and daily private meetings.“
I agree he was sexist: he insulted women frequently and among other insinuations, he said he didn’t like to hire them “because they cried all the time”. I agree that he was likely racist — he had high praises for Indian people and berated Chinese employees (specifically calling out their race/ethnicity).
Jan provided me with an environment to perform scientific research, to earn my PhD, and I don’t wish to discount that or to be ungrateful. I learned many technical skills in his lab, and I worked with many wonderful scientists. That said, he was not a mentor — he was a bully. He did not have my best interest at heart. His styles and methods led to a fear of making mistakes (or, if mistakes were made, frantically trying to fix them before he found out, and being filled with utter dread the entire time), and a fear of taking time to LEARN. I think institutions need to seriously revisit their process of elevating PIs to positions where they are teaching and moulding young scientists, despite never having any sort of managerial training, and despite not having specific ways to provide feedback.
I wish to send a message that this type of behavior is unacceptable, and is the type of atmosphere that leads to desperation and scientific misconduct. It took me my entire duration in Jan’s lab to publish my first-author paper, and a lot of those years were spent being unable to reproduce data, OR being unable to generate the data that Jan believed was true (an exorbitant waste of time).
Those years were undoubtedly the worst years of my life, and I don’t look kindly upon him.
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