Guest post Open Letter

Jan van Deursen’s bullying: lab members speak out

"There is a clear difference between being a taskmaster and a bully. There just is. Jan was definitely both." - Robin Ricke, former postdoc in van Deursen's Mayo Clinic lab

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. 


Original image credit: YouTube video by Mayo Clinic

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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25 comments on “Jan van Deursen’s bullying: lab members speak out

  1. As a perma-doc having work for 5 -6 advisors, I can relate to a lot that is being said here. Ive never had an advisor that was abusive at this level, but I did have one that most considered to be grossly incompetent (I dont think he was an alcoholic, but he acted like one). For example, this advisor wrote a submission letter to a journal with such poor grammar and spelling, that the grad student for the submission had to write to the editors and apologize that a grad student wrote the letter (!). This fiasco was called the “re-submission of the submission letter incident”

    A big problem with research: there is this huge push for positive results that can be published and so if you see something “hot”, and the next experiment tends not to support it, a lot of advisors get angry. I’m having that problem right now with my advisor writing a grant–Ill see an exciting result with one donor, but not another. Some of this could be solved if in part you had the time to learn about what you are doing to do it correctly (assuming the literature you are reading is correct, and a lot of it is not), but advisors want positive results immediately. Now, its even worse if the advisor expects / demands that his ideas are correct.

    I have never had an advisor that could 1.) take a project that was not working and make it work, or 2.) create a narrative for positive results if the narrative was not immediately clear. My guess is that they are so removed from experimentation and paper reading that they really cannot help you that much. Its a head scratcher as to why so many people bother to put up with the precariat lifestyle to work for overpaid and largely useless advisors, when there is so little chance of getting a good job due to how competitive it is. Eventually, word will get out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree completely with this. Luckily, I’ve never had to work under a suffocating PI. But these testimonies allude to a much bigger problem in science that is rarely talked about, which is rampant scientific misconduct. The pressures in science are too great at every level. Regardless of how nice and mentoring your PI may be, they are always putting pressure on the students/post-docs (mostly bc they themselves also feel immense pressure from all angles). Every scientist at some point in their career has either: 1) Not been able to reproduce “established” data or 2) committed some form of scientific misconduct, whether it be malicious or not (most have experienced both). The pressure to succeed/publish and the time it takes to produce quality results is too great that it will lead anyone to eventually cut corners.

      This makes science unique from other professions in that it doesn’t matter how proficient you may be in scientific techniques, you wont graduate/get a job/get promoted/tenure/funded without papers. But the checks and balances are often tilted in favor of the scientist and their results/work, which only perpetuates misconduct. I often joke that the amount of published scientific work does not correlate with our progress in fighting human disease. I suppose it could be worse, we could be in climate science and not only have the normal pressures of research, but added political ones as well.

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  2. After reading (twice) these disturbing testimonies, I do wonder about this: is it really a prerequisite to develop a neurotic ego in order to be successful in STEM? The point is that Jan van Deursen achieved tremendous results in his field (https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=Lj_J0HsAAAAJ&hl=en), although he created a toxic work environment. How is it possible?

    Anyway, after reading that, I really would prefer not to be successful at all, and have a cool life in return…

    Additional point: it’s important, in this kind of testimony, to distinguish between bullying and mobbing, which are two different things. I think that in the present case, mobbing is the prominent issue.

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    • I spent nearly 20 years in academia. I worked with many PIs, PG students and postodocs from all continents. I observed that everyone who managed to arrive at PhD level was once best or top individual in school and/or at university. So when people are told from the age of six that they are good, they tend to believe it, even more so if they were educated in elite institutions/environments/families. The problem when people reach PhD level and evolve among the best worldwide is that they meet people who are as good as or better than they. Now two possible behaviors: either they accept it and give the best they can to improve themselves, or they develop a narcissistic wound because reality no longer matches what they have been told. If they are unable to heal this wound, it seems others will have to pay for it through bullying, mobbing, betrayal, cheating, etc.
      There are PIs of both kinds. I was fortunate to work with people who really trusted their team, who gave freedom to them and helped students to find their way after they graduated as much as they could. So it must be possible to work with a PI who makes their lab a good place.

      If you assess how successful a scientist has been through their Google Scholar record, it means you have already been poisoned by the current academic way of evaluating people. I know people who contributed very little to many topics thanks to their ability to obtain funding. It makes a nice Google Scholar record, but not so good scientists and useful works. Better ask yourself, what is this person known for, i.e. what meaningful scientific work did they contribute? If the person teaches, what kind of teacher are they? PIs who behave badly in the lab also tend poorly to treat UG students in the class.
      Publication performance more and more tends to be seen as the ability to get funding, which probably is the key point in the hiring process. The scientific content does not always matter. In academia you’ll meet a lot of people with political and social skills because this is the kind of people the current system selects: managers. What kind of manager they are while having been trained as a scientist is the point when you are one of their subordinates.

      When you are a student, every PI looks clever. They’d better be because they are years ahead of you on a topic. But in some teams the PI is not the most scientifically gifted person. Some postdocs and students can be as bright as their boss is or even better. As mentioned above, not everyone reacts constructively on this situation. In 2020, it is time to realize that science is a ollaborative activity. Any PI, even with their bright ideas is nobody without a team. Moreover, I believe that having ideas is the toughest part of being a scientist. Having good ideas on what can be useful is even more difficult. Being unable to understand that should disqualify people from being professional scientists.

      Now if you want to meet people with inflated egos who also believe they will make the world a better place with doubtful ideas, go for the startup world. I resigned after 20 years spent in academia. It took me only 9 months to conclude I had enough of my startup experience.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Sadly, some of my previous bosses had similar attitudes. One of them never accepted the fact that her hypothesis was not supported by results. In the long run this has led to her lack of productivity, since she glued herself to dead projects for years. And yeah, she was yelling all day. Finally she was warned by the HR, and certain actions were taken to shape her manners. Another one created a work climate which was similar to a prison experiment. He had an inner circle in the department, with people who were acting as spies and “capos”, delivering commands to fellows. Paradoxically, one of them was a junior postdoc, who loved and truly enjoyed that she could spit in the face of the more successful, more creative senior colleagues in the name of the Boss. The HR has received reports on his bullying behavior and the sick work climate. These were filed by graduate students, postdocs, technicians, even by his own secretary, over years. And nothing has changed. Instead, he has raised in the university hierarchy.

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  4. Pingback: Jan van Deursen left Mayo Clinic, accused of bullying – For Better Science

  5. Mobbing as downward bullying by superiors is also known as bossing (see antimobbing.eu). Here, the given examples of the boss’ behavior show that, in this case, the bossing is due to a narcissistic personality disorder. Many leading managers are narcissists, and they tend to induce a similar toxic working environment. The best advice to employees and their health is to leave early. They cannot change a narcissist because a narcissist cannot and does not want to change, it is a chronic disease. It is often a waste of time to speak with a narcissist about the observed problems. Even psychotherapies are not much successful with narcissists in contrast to other neurological disorders.

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  6. MadScientist

    Im actually shocked they finally did something. His behavior was common knowledge since nearly day 1 and only got worse as he became more successful. My previous PI practically worshiped Van Deursen. While taking about Van Deursens reputation, my PI said, “no, he just wants people to work is all. They just can’t handle it.” He would say he wished he could manage to run his lab like Van Deursen.

    As it stands today, Van Deursen isn’t anywhere near the only PI at Mayo who treats their postdocs and techs like dirt. I could name 5 others right off the top of my head, and the behavior of all of them is common knowledge even with the administrators.

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  7. I was a former international postdoc at Jan’s lab. After reading Robin’s post, I thought I should leave an answer as a colleague who worked together. There were many good female scientists including Robin while I working at Jan’s lab, but they left science field due to without Jan’s support and toxic environment. I worked very hard to build up my career and get a better job in my country. However, Jan’s paper authorship was not fair and clear. It was supportive for certain people (especially, white male and his wife), but not particularly for female scientists. Not only that, it was especially harsh for the international postdoc, a woman who is not free of English. He supported certain person very much to help performing experiment with technician and graduate students from the beginning of project. In my case, he just forced me to provide authorship when I needed help on the revision stage. It is definitely unfair.
    In addition, even though more than 80% of papers were written by me in review paper, he asked me about co-first authorship of his wife, and the authorship order was to put her name first. The reason was that coin throwing; the back of the coin had her name, and he get the back of coin as a result of throwing the coin. The tossing of the coin didn’t happen in front of me, just by email. Not only that, even though the three persons worked equally hard, he eventually gave her the first authorship. And I took care of my colleague’s mouse due to maternity leave during almost 3 month and contributed to data generation in that project, but my authorship was nowhere because I was leaving the lab.
    He was a true racist. He had his own grade. Even if they were the same Asian, they were divided into Indians and other Asians, and often made racist comments. He was a hard-working scientist, but he was a man of impartiality and incompetence for raising people. Hope everyone who leaves Jan’s lab will find happiness and bright their career.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. The problem is that the universities do tolerate the sociopath professors who surround themselves with similarly sociopath people. This is the responsibility of the human resource directors. They fear from scandals, so they cover up the professors, until catastrophe escalates.

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  9. alfricabos

    Unfortunately, universities are governed by an oligarchy of sociopath professors.

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    • There are some very cynical points of view here about concerning Professors and PIs, but the reality is that Universities are run by bureaucrats, administrators and lawyers.

      Like

  10. Anonymous

    Almost ALL academic PIs are toxic.. is this new information? Graduate students/Post-docs don’t say anything because the universities are so invested in the PIs. We just try and bit our tongue, get the experience, and get out.

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  11. Quarantined bug

    The most concerning thing is that EVERYONE at Mayo knew about this for years and they did not do anything. There are other PIs (some still there, others left to other institutions) that keep the same toxic environment in the lab and the institution is perfectly OK with it. Mayo hears the students and employees, but they do not do anything about it. Glad that he got kicked out, still cannot believe they actually did something!

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  12. Anonymouse

    I was in the same boat during my first postdoc where I worked for a narcissistic racist. He too had something against Asians and said as much to my face. I am Indian by the way, and I know that he was alluding to Chinese, but regardless, this is unacceptable, especially coming from a faculty at a hospital whose public image depends on being all accepting and welcoming to all. He was super nice to me when I interviewed, and I guess coming straight out of graduate school it is good to hear when someone whom you look up to appreciates what you’ve done in the past. But things started going downhill pretty soon after I joined his lab. He would constantly belittle the postdocs in the lab, make them work as technicians, take credit whenever anything went right, and scolded and blame us when things did’t work. He was also never good at giving credit, he claimed that the success of his postdocs was because he would design all the experiments, and basically tell them what to do and they were just following his orders and such. The dumbest part, he would go around the department telling this to people and even other postdocs in the lab, as if we never talk to each other. He shafted me on several projects and gave undue credit to another postdoc in the lab who had contributed nothing to the experiments or the project. His reasoning, because they helped proofread the manuscript and also because one of us, the other 4 postdocs were native English speakers. When I was upset and talked to him about this unfairness and called his BS on the matter (politely of course), he basically told me to take a hike and that it was his lab and he could do anything he wanted. He also asked me to quit the project if I so disliked not being treated unfairly, and when I said that I wouldn’t till I finish the project, he told everyone that I threatened him that I will “get him” for this. No idea where that came from, I guess his ego was hurt when I questioned his bullying me and other members of the lab. This was pretty much the last straw for me. He was also really bad about not sharing data with collaborators whom he though would benefit from it more than he would, and that he would not get credit for it. Paranoid on top of a narcissistic, yep that was my boss, who to be honest was not that well known for his work, but certainly thought that he was just because he was hired at one of the top research hospitals in the country.

    Being an immigrant myself I can understand that we are afraid that if we don’t have a job, we have to go back to a country that we haven’t called a home for a long time and start all over again, and so it seems like the best idea to suck it up and “fake it till you make it”. But that is not the case. My advise, leave as soon as you start experiencing abuse at the hands of your boss and realize that they don’t care to take any corrective actions when you express your concern. A PI is supposed to be your mentor, someone who can champion for your success, but if they bully you, degrade you to a point that you start questioning your intelligence, break you to a point that every day at work feels like a prison, the work environment starts to effect your mental and physical health (all these things happened to me), and they only care to get papers out that will help make them “famous”, can you realistically expect this person to have your best interest in their mind when time comes. I almost quit science because of this horrible experience and I am sorry to hear that a lot many had to. However, I left his lab in under 2 years, mostly in pieces, picked myself up and found a new home with a very compassionate and understanding boss and I have been quite successful here despite being the same “stupid” person. So leave, leave, leave the toxic work environment behind… You have so much to offer, you already have a PhD so you don’t have to prove to people that you have it in you do contribute meaningfully to science. Most of all take care of yourself, I’ll be honest I went into depression and avoided my family like the plague for a bit, I started going down a slope that I just barely managed to pull myself back from. So surround yourself with good people, friends and mentors you trust, and most importantly believe in yourself. You’ve got it, don’t let anyone decide your self worth!
    Be safe and good luck to everyone out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mikko Hautanen

      “Paranoid on top of a narcissistic”

      Paranoia is part and parcel of narcissistic personality disorder. A pathological narcissist is macchiavellian, and projects that on other people. He’s basically assuming that other people think like he does, and are therefore scheming against him. This can lead to some truly weird controlling behavior, or even self-sabotaging behavior. For a full-blown personality disorder case, it’s always more important to win the power play than it is to get anything of substance done. Your supervisor not sharing data when it would be in his personal interest to do so is a case in point.

      Like

    • That is because non-native speakers come mainly from South Asian countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh and majority also from Asian countries like China, Korea, The Philippines. Culturally, these natives are very similar as they tend to be docile and obedient to higher ups and seniors. People from Asian countries are meek and so easy target of these narcissistic researchers. I personally had to drop out from two universities because of the racist/narcissistic PIs at those universities. However, I never gave up, and I was fortunate to find a nice PI (and indeed a mentor) on my third attempt with whom I completed my PhD.
      Another reason these researchers leech on foreign students is because of their visa status. It is very difficult to get the US visa for a student coming from a third world country and they often have to wait for at least a year to process the application. Once they are in the US, it becomes difficult to change the universities or PIs who would fund their study. I have been an international student for over 14 years now. I know it first-hand how these so called “great scientists” are who exploit foreign students. I think there is an urgent need for a government body that would investigate these types of people seriously and on a regular basis. Also, I think there is a need for websites that would allow graduate students/peers to evaluate (of course anonymously) so that new graduate students can have some idea who to avoid.

      Like

  13. Standfortruth

    This is not new at all. I was a Post-Doc at UCSD and I had the worse experience. I was discriminated and humiliated. His name is [edited, -LS]. He also took away all my data without giving me authorship that I deserve. Everyone knew about it including other faculty members. But no one cares to stand for truth. This is the reality of science and research. We have crappy and harmful faculty in research. I was so badly effected by this incident that I sometimes though of commiting suicide. But now I am out of it. What happened to me was unfair and wrong. I will never forget or forgive that faculty.

    Like

  14. Yet another one

    This kind of behavior is absolutely pervasive in academia, and I’ve witnessed or endured many of examples cited in these testimonies when I was a postdoc. Unfortunately the PIs acting this way are very rarely held accountable and, to the opposite, if they end up being considered “successful”, they are promoted, which weakens further the situation of their trainees.
    A major question is whether the current academic system encourages and selects, directly or indirectly, this kind of personalities.
    One thing is sure: I’ve never seen mentoring and relationship with trainees being considered a relevant factor in selecting, evaluating and promoting PIs in top institutions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “A major question is whether the current academic system encourages and selects, directly or indirectly, this kind of personalities.”

      My theory: the academic system selects people whose projects “worked” (gave them positive results in a narrative) mostly because of good luck. They proceed to a better job, and then make the “jerk-conceit” that they succeeded because they are smarter, better, and therefore, superior than those that did not get to their level. So when trainees work for these people the faculty member blames them for the project not working,rather than the idea may not be experimentally accessible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • that can be true, but brownnosing also helps in academic careers

        Like

  15. “Non-native English speakers were a particularly favorite target”
    Really, he is a non-native English speaker, no?

    Like

    • Robin Ricke

      Jan is 100% completely and total fluent in English.

      I could have clarified that he picked on ppl who lacked fluid English speaking fluency. The less fluent, the higher probability of bullying.

      Like

  16. Pingback: Pensioner Jan van Deursen and postdoc engage Hoecker Lawyers against me – For Better Science

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