Dozens of current and former students and postdoctoral fellows at Columbia University are urging administrators to specify why the school announced last week that it would close the lab of prominent neuroscientist Thomas Jessell and end his administrative positions.
Columbia has declined to offer any explanation for Jessell’s removal beyond a terse statement that said an investigation had “revealed serious violations of University policies and values governing the behavior of faculty members in an academic environment.” That statement, current and former students say in an online petition, has done “little to clarify what transgressions Jessell committed to be removed from his prestigious positions.”
The university’s refusal to answer further questions has led to speculation, including in the petition, that the violations involved personal behavior.
In interviews with STAT, four current or former members of Columbia’s neuroscience department and four prominent neuroscientists who have known Jessell, 66, for years say he has never been suspected of research misconduct such as data fabrication or plagiarism, but that he was said to have engaged in personal relationships some viewed as inappropriate. Jessell has not responded to emails and phone messages requesting comment.
According to Columbia’s statement, Jessell has been “out of the lab since the investigation began.” That was in early December, STAT has learned. Columbia also said the lab would be dissolved “in a manner that both preserves valuable research and helps those involved to continue to pursue their careers,” such as by finding the students and fellows positions in other labs.
An email last week from Columbia’s Richard Mann, a professor at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute (which focuses on the mind, brain, and behavior), which also housed Jessell’s lab, said the neuroscientist is still expected in the lab two days a week through May to advise his postdocs and students.
The email, a copy of which was shared with STAT, included what Mann described as “comments” from four of the Zuckerman Institute’s leading researchers, including neuroscientist Rui Costa and Eric Kandel, a Nobel laureate in medicine for his discoveries about the molecular basis of memory. “Although Tom’s lab will be winding down, Tom’s lab members and their research will continue to receive financial support for the next 15 months,” it said.
Other faculty members are expected to be in the lab when Jessell is there, said a university spokesperson. In the “limited and specified periods of time” that he is there, Jessell will work with colleagues to support students with their research and help them find new labs to join.
Jessell’s research focused on the neurobiology of the motor system, in particular how motor circuits arise within the spinal cord during prenatal development and how they control movements and other behaviors. He won several high-profile awards for his work, including the 2008 Kavli Prize in neuroscience, the 2014 Vilcek Prize in biomedical science, which honors the achievements of American immigrants (Jessell was born in London), and the 2016 Ralph W. Gerard Prize from the Society for Neuroscience.
He was also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, a prestigious position in which the private research organization provides a major portion of the funding for a lab and, usually, all of a scientist’s salary. In a statement, HHMI spokeswoman Meghan Rosen said that the organization “ended Dr. Jessell’s appointment as an investigator, after a determination that he violated HHMI policy.” He had been an HHMI investigator from 1985 to this year. Jessell also had three current grants from the National Institutes of Health.
In their petition, the current and former students urged Columbia to clarify what led to Jessell’s dismissal and to strengthen its policy on relationships between faculty and students and postdocs.
“We want for Columbia to start taking these things seriously and dealing with them publicly,” said Bianca Field, an alumna of Barnard College—Columbia’s sister school—and one of the organizers of the petition. Field said that by dismissing Jessell, Columbia appeared to be taking whatever allegations exist seriously, but that the school needs to be more transparent.
Columbia policies prohibit faculty members from having relationships with students “over whom he or she exercises academic or professional authority.” Last month, the school’s president, Lee Bollinger, told a campus newspaper that he wanted to ban all relationships between faculty and undergraduate students.
But the petition, addressed to Bollinger and Columbia’s board, called on them to enact more protections for graduate students and postdocs, who rely heavily on senior scientists to advance their careers. If they cannot get a recommendation from their mentors, for example, “that is a black mark on their record,” said Field, an M.D./Ph.D. student at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“Students and fellows require guidance and close working relationships with mentors and are not potential sexual opportunities,” the petition says. “Whether or not misconduct occurs, it is unacceptable for them to ever be treated as such.”
Jessell’s colleagues either did not respond to requests to discuss the events that led to his termination by HHMI and Columbia or said they could not discuss them beyond calling the situation “just sad,” as Kandel put it.