Shooting At University Of Alabama and The State of Affairs In Academic Research

February 13, 2010
Aditi Nadkarni

Last night news broke out about the shootings at the University of Albama at Huntsville. Dr. Amy Bishop, a Harvard trained neuroscientist was being reviewed for tenure. Screams were heard coming from the room. Bishop had allegedly shot three people named in several news reports as Dr. Gopi Podilla, the chair of the Biology department, Dr. Maria Ragland Davis and Dr. Adriel D. Johnson Sr. Media speculates that denial of tenure was the primary motive for Dr.Bishop's rampage. Tenure, for an academic professor to put it simply is a permanent job security status granted by the university and the department.

A few months ago there was the case of a Yale graduate student, Annie Le, who was found murdered by a member of the janitorial staff, Raymond Clark III, at her animal research facility. In that case, media had reported some information about how this janitor had certain standards of animal welfare and lab area maintenance that he had felt Annie Le was not adhering to.

These are sad and devastating scenarios. Those who have been through a lengthy academic process such as graduate school can recognize what a safe environment the university is viewed as. Up until the Annie Le case I did not think twice about working late nights or venturing into deserted research areas alone. Just a few days ago, I attended a seminar where the dismal statistics correlating tenure and careers in academia were discussed. What I gathered from the talk was that only about 10-15% of PhDs receive tenure in their academic careers and the average age for receiving their first major research funding from the NIH is about 43. These are extremely depressing numbers.

Frustrations are forever mounting in the academic research setting with no real outlet. It is a highly competitive environment encompassing researchers, students, administrative assistants and housekeeping staff all of whom have to work together at some point or another. One constantly hears of these primary investigators from hell who abuse their students and other employees. While workplace abuse is not limited to academia, it is slightly worse because students do not have as many rights as other corporate employees and cannot afford the legal route. I have heard many a story where students and research fellows were denied authorship for their work and could not do very much to get justice served. The Office of Research Integrity states that they might not mandate in situations involving authorship disputes . This leaves graduate students at the mercy of their university which when faced with a major ethics overhaul might choose the quickest fix that does not always result in a just and fair decision for the student. In certain smaller universities, I have observed these big fish, the dons of their fields, with an impressive publication record and a funding record that makes the higher-ups go weak in the knees. Students and fellows in the labs of such big fish seem to be at their mercy entirely. Immigrant researchers are left scrambling for research funding grants, a majority of which are reserved for citizens. They climb up the ladder, quietly enduring their own share of ill treatment by superiors and when they finally get to the top, some of them turn around and put their juniors through similar ordeals. Diversity is encouraged by the institute but does not always lead to assimilation of the different groups at the university. There are rampant tensions between people with advanced degrees and those who have years of experience but very little to show in terms of qualifications. It is not easy working with people who are constantly carrying a chip on their shoulder because they lack the right letters after their names. This goes the other way as well with MDs and PhDs talking down to their less qualified employees and colleagues.

The pool of PhDs at US universities includes a very high number of immigrants such as Indians and Chinese and from my own experiences and through anecdotes offered by others in my field I have come to observe that Americans who are not as qualified regard these accomplished outsiders with a sense of resentment which often boils over. I have witnessed department secretaries and technologists mocking the accents of international students and throwing insults in the faces of researchers arriving fresh of the boat, not yet familiar with the ways of this land. As a fresh graduate student, when I couldn't quite a figure out how to use a fax machine I was told to quit my PhD because I was such a "doorknob". There were wonderful, warm and helpful people too who I was fortunate enough to find. But most people are not this lucky. To add to all this, academic careers are not highly paid. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are the hardest working and have probably the lowest salaries and the least rights as employees. The lines of hierarchy in a laboratory setting are terribly blurry. None of it makes any sense. You have a highly qualified, sometimes inexperienced group working alongside this other group which consists of highly experienced, technically skilled people who usually do not hold advanced degrees. Each group thinks they are in control of the other, that they are the boss of the other, that they are better than the other. It is a bizarre scenario. So many of us have encountered a guy like Raymond Clark III, the man who is accused of killing Annie Le. We have all met that guy who wants to exercise control and his positions or credentials don't really allow him to and so he finds other ways to do it, to make your life difficult, to slow your work down.

When I first started my journey in academic science as a graduate student, one of the prompt pieces of advice I received was to be excruciatingly humble or even servile, if need be, with the technologists, secretaries and animal technicians. Or else, I was told, I would have to pay in a big way. As a naive young researcher, I used to think that the delays in finding cures for diseases are attributable to lack of funding alone and now years later I am of the opinion that people and their egos are the number one factor holding back science. I experienced the tension, the racial and cultural divides and of course the all important educational status divide. I constantly heard statements like "Your PhD is just letters behind your name. Means nothing." or "Immigrant PhDs are just cheap labor". If one complains you are told to put your head down and keep working. "Oh just deal with it professionally. This is nothing!" they tell you and launch into a narrative of another more horrific case of student/ employee abuse that they have heard about which makes your situation sound like a walk on the beach.

After a while, you learn to filter the noise and focus or you get eliminated from the rat race. Towards the end of graduate school, I finally realized that no matter how polite and humble I was, when faced with someone with an inherent insecurity, my own disposition would have very little impact on that person's behavior. I had to accept it and move on. Unless of course they decided to strangle me and stuff my body up a wall. Which based on news reports is probably what happened to Annie Le. Most universities or academic supervisors do very little to curb such problems and do not open their eyes to the brewing discontent in the academic environment. The primary strategy is to shove the mess under the carpet. The higher-ups in administration are very corporate in their dealings. Their primary concern is money. Graduate students are kicked out of laboratories after putting in years of work and the university hushes it up, preferring to side with the professors because they are the ones bringing in funding and grants. Postdoctoral research fellows most often being temporary employees are treated like dispensable cheap labor by the other permanent members of the academic work force in spite of the specialized skills and knowledge that they bring to the job.

In this gun-happy nation, it is frightful to imagine what would happen if someone with a twisted mind and a disregard for human life were to decide to get even. The drama in academic research begins on day 1 and simmers for the rest of your academic career, until you get the golden ticket of "tenure", the very one that Dr.Bishop was denied. Dr. Gopi Podilla, one of her victims, seems to be an immigrant, a man who as the department chair probably had a major say in decisions about tenure. It is a remarkable coincidence that all of the 3 people Bishop killed happened to be non-white.

Here's another interesting facet of this recent news story about the shootings that I noticed. The news media has not descended on it like they do for all other reports. Shootings and violence at universities usually receive quite a bit of attention on television in the US and so I was a bit surprised. Some news reports have even revealed that Bishop had killed before and it was ruled as an accidental shooting then. There are some online reports that discuss a possible cover-up in that case from 24 years ago where Bishop might have already been guilty. But in spite of such a story building about this case television media seems oddly disinterested. I have been watching CNN for a while and apart from a couple of quick mentions, I see no signs of this situation being discussed at all. While it is a little paranoid to assume that the race of the victims would be the sole reason for the media's neglect of this news story, it does give pause for thought.

Aditi Nadkarni is a cancer researcher, a film reviewer and a poet; her many occupations are an odd yet fun miscellany of creative pursuits. Visit her blog for more of her articles and artistic as well as photographic exploits.
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Shooting At University Of Alabama and The State of Affairs In Academic Research


Author: Aditi Nadkarni


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