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Alleged sexual misconduct and support system failures cause graduate student to drop her WU PhD degree

| Managing Scene Editor

A 3rd -year medical student came to WashU for two degrees. After a negative experience with a mentor, she’s now only pursuing one (Alan Zhou/Student Life).

After what happened, Lila — a third-year medical student who requested to remain anonymous — decided to not pursue a Ph.D. at Washington University anymore. When she came to WashU to complete a dual M.D./ Ph.D. program in 2020, she was excited about the journey ahead of her. 

In the end, however, her path through a high-caliber neuroscience lab culminated in a quiet HR report, a failed Title IX investigation attempt, and an unfinished degree. 

Lila came to WashU from the Salk Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked to gain more research experience before applying to a graduate program. Lila found WashU School of Medicine professor of pathology and immunology Dr. Johnathan Kipnis’s lab because she was interested in understanding how the immune system interacted with the brain. 

“For a very long time, I had been interested in the Kipnis Lab because they kind of combined my future interest in immunology with my current interest in neuroscience,” she said.  

When she was accepted to WashU, she reached out to Dr. Kipnis to do a rotation — a typical part of the Ph.D. program. 

Upon acceptance into the lab, Lila was thrilled. She was assigned a mentor, a post-doc in the lab, and he offered to pick her up from the airport and get lunch the day she flew to St. Louis. 

“I’ve been very close with my lab mates [prior]. So I was like, ‘Okay, this is just like a nice research mentor kind of thing,” Lila said. “I didn’t know anyone in St. Louis. I guess I was pretty vulnerable.” 

As Lila began to settle into her new position at the lab, she was eager to make friends. There was a weekly journal club on Friday evenings that always ended up as a social function. Lila said people would drink beers during the meeting and then go out to a bar or someone’s house to continue drinking afterwards. 

“I felt like [drinking] was pretty central to the lab,” she said. “And I was new and trying to make the impression that I could fit in.” 

After Lila’s second time at journal club, her postdoc mentor offered her a ride to his apartment, where he said the post-meeting festivities were to take place. When he came to pick her up, he told her that everyone else had canceled, and it was just going to be the two of them. The postdoc kept offering Lila drinks. At the end of the night, he made advances, trying to kiss her.

“I got really freaked out, because I did not see that coming. And it’s my mentor, which is very messed up,” Lila said. 

She rebuffed him and said she needed to leave. The postdoc offered to drive her, though Lila said that at the time, he was clearly intoxicated. Lila Ubered home. 

The postdoc, who has not been formally charged with anything, did not respond to multiple inquiries to different email addresses and texts asking for comments on the allegations of advances he made that night. When Lila came into the lab a couple days after, she said her mentor was really quiet and wasn’t communicating quickly about important lab updates like he had before. 

“I wasn’t sure if that was because he felt weird about it. Or because he was mad at me, but it was just very strange,” she said. “And that really stressed me out because I was like, this is the person that’s the main way I’m gonna get evaluated for my rotation.” 

At the time, Lila didn’t tell a higher-up — Dr. Kipnis or any professor or administrator at the medical school — about what had happened after the journal club. 

“I didn’t even think about it. Honestly. I think I was just shocked,” she said. 

At the next journal club, Lila hung out with everyone afterwards and got drinks. Her mentor offered to drop people at home, but he saved Lila’s apartment for last. Once they got there, he said they should go back to his place. There, she said he gave her more drinks and pressured Lila to have sex with him. This time, extremely intoxicated, Lila said she complied. 

“The next three days he gave me the silent treatment again. It was impossible to do work again,” she said. 

The postdoc told Lila that she could never tell their boss. 

“I didn’t know what to do because I was so freaked out that I would get kicked out of lab. Because at that point, my goal was still to be in the Kipnis Lab and become a grad student,” Lila said. “And I was scared that this would get back [to Dr. Kipnis] and I would be the one kicked out or fired.” 

It became a vicious cycle, Lila said. Her mentor would text her to come over. Often, she would. Then in the lab, he would either act normal, give her the silent treatment or become angry. 

“I was just walking on eggshells every day to make sure no one found out and to keep him from being angry.” 

Lila says the postdoc had authored papers and was well-respected in the lab. She didn’t report either the first advance or the continuing relationship, out of fear of backlash. 

“I’d always heard in STEM ‘if you’re a whistleblower, if you tell, that the woman always gets the short end of the stick.’ The one that gets labeled,” Lila said. 

“I didn’t want the label of my career to be a #MeToo thing. So I just kept quiet.” 

Dr. Robyn Klein, Director of the Center for Neuroimmunology & Neuroinfectious Diseases at the WashU Medical School, said that “academic medicine and science is rife with racism and sexism.” She said she had heard stories from women in academia that highlighted some of the worries Lila had about reporting abuse. 

“[The women] were blamed for things that were not their fault that were going wrong when they had a leadership position,” Klein said. “And they were fired. So I’ve seen stuff like that happen to women and not to men.” 

In October, a few weeks after her mentor first made advances, Lila began talking to the principal investigator of the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute, Dr. Kay Tye. Lila had a close relationship with Dr. Tye. 

“From pretty early on she was like ‘you should report.’ And by Christmas, she was like “I’ll talk to [Dr .Kipnis], this is unacceptable,” Lila said. 

Dr. Tye said that by Thanksgiving, it was clear that Lila was suffering. As the semester wore on, Dr. Tye continued to give advice, pressing Lila more and more. 

“It was obvious that it was super toxic, and she needed help,” Tye said. “And I said ‘report to [Dr. Kipnis], he is obligated to solve this problem.” 

But Lila, still terrified she would be kicked out of the lab, told Dr. Tye that she needed a little more time. Lila said that she still felt she was learning a lot from her time in the lab, and that the postdoc was a good teacher when he wasn’t ignoring her. 

“I was just terrified to lose that, because I felt like it was helping me in a science way even though it was really hurting me in an emotional and physical way,” she said. 

Lila’s friend, who was a second-year medical student at WashU at the time, confirmed that Lila seemed uncomfortable with her mentor by this point. She said Lila would tell her stories about him asking for sexual acts in-lab, and ‘becoming rough’ during their relationship. 

In May 2021, Lila, who was supposed to rotate in multiple labs, moved to a collaborator lab. Though she was still in contact with her mentor from Dr. Kipnis’s lab, she said it was a relief to be away for a little while. 

“I realized how happy I was to not be anywhere near there,” she said. 

A few months before, in February, Lila met her current partner, Jackson. In July, he supported her in going to the Health Equity Justice professors in the medical school and reaching out to WashU’s Title IX to ask about the steps involved in filing a report. Lila, who said she was still nervous about the repercussions of an investigation, told Title IX over email that she was going to tell her PI. 

In August of 2021, Lila held a Zoom meeting with Dr. Kipnis and Dr. Tye. She detailed what occurred between her and her mentor. 

In the script Lila had written out, which Dr. Tye said she read ‘word for word’ in the meeting, Lila wrote: 

‘Each time I was given the silent treatment, I couldn’t focus on school. Being in lab was so stressful. I couldn’t be productive anywhere in my life.’

She added that, ‘My lack of action continued because I didn’t want the silent treatment in-lab, or to have my hard work wasted, my authorship compromised, or risk him telling someone.’

During this meeting, Dr. Tye said that Dr. Kipnis said he would fire the mentor immediately. In a text to Lila later, said he would: ‘Squash him like an ant.’ 

According to the WashU’s Title IX and Gender Equity guidelines, Dr. Kipnis, as a faculty member at the University, is classified as a mandatory reporter. A mandatory reporter is required to “report all incidents of sexual harassment, sexual violence, sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking or other forms of misconduct” to a higher-up or the Title IX office. 

Cynthia Copeland, Assistant Director of Gender Equity and Title IX Compliance Office, confirmed the above statement in an email to Student Life. 

Joni Westerhouse, who works in Medical Public Affairs at Washington University School of Medicine, said that since Lila had already reached out to Title IX, Dr. Kipnis’s report would be redundant. Lila, however, says she never told Dr. Kipnis about her communication with the Title IX office. 

On August 31, in screenshotted text messages, Kipnis tells Lila “You don’t need an investigation now, even though you will probably win the case.” He then goes on to say that it would be “mentally unhealthy for you, and I think we need to avoid it.” 

Dr. Kipnis then asks her if she was fine with him ‘filing a complaint’ about her mentor, which Lila agrees to, though to her knowledge, no action was taken. Kipnis did not respond to multiple requests for comment about his handling of the situation and the alleged report, though eventually delegated to Westerhouse. 

In an email to Lila on August 24, Dr. Kipnis assured her that the postdoc, “will leave the lab as of immediately,” and that “I told him that I would not be providing a letter of recommendation [for future hiring purposes].” 

In her email back, Lila thanked Dr. Kipnis profusely, commending him “taking action so quickly and for handling it in a way that kept it as confidential as possible.”

In text messages between Lila and Dr. Kipnis later that summer, he tells Lila that the postdoc would stay on until December 31 in order to finish his experiment, coming in after-hours, but that his resignation letter would be in within the week. 

In an email sent in January 2022, Dr. Kipnis told Lila that though the post-doc was not employed by his lab but planned to stay in St. Louis with his girlfriend, who was employed by a different WashU lab. 

In January, Lila finally went to launch a Title IX investigation herself. Upon attempting, however, Lila was told that the postdoc had left the lab and was no longer a WashU employee, meaning that no investigation through WashU could take place. 

A letter from WashU’s Title IX office to Lila, dated January 31, 2022 reads:

“After reviewing the information in the complaint you submitted on January 8, 2022, I have determined that the individual about whom you made your sexual assault report is no longer affiliated with the University. Therefore, that portion of your complaint must be dismissed as a Title IX matter.” 

The letter goes on to say that inappropriate “culture and conditions” brought up — mostly the presence of alcohol, Lila says — are not a Title IX matter, and that those issues were being referred to HR. 

An HR investigation into lab culture was concluded in June 2022. The HR representative said in an email statement that “a thorough investigation and subsequent appropriate recommendations can take time to complete,” but that they “have shared recommendations with department and School of Medicine leadership to act on.” 

The recommendations themselves were not shared since they related to “personal information of other employees,” the HR email said. 

These days, Lila has put her Ph.D. on hold to focus on her medical degree. She doesn’t want to work in a WashU lab right now, since her memories are colored by her interactions with the postdoc. 

“I still love asking questions in science. I’m always driven by that. I’m just having a hard time imagining being back in a lab space at WashU right now. In another place, I could easily do a Ph.D.,” she said. 

Lila says she still respects Dr. Kipnis as a scientist. But she wishes he had better handled the situation that she brought to him. Lila also wishes she was better prepared herself for how to handle the situation. 

“[The postdoc’s actions were] clearly against Title IX and HR, [and] rules and regulations at WashU has, but no one made that clear to me,” she said. 

Most of all, Lila is upset that no action against the postdoc was taken, and that he’s able to move freely to other labs. “I know he’s gonna hurt someone else,” she said. 

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