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Head of prestigious ancient-DNA lab suspended amid bullying allegations

Alan Cooper, who leads of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, has been stood down pending an investigation.

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The head of the University of Adelaide's ancient DNA lab, Alan Cooper, has been suspended.Credit: Julien Viry/Getty

The leader of Australia’s premier ancient-DNA lab, Alan Cooper, has been suspended following a probe into the ‘culture’ of the centre and amid allegations of bullying from his co-workers. Cooper is renowned for using ancient DNA to reconstruct how humans populated the planet.

On Monday, the University of Adelaide notified students and staff at its prestigious Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) that Cooper has been suspended pending “the outcome of further processes”.

Cooper’s suspension comes after the university engaged an external firm to conduct a “culture check” of ACAD in July. “Following on from the information provided, the University has decided to take further action,” a spokesperson from the university told Nature.

Although the university did not name Cooper as a focus of the probe, and did not say what prompted the probe, allegations that he had bullied students had surfaced on social media and blogs a month earlier.

Several people who have worked for Cooper — some of whom gave evidence to the investigation and include current members of his research group — have told Nature that he bullied them; several more say that they observed him bullying members of his team.

Cooper has declined to comment on his suspension and on the bullying accusations at the current time.

Nic Rawlence, a former student of Cooper's at ACAD, made a submission to the probe about being bullied by Cooper. Rawlence, now the director of the Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, was one of the few who spoke to Nature and agreed to be named. He sees Cooper’s suspension as evidence that the university is taking the allegations and the evidence from the probe seriously. “I still think permanent change for the better is needed,” he says.

Cooper started up ACAD in 2005, after coming to prominence for pioneering ancient-DNA extraction techniques and championing authentication processes in a field in which contamination of ancient samples with modern DNA was rife.

The spokesperson from the University of Adelaide confirmed that Cooper had been suspended but said the university would not be commenting further.

Nature 572, 424-425 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02490-y

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