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‘Paralysed by anxiety’: researchers speak about life in troubled ancient-DNA lab

Colleagues of Alan Cooper, who has been suspended as leader of the prestigious Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, describe a toxic work environment.

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Alan Cooper

The University of Adelaide has suspended evolutionary biologist Alan Cooper as head of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.Credit: David Solm

The University of Adelaide has suspended the leader and founder of its premier ancient-DNA centre, Alan Cooper, following an investigation into the ‘culture’ at the Australian centre. The university has not given a reason for its decision, but current and former co-workers of Cooper — an award-winning evolutionary biologist who specializes in human migration — have told Nature that he bullied them or that they watched him bully others.

Their accounts paint a picture of a lab that was exciting scientifically — but that also had a toxic work environment. A former student, Nic Rawlence, who says he was bullied, says he developed stress-induced health issues while at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD). Another, Dean Male, says he left the lab as a result of Cooper’s bullying. “I couldn't get out of there fast enough,” he says.

Altogether, Nature interviewed nine of Cooper’s current and former co-workers at ACAD. Four — including one current member of his team — say that he bullied them; four more, two of whom still work at the centre, say that they observed him bullying team members. Most of those people requested anonymity for fear of damaging their academic careers. Three of those who allege that Cooper bullied them gave evidence to the investigation, as did two of those who say they observed it.

Another former colleague, Paul Brotherton, told Nature that although Cooper is brash, he is not a bully. Cooper could be disdainful towards someone and their work if it wasn’t going to lead to a high-profile publication, he says. “Perhaps he’s not very good at disguising his impatience and his lack of interest.”

Some of the people Nature spoke to say they had complained before but that things did not change. Others say they did not make formal complaints for fear that Cooper would find out and the bullying would get worse.

Rawlence says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the university’s decision to suspend one of its most prominent scientists is a sign that the institute is taking the allegations against Cooper seriously. But others are sceptical that the university will take further meaningful action or that the situation will improve, citing the funding that Cooper brings in, and the fact that previous complaints seem to have had little effect. In 2016, Cooper was South Australian Scientist of the Year. He has also been awarded several highly competitive grants from the Australian Research Council — worth at least Aus$5 million (US$3.4 million) — since he established ACAD in 2005.

Several of the researchers say that the university should permanently remove Cooper as leader of ACAD, which has about 36 staff and students, according to its website. “He is just going to tear up lives as long as he’s in that role,” says one former student.

At the time of publication, Cooper had not responded to Nature’s request for comment on the allegations against him.

Cooper is a pioneer of ancient-DNA research, and his work to improve extraction techniques in the mid-1990s transformed the field. In 2001, he sequenced the first full mitochondrial genome from an extinct animal, two species of the New Zealand moa (Emeus crassus and Dinornis giganteus)1. He has also characterized dental plaque on ancient teeth to understand changes in early-human diet across Europe2. In the past five years, he has led a project to sequence the genomes of Indigenous Australian groups, which was awarded a prestigious Australian Museum Eureka Prize in 2017 and a South Australian Science Excellence Award in 2018.

Cooper’s suspension comes after the university engaged an external firm, SAE Consulting in Adelaide, to conduct a ‘culture check’ of ACAD in July. Cooper was not named as a focus of the probe, and the university did not say what prompted it, but on Monday, ACAD students and staff were notified of Cooper’s suspension. “Following on from the information provided, the University has decided to take further action,” a spokesperson from the university told Nature. Cooper will remain suspended pending “the outcome of further processes”, the statement read.

Nightmare lab

One of those who gave evidence to the investigation was Rawlence, who was a PhD student and postdoctoral researcher at ACAD from 2006 to 2013. He says Cooper would yell at him alone or in front of colleagues during lab meetings and criticize his work. “It was pretty much an everyday occurrence,” says Rawlence, who now leads a lab at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Photograph of Nic Rawlence

Nic Rawlence alleges that Alan Cooper bullied him at ACAD.Credit: Ken Miller

Rawlence says he developed stomach pains, weight loss and facial tics owing to the stress he experienced while at ACAD. Two of the people whom Nature spoke to have confirmed Rawlence’s account.

Male, who was a senior researcher at ACAD from 2006 to 2007 and did not give evidence to the investigation, says his experience of working in a world-class lab was marred by Cooper’s bullying. “It was fantastic science, really breath-taking, cutting-edge stuff,” he said. But he says he decided to leave because Cooper bullied him, included yelling, swearing and intimidation.

Cooper often targeted the most vulnerable people in the lab, according to Male, who still works in research but has left academia. “He was selective over who he’d pick on. They wouldn’t bite back too much,” he says.

Male recalls on several occasions hearing Cooper’s shouting from behind his closed office door, and was himself yelled at a number of times while seated in front of Cooper’s desk. “He'd kind of stalk and walk a bit, warming up and then the door would close and he’d be behind you and it was actually quite intimidating, and then the shouting and yelling would start,” he says.

Cooper’s criticisms of students’ work was unconstructive and tinged with personal insults, according to a former ACAD student who witnessed Cooper bullying other students. “It borders on cruel because it’s just so relentless and not everyone is subjected to it,” they say.

The current student who accuses Cooper of bullying them and who gave evidence to the investigation told Nature in an e-mail that being shamed in meetings was so frequent that they were surprised when they came out of one unscathed. “I was frequently paralysed by anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.”

Some students say Cooper took an unusually long time to read their papers and theses — sometimes several months — and was slow to sign off on paperwork that allowed students to graduate.

Rawlence says he had to lodge a formal complaint to the then-dean of graduate studies, Richard Russell, to get Cooper to read his PhD thesis so that he could complete his studies. Rawlence says Cooper then complied.

Rawlence recalls senior lab members told him they had confronted Cooper, and his behaviour improved for a few weeks. The university also sent Cooper on at least one supervision course, according to Rawlence. But the effects were short-lived, he says. “The results only lasted one or two weeks and then Alan would go back to being Alan.” The university declined to answer Nature’s questions about this.

Rawlence and one of the other former students who says they were bullied say they told their postgraduate coordinator about Cooper, and were told that the university was aware of his behaviour. They also say they complained to the university’s management. Cooper remained in his position and the university did not indicate to them whether any steps had been taken to address the grievances, they say. Rawlence and other former students also say they reported their grievances through confidential exit surveys at the completion of their studies.

Another former ACAD student, who says they were bullied by Cooper and also witnessed him bullying others, left without completing their studies owing to Cooper’s behaviour and inadequate supervision, they say. “I saw other students were finishing up their PhDs as nervous wrecks because of the way that he treated them and the way that the atmosphere in the lab had affected them. I thought, ‘I don’t need to do this to myself.’ So I left.”

But Brotherton, who worked as a postdoc with Cooper at the University of Oxford, UK, and later at ACAD for three years until December 2011, doesn’t think Cooper is a bully. In his opinion, many of the alleged incidents are about personality differences. “[Alan] won’t win empathetic boss of the year competition, but he’s not a savage bully,” he says. Brotherton, who no longer works in academia, concedes that Cooper can be “quite abrasive and in-your-face”, but describes Cooper’s behaviour, such as taking less interest in certain people and their projects, as being “sins of omission rather than commission”. Brotherton says that he offered to give an account of working at ACAD to the probe, but that the university told him that they did not need it because it was too old.

Airing grievances

Most of the people who Nature interviewed say that they were relieved when the university launched the culture check. But some have also questioned whether the scope of investigation was too narrow. Rawlence and several of the other former students say that initially, only current students at the centre were asked to participate.

Rawlence ended up participating only because colleagues currently at the centre alerted some former students to the probe, which prompted him and some others, he says, to contact the consultant leading the investigation, Sophie Rayner who represents SAE Consulting. But because the university didn’t initially approach former students, some of the students worry that the probe might have missed accounts from past members of the lab who did not know about investigation.

Others complain that they could not give anonymous accounts to the investigation. One former student, who witnessed Cooper’s bullying and heard about the investigation from a current member of ACAD, say they decided against giving their account after they say Rayner told them that the university did not want anonymous accounts. Another former student, who also witnessed Cooper’s bullying, withdrew their verbal account to Rayner because they feared their identity would be revealed to Cooper at some point.

Principal of SAE Consulting, Sallie Emmett, says the firm does not comment on matters relating to clients.

The university declined to comment when asked about the investigation and its previous handling of complaints against Cooper. “The University will not make further comment while additional processes are under way,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Male says that the University of Adelaide should publicly reprimand Cooper and “acknowledge the failings on their part in allowing this to go on for so long”.

Several former students are adamant that Cooper should stand down as ACAD director. “Alan has to go,” says one former student. “It’s an ethical imperative.”

Nature 572, 571-572 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02540-5

References

  1. 1.

    Cooper, A. et al. Nature 409, 704–707 (2001).

  2. 2.

    Adler, C. J. et al. Nature Genet. 45, 450–455 (2013).

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