Prominent Plant Geneticist Accused of Sexual Harassment
Prominent Plant Geneticist Accused of Sexual Harassment

Prominent Plant Geneticist Accused of Sexual Harassment

Female scientists in Mexico have filed at least four formal complaints alleging abuse by Jean-Philippe Vielle Calzada of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity.

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Amanda Heidt

Midway through her master’s degree in marine science, Amanda realized how few scientists felt comfortable speaking about their work. She challenged herself to share her research and ultimately went on...

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Oct 1, 2021

ABOVE: The National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Mexico
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A six-month investigation by Science has revealed the extent of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Jean-Philippe Vielle Calzada, an influential plant geneticist at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity (Langebio). In addition to four official harassment complaints, Science uncovered additional, unreported accounts by 10 more women. Even before the new reporting emerged, the episode had added to a growing reckoning in Mexico over the treatment of female scientists by their male colleagues, Nature reported in 2019.

While many chose to remain anonymous for fear of personal and professional reprisal, the women behind the complaints include colleagues and former students of Vielle Calzada’s, and the incidents are said to have occurred between 2013 and 2019. Broadly, the allegations center on patterns of behavior in which Vielle Calzada attempted to kiss and touch women without their consent, pressure them into romantic relationships, proposition them, and retaliate professionally against them after being rejected.

Angélica Cibrián Jaramillo, an evolutionary biologist at Langebio, filed one of the four complaints. When she joined the national lab’s faculty in 2012, she tells Science, Vielle Calzada offered to help her navigate the bureaucracy of starting a new lab. But shortly after, “it very rapidly turned into an interaction where all of [his] help had to go through a sexual connotation,” Cibrián Jaramillo says. He frequently invited her to hotels, tried to kiss her, and at a conference in Mexico City in 2016, placed her hand on an intimate part of his body. When she broke off contact—as much as was possible given that his lab housed equipment Cibrián Jaramillo needed for her research—she alleges he began blocking her access to certain samples. “That was his way of getting even,” she says.

See “Sexual Harassment Complaints in Academia Are Up Since 2018

At another conference in Mexico in 2016, Vielle Calzada allegedly approached María Ávila Arcos, a human population geneticist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Juriquilla. The two had never met, but he asked to speak with her privately about connections he had at her university, where Ávila Arcos had recently started her own lab. “After showing his level of power . . . he made romantic overtures to me. He said he was ‘in love’ with me,” Ávila Arcos wrote in her complaint. Years later, she told him directly that she did not want him to be part of a grant proposal related to his work because of their earlier experiences. Vielle Calzada began speaking about Ávila Arcos’s supposed manipulative behavior to colleagues, she wrote, and one researcher confirmed to Science that Vielle Calzada made such comments. In August 2020, he filed a lawsuit against Ávila Arcos over a series of tweets she had posted on International Women’s Day about her experiences with him. The lawsuit claimed that the tweets harmed his reputation. 

Those tweets prompted a number of women to privately approach Ávila Arcos with their own stories, she tells Science, including Cibrián Jaramillo and the other two complainants, who have chosen to remain anonymous: a former graduate student in Vielle Calzada’s lab said she endured sexual overtures from him after asking for letters of recommendation—letters which he provided, although he later retaliated by reaching out to her new advisor to disparage her after she shunned him—and a former research assistant said she moved to another city in part to escape Vielle Calzada. “I gave up a dream because I was mentally exhausted,” she wrote in her complaint. 

The other, previously undocumented incidents unearthed by Science involve two former lab members who say that Vielle Calzada pressured them to enter sexual or romantic relationships with him, and another eight women who describe a tense working environment in which Vielle Calzada intruded on their personal lives and sometimes retaliated for perceived slights. 

See “NIH Vows to Do Better in Countering Sexual Harassment

In a written statement to Science, Vielle Calzada categorically denies any harassment, saying that the claims are “false, unfounded, contrived, and spurious.” He noted that in his 20 years overseeing a lab, roughly half of his staff had been women. “Our track record . . . shows that we have established a working environment free of any form of violence against women or men.” 

At least 30 researchers who spent time in Vielle Calzada’s lab also submitted a letter to Science supporting him, but most refused to be named, and some acknowledged that while their experiences may not have been overtly negative, Vielle Calzada could sometimes create a stressful environment. Vianey Olmedo, a molecular biologist at the University of Guanajuato who previously spent six years in Vielle Calzada’s lab as a postdoc, tells Science, “I feel like a survivor. I learned. I take the good stuff. But I wouldn’t go back.”

Only one of the formal complaints has moved forward. In May of this year, Ávila Arcos tells Science she received a notice from the office overseeing the investigation into her claims that the group’s findings had been forwarded to administrators who could issue sanctions against Vielle Calzada. More recently, in September, Ávila Arcos was told that a hearing will be held where Vielle Calzada can defend himself. 

In a statement sent to Science, Vielle Calzada reiterated that while he continues to deny all of the accusations, “if any legally-conducted administrative investigation were to conclude that I’m responsible of having committed sexual harassment, I would accept the corresponding sanctions.”

See “Dealing with Unethical or Illegal Conduct in Higher Education