Researcher Challenges Court-Ordered Separation from Grad Student

Accusations of falsified data, a forced mental evaluation, and a suspected "campaign of retaliation": court documents detail a bitter schism between a Harvard graduate student and his principal investigator.
By Joshua J. Florence and Mia C. Karr

UPDATED: January 23, 2017 at 8:49 p.m.

In late August 2016, Harvard stem cell researcher Lee L. Rubin received two orders from the Middlesex County Superior Court.

First, he must stay at least 100 feet away from his graduate student and dissertation advisee Gustavo German. And second, he must do so while simultaneously providing German with space and the necessary resources to conduct research in his lab.

The order, which Rubin has sought to stay, was the latest development in an academic relationship between Rubin and German marred by an involuntary psychiatric evaluation, court-ordered separation, and an ongoing legal battle.

Less than a year ago, the situation between German and Rubin was not so fraught. After accusations that Rubin had falsified data and conducted a“campaign of retaliation” against German, though, the two men find themselves working in the same lab but legally unable to be in the same room without a chaperone.

Harvard has not stood idly by as two of its affiliates battle in court. Concerned that Rubin cannot physically occupy and operate his lab without violating a court order, the University has challenged the legal ruling separating the two men.

After months of rules complicating the operations at one of Harvard’s research labs, the legal dispute, first reported by Retraction Watch and Science Magazine, continues.

'Campaign of Retaliation’

On June 3, Rubin spoke with a Harvard University Health Services clinician about his mentee, alleging that German seemed “paranoid” and “disheveled,” according to court documents. Hours later, at 1 a.m. on June 4, police escorted German to the hospital, where medical professionals gave him a mental health evaluation.

While Rubin says he was concerned for his student, who had stopped showing up to the lab, German alleges a different explanation for the researcher’s diagnosis of his behavior: revenge.

In court documents, German argues that the trouble began when he sent an email to University President Drew G. Faust in March 2016. In the email, German raised concerns about research misconduct, alleging that Rubin and two of his graduate students fabricated data. German alleges that Rubin ultimately learned of the email and suspected German was the author.

About a month before the forced mental examination in June, two graduate students in Rubin’s lab reported concerns about German’s behavior to M. William Lensch, the executive director of the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology.

Following the graduate students’ reported concerns, David Cardozo, a director of graduate studies at the Medical School, met with German and found him to be “completely reasonable," according to court documents.

But German stopped going to the lab on May 21, 2016 and cancelled a meeting with Cardozo and Rubin.

Two days after the involuntary mental examination, Cardozo told German he could not return to Rubin’s lab until all issues were “completely cleared up,” according to court documents.

The suspension prompted German to file a harassment complaint on June 8, 2016, and Superior Court Judge Elizabeth M. Fahey ruled in favor of German in a filing dated August 25, 2016. In the ruling, Fahey wrote that, based on the evidence, Rubin “willfully and maliciously engaged” in actions against German following German’s email to Faust. She argued that Rubin had directed the graduate students to approach Lensch with their concerns.

Fahey’s order included two stipulations: that Rubin stay 100 feet away from German and have no contact with him, and that German be “fully restored” to his position in the lab.

Shortly after the ruling, Rubin appealed the decision and filed a motion to “stay,” or halt, the order pending the appeal. The court denied the motion to stay on Oct. 14. It did, however, modify the order such that German and Rubin could be within 100 feet of each other, but could not have direct contact unless an approved chaperone was available.

Intensifying the legal battle, the court issued civil contempt proceedings against Rubin on Nov. 30 for “unnecessary delays in providing resources to German.” They also revised the order again, reinstating the stipulation that Rubin must stay 100 feet away from German.

German did not respond to request for comment for this article.

John F. Rooney III, a lawyer for Rubin, wrote in an email that “for more than three decades, Professor Rubin has been committed to developing lifesaving treatments and training the next generation of scientists.”

While Fahey has said in court that Rubin’s chances of a successful appeal are slim, he does have an important ally on his side—Harvard.

Harvard Intervenes

The University entered the legal battle supporting Rubin on Sept. 6, 2016. At a hearing on that date, counsel for the University presented Fahey with a memorandum claiming that the order placed an “unreasonable burden” on the students and fellows affiliated with the Rubin Lab. Furthermore, Harvard argued the order forced the Rubin Lab to ignore federal research stipulations.

The Rubin Lab, a stem-cell research laboratory at Harvard Medical School, is partially funded by federal research grants and private industry entities. As a condition of federal funding, regulations require the principal investigator—in this case, Rubin—be present in the laboratory for research. Harvard’s counsel argued that the court-ordered separation of 100 feet rendered Rubin unable to supervise research.

After the 100 foot restriction was revoked in an Oct. 14 revision of the court’s original order, Harvard began efforts to normalize operations at the Rubin Lab.

“We are helping facilitate Dr. Rubin’s compliance with the order, while ensuring that research programs in the lab continue unimpeded and that the studies of the student are fully supported,” University spokesperson David Cameron wrote in an email.

On Nov. 30, however, during a hearing at which Harvard was not allowed to participate, Fahey said she was frustrated with Harvard and Rubin’s inability to provide German with the necessary materials— including mice—to complete his Ph.D.

“Well, he doesn’t even have mice, and Harvard and Rubin have been aware of my order since August 25,” Fahey said at the hearing. “Three months later he doesn’t have the mice. Apparently, some mice were ordered two weeks ago. That’s too late.”

Fahey said that Harvard and Rubin had “not been compliant with the court order” despite her revision efforts to “accommodate as many people as [she] could.”

“I really don’t feel like I’ve been dealt with fairly. Not me,” Fahey said. “That the court is being disrespected is frankly how I feel.”

On Dec. 30, 2016, Rubin filed an appeal and moved to suspend the revised order and civil contempt proceedings. Harvard again defended Rubin on Jan. 13, 2017, filing briefs in support of Rubin and arguing that the court’s order would cause “irreparable harm” to students and researchers in the Rubin Lab.

“Harvard expects that its P.I.s will not merely operate their labs, but that they will take steps to promote the academic and career aspirations of their students and fellows,” the brief read. “Under the Order, these expectations cannot be met, damaging not only Harvard but also the dozens of individuals who are part of the Rubin Lab.”

German filed an opposition to both Rubin and Harvard’s filings, requesting that the Court “temporarily disbar” lawyers representing Harvard for this case due to their “lack of candor, dishonesty, and gross misrepresentation of material facts.”

While court proceedings will continue in the coming weeks, daily operations at the Rubin Lab remain complicated.

—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.

—Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.

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