UC has opportunity to strengthen anti-bullying protections

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When I began my postdoctoral position at UCSF in 2018, I was excited to be moving to the United States to further my research experience in molecular neuroscience and join a world-class institution. But only a few weeks after I joined, it was clear that my principal investigator, or PI, had created a toxic environment in the lab. My ability to focus on my research took a back seat to coping with systematic intimidation, chronic harassment and ongoing struggles to find institutional support.

PIs have extraordinary power to make or break a postdoc’s career. This leaves us extremely vulnerable to inappropriate conduct. A survey published by Nature found that 65% of postdocs have directly experienced bullying or a power imbalance, with higher rates for women, international researchers and those who identify as an ethnic minority. The prevalence of bullying in academia is why the UC system’s postdocs have prioritized winning enforceable anti-bullying policies through our union, United Auto Workers, or UAW, Local 5810, during contract negotiations.

UCSF claims to value creating a work environment where all employees can thrive, but this hasn’t always been the case in my experience. From the start of my postdoc — a training position meant to provide a productive learning environment — my PI’s feedback was disparaging and derogatory. After one presentation I gave on short notice, my PI sent numerous emails in the span of 24 hours, harshly criticizing my work and general knowledge. 

All of this took a serious toll. I was diagnosed with stress-induced general sickness and advised by my doctor to take two months off. I considered leaving science altogether, as another postdoc in the lab had done. But I was intent on doing anything I could to avoid abandoning all of my hard work and aspirations. 

I would later learn from one of the UC system’s own reports that between 2011 and 2018, 72% of postdocs had left this PI’s lab within two years of being hired. If not for my immigration status (an international scholar on a J-1 visa), I would have left the lab right away. But my visa and my ability to stay in the United States were tied to staying employed, which leaves many international scholars particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

After successfully leaving the lab — which took months for several reasons — I mustered the courage to report my PI’s behavior. I wasn’t sure where to start, but I found my way to the UCSF ombudsperson. They offered to set up a meeting, but sitting face-to-face with my harasser wasn’t going to solve the problem. The issue was not a simple disagreement or personality conflict — but a serious power imbalance. 

Unsurprisingly, my PI made it very difficult to contact postdocs and others who had left the lab, but I found ways. A few of us decided to speak out. At the time we chose to do so, there was no formal anti-bullying policy and no clear process to follow, but together, we filed a complaint with the Office of Faculty and Academic Affairs at UCSF. The complaint alleged abuse, mistreatment, harassment, retaliation and bullying. 

One reason that institutions may lack strong protections against bullying is that there is no clear-cut way to define what conduct “counts” as bullying or abuse. However, choosing to do little about the problem because it does not fit into a neat box is not the answer. Instead, institutions can choose to develop frameworks that analyze facts and clear processes for conducting investigations and protecting those who report — so people do report. According to one study, the reporting rate for bullying in academia is less than 2%.

In my case, although an investigation was conducted, I don’t know much about what happened because UCSF would not disclose status updates or even the final outcome. I do know the investigation took more than a year to complete and that the person we reported (my previous PI) was allegedly able to read my confidential testimony with my name attached. I had been scared to disclose my name because if I could not even get them to resolve my serious case of bullying, how could I trust them to protect me from retaliation?

My story, sadly, is not unique, but I wanted to tell it and to be heard. I hope it inspires others to come forward and tell their stories to help end bullying in academia, and I also hope that it inspires change at UCSF. 

Right now, postdocs are coming together through our union to urge the university to take effective steps to create an inclusive and safe workplace and end the bullying that drives many researchers out of academia. With negotiations underway, the time is now for the UC system to match its lofty rhetoric of a university where all can thrive with action — by joining with postdocs to stop bullying and harassment and secure effective, enforceable and binding protections in our next contract.

Martina De Majo completed her postdoctoral research in neurodegeneration at UCSF. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.