The Unfinished Recap: Why I Didn’t Post About Jason Lieb’s Science

A year and a half ago, during the height of my brown-bag lunch crashing & recapping phase, I caught a talk by a young, charismatic Princeton researcher named Jason Lieb.

His talk was awesome. He made gene regulation, a topic that very few people can discuss for an hour without lapsing into what sounds like a bastardized dialect of a long extinct language, sound like a thrilling new spectator sport.

I was thrilled. So many bits and pieces that I had picked up over the course of sitting in on genetics lectures had suddenly fallen into context when I heard his talk. I knew right away that I wanted to recap his talk for the blog. I was busy that month, so I ended up writing my draft of the recap in bits and pieces over the course of a couple of weeks.

Then I finally got to the point where I was ready to add links.

I googled Jason Lieb.

Google’s auto-fill turned up the usual terms you’d expect: “Jason Lieb Princeton”, “Jason Lieb Molecular Biology”, and then…

“Jason Lieb resignation”

“Jason Lieb sexual harrassment”

I didn’t have any trouble believing that a young, kinda bro-y, Ivy League primary investigator would be capable of sexual harassment, but Lieb was one of the best molecular biology speakers I had ever seen. (And that remains true today).

Why him? Why couldn’t it be someone whose ideas were boring? Someone whose delivery was stilted? Someone who struggled to articulate biology concepts clearly?

Why did someone with so much potential to be an excellent molecular biologist and biology teacher have to be a sexual harasser?  

I know he had potential to be an excellent teacher, because I learned more from him about molecular biology in that one hour lecture- with zero interactions- than I knew I could.

Jason Lieb doesn’t know me, but he changed my understanding of gene regulation– for the better, according to other sources I’ve interviewed on the topic.

And yet, according to a New York Times story by Amy Harmon, he is a serial harasser.

(For the record, every science journalist I know says that Amy Harmon is a rigorous and honest investigative reporter. I believe them.)

After the Google autofill incident, I tried to do some research, to see if I could either find evidence confirming or denying evidence of sexual misconduct.

I know that even though my blog’s following is small, I still have a responsibility to try to feature scientists who are not only good researchers but also, at least, decent human beings. After all, one of the perqs of being a science journalist is we get a vote in who science’s “cool kids” are.

I didn’t want to cast my vote in support of someone who harasses students, but I didn’t want to k/o a blog post I was really excited about just because of an uncorroborated autofill suggestion.

Sexual harassment struck me as a plenty plausible reason for a resignation, but I wanted to be sure. After all, what if the Google autofill was reflecting a rumor, not a reality?

I tried to figure out what had happened. I found a Princeton faculty news letter that listed Lieb as resigning–so at least that much seemed to be true– but it didn’t list any details about why.

Several dozen google searches and Princeton newsletters later, I still couldn’t find any mention of why Lieb had resigned from Princeton.

At the time, I could neither confirm or deny whether the sexual harassment allegation was real. That left my coverage of his talk up a creek. I took the issue to the /r/LadiesofScience subreddit and got lots of great responses.
The most popular comment said I should post my blog but add a note that he had resigned from Princeton without any explanation and let the science show through.

Other comments thought that the evidence I had wasn’t enough to go on, since a false allegation of sexual harassment could be very bad for his career. (And mine, too. The Internet does not take kindly to women who share substantiated stories of sexual harassment, let alone speculated ones.)

And then there was my favorite response:

“There’s a good chance you have the opportunity sitting right in front of you to write something really effin’ powerful. Scary, no? Take it, whether that means you address this case on your blog, or address the issue of sexual harassment on your blog, or even that you pass your scoop on to someone with more time and resources to spend on it….Be careful, take your time, but please speak up somewhere, somehow. You already did here, you can’t stop now!”

But at the time, I didn’t have much in the way of resources or contacts who have written about sexual harassment on the internet. I was barely even a freelancer, a lowly fresh-out-of-undergrad blogger. I hadn’t even been to my first Science Writers conference or gotten into science writing grad school at that point.

I considered emailing the head of Princeton’s Cell and Molecular Biology Department, but then I thought, “What if they respond badly? What if they take his side? What if they write me off as a blogger who wants to stir up trouble?”

Asking questions that might limit my access to one of a major university department on my beat– even if the chance of a bad outcome was small– seemed like a no-go. Too risky.

So I sat on it…until now.

Without further ado, here is the unfinished recap I wrote about Jason Lieb’s science in 2014:

The Talk:

Nuclear Organization and the Recycling of Gene Regulatory Information

In Plain English:

The way DNA & its posse of protein attendants pack themselves into a tiny membrane isn’t just a biomechanical miracle; it actually determines quite a bit about how your cells form.

The Speaker:
Jason Lieb (was at Princeton University when this talk took place, has since moved to University of Chicago) [And as of 2016, he has resigned from U of Chicago as well.]

The Sponsor:
Harvard Molecular & Cell Biology

What it covered:

If you ask a bio major to draw what DNA looks like in the nucleus, they’ll probably draw you something like this:

A circle with a bunch of random squiggly lines in it.

(Either that or they’ll draw you two rows of stumpy chromosomes. However, DNA chromosomes only spend a small fraction of their time- namely the time immediately before cell division- completely coiled up.)

However, Jason Lieb and others in his field believe that, in real life, the way DNA is spread out in the nucleus is about as far from random as you could possibly get. Some sections of DNA are coiled up around histones; others are plastered up against the nuclear membrane; and still others stick out in exposed loops. Those are the easiest for the polymerases to access. However, which sections of DNA are open and ready to be transcribed varies widely between cell types and constantly in flux.

That variation is a good thing. It’s what makes life possible. But the downside is that scientists still don’t know very much about what’s going on in cell nuclei.

Jason Lieb’s lab focuses on chromatin, the network of  nucleus-dwelling DNA, RNA, histones (which are kind of like spools that DNA can wrap itself around), and the nuclear membrane. If DNA is the “blueprint for life”, then chromatin structure is like a highly specialized form of origami that the cell uses to get instructions on how to build itself to respond to different situations. It is as if you could get coherent instructions for building several thousand different buildings, simply by folding the blueprint into different shapes.

And the environmental cues that tell you what kind of building you need to survive the storm are what cause the blueprint to refold itself into instructions for that much needed storm-proof building.

(*Clarification:* Very few environmental chemicals act on the chromatin in the cell nucleus directly, but there are a lot of ways for the environmental chemicals to start chain reactions that move inward from the sensory receptors in the cell’s membrane through the cytoplasm, and into the nucleus.)
The way chromatin re-folds or “remodels” itself (‘remodel” is, in fact, the technical term that scientists use) is obviously very complex and has huge implications for our understanding of how our cells operate. Unfortunately, at this point, we really don’t know very much about how chromatin organizes itself.

So basically, Dr. Lieb studies the highly variable geography of our cell nuclei’s innards. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and Dr. Lieb brought up a lot of interesting ideas that I hadn’t heard of before. Here a few of the highlights:

Holes in the Envelope
Nuclear membrane is a phospholipid bilayer (meaning that it’s made out of the same greasy stuff that the cell’s outer membrane is made out of), and like the outer cell membrane it has lots of weird holes that certain chemicals can crawl through. On the inside, it’s covered with a network of stringy proteins (The proteins are called lamins; the network as a whole is called the nuclear lamina) that help the nuclear envelope keep its shape and provide a scaffolding that the histones and chromosomes can sit on.

The proteins in the lamina are long and stringy; you can almost think of them as being crosshatched or woven together like strands in a basket. There are small gaps

My Personal Take:

I think I picked up more cell biology by listening to this talk than I have in any other 1 hour interval in my entire life. And it wasn’t because of the informational content; it was because Lieb did such a good job of articulating why it’s so hard to explain exactly what’s going on inside a cell.

There are hundreds of techniques out there that allow cell biologists to isolate and identify RNA transcripts, proteins, and other biomolecules that are in the mix, and I’ve never seen even one that I’d call “easy to interpret”. When you layer the fact that cells are full of an uncountably large number of proteins that are constantly sliding around and refolding each other with the fact that almost all of our techniques for detecting them either pick up so many of them that the protein of interest disappears in the crowd or fail to reveal small quantities of protein.

Biggest Misconception to Avoid:

Best One-Liner:

On why we should care about which binding regions are stuck to the nuclear membrane and which aren’t: “One of the most important decisions that a cell can make is which TF-binding regions are open for transcription, because it literally determines who the cell is.”

A Several-Liner That’s Worth Repeating:

On difficulty in interpreting molecular biology data: “ChiP-CHiP and ChiP-seq have been tremendously powerful, and we use them in our lab all the time. But I think they’ve given us a very distorted view of what’s going on in the nucleus, and even though they give us really nice data, so it’s tempting to say, ‘That’s the answer’,  but…

…It’s like if you had no idea about the rules of the game of basketball, and all you had to go on was a picture that your friend took at a game. But when your friend took the picture, they held the shutter open for 10 minutes. (For those of you unfamiliar with shutter speeds, you would be basically seeing blurs) It would be really hard to guess the rules of the game from that.”

Best Audience Question:

Audience member: Microscopy identifies the proteins that we can see within a 10-20 milisecond interval. Competitve ChiPs can take hundreds of minutes, so is it possible that the different techniques are revealing very different populations of proteins?

Dr. Lieb: The general form of your question is correct. But the exposure time for competitive ChiP is 10 minutes. Now, that’s stil1 10 orders of magnitude difference between the proteins observed by microsopy and the ones observed by ChiP.

I think that we’re all measuring something. (audience laughs), and that something is biologically relevant, but it’s unclear whether you’re measuring a representative sample of proteins. With any lab technique.

One thing to keep in mind is that all transcription factors have a general affinity for DNA, even the DNA that doesn’t contain their target binding sequence. Measuring transcription factor residuals is hard because at any given time, they might have bound to different spots in the genome. Not necessarily their target site.

I think that a big problem, if you’re interested in problems that will go on for the next 10 years, is resolving the data from microscopy with the genomic data. They’re measuring the same stuff, but they don’t talk to each other that much.

Tl;dr: The arrangement of DNA and other chemicals inside the nucleus matters; it’s how our cells are able to regulate their genes.

[Closing Thoughts from 2016]

When I saw the New York Times piece about Lieb resigning this morning, I felt several things:

1) relief that I hadn’t been worried about an illusion

2) sadness that his promising career is unlikely to recover

3) kicking-myself-in-the-head for not being more of an investigative reporter about the whole thing, which might have led to the story breaking earlier, sparing people harassment (not to mention earning yours truly a byline and investigative street cred)

I also think that even though hiring Lieb despite the allegations against him was a grievous mistake on University of Chicago’s part, Lieb at least has enough self-awareness to resign. Which is more than I can say for many other high-profile harassers in science. (*cough* Christian Ott *cough*)

A lot of internet people are going to say that it’s not fair for a smart guy to have to resign, depriving the field of his ideas, BUT what those people don’t understand is that the role of lead investigator gives a person an inordinate amount of power over the students, post-docs, and lab techs in their lab. 

But the thought I want to end this post with is this:

For too long the victims of harassment– often women and minorities, but not always– have been afraid to come forward with stories about sexual harassment in science.

They’re afraid that if they bring up sexual harassment, people will judge them based on their role in the harassment case rather than their scientific work.

I want that to change.Instead of students and lab technicians living in fear of bullies who end up running labs, I want the powerful “rising star” scientists–often white and often male, but not always– to be the ones who worry about what a sexual harassment scandal will do their standing in the field.Jason Lieb has some good ideas, and I hope he finds a way to share them with the molbio community, but at this point, it’s fairly safe to say he shouldn’t be trusted to run a lab or teach students. But even before The New York Times story broke, the mere possibility of Lieb’s harassment history stopped me from sharing his ideas.
The campaign to end sexual harassment isn’t just about addressing the human harms (although we should never lose sight of those); it’s also about how harassment tears a rift in the fabric of empirical science– by stopping people from being able to engage in and exchange ideas.I hope my sharing this account of Lieb’s science helps people realize what sexual harassment is costing science…but I doubt it will.


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  2. Post
    Diana Crow

    Just got an email from Amy Harmon (Apparently, she was having trouble logging on to post a comment. If anyone else is having that problem, email me and I’ll see what I can do.)

    This is the text of the comment she was trying to post:

    Hi Diana,

    What an intense post. I was told by several of his former colleagues that Lieb was a “great scientist,” and it certainly does sound like he gave impressive talks.

    Given the premise of your post, though — “according to a New York Times story by Amy Harmon, [Lieb] is a serial harasser” — I think it’s important to clarify what I reported.

    1) An allegation of harassment was filed against Lieb when he was at UNC, but an investigation by the university did not find enough evidence to discipline him.

    2) Separately while at UNC, Lieb had an affair with a graduate student in his lab. This is considered sexual misconduct under UNC’s conduct code, but Lieb was not disciplined, possibly because the university did not know about it until he was leaving to go to Princeton – that is unclear.

    3) Lieb resigned from Princeton seven months after he arrived. Shortly after, an anonymous email was sent to molecular biologists around the country saying that he had faced “multiple” sexual misconduct allegations, and that both UNC and Princeton had launched investigations.

    4) Princeton administrators and faculty declined to explain why, after recruiting Lieb to a prestigious position and giving him millions of dollars to star his lab up there, they pushed him out the door. Lieb apparently told Chicago it was because he hadn’t mentioned the sexual misconduct allegation to Princeton before being hired. We have no way of knowing if that is true, or why Princeton would care if in fact it was only an allegation. Princeton says no sexual misconduct investigation was conducted while he was there.

    5) Chicago faculty and administrators knew of both the allegation and the grad student affair when they hired Lieb.

    6) Several students at the University of Chicago filed sexual harassment complaints against Lieb. Each of those complaints, as far as I know, related to his behavior during a single evening during a departmental retreat. More than one incident was involved, hence the investigator’s recommendation that he be fired based on “the severity and pervasiveness” of his conduct.
    Chicago allowed him to quit before taking any action.

    So did I report that Lieb was a “serial harasser,” as you summed it up?

    Well that depends on how you view this series of events. You could say he serially harassed women at Chicago during that one evening at the retreat. You could say he harassed his grad student at UNC by having a sexual relationship with her even if it was (according to Lieb) consensual and she didn’t file a complaint.

    You could suspect that the harassment allegation for which UNC investigators could not find a preponderance of evidence in fact did happen. You could wonder how thorough that investigation was, and whether it was influenced by the fact that Lieb brought in a ton of money and prestige to the department. You could also wonder if UNC turned a blind eye to the affair with his grad student until it was too late to do anything about it. But you wouldn’t know. You could suspect Lieb engaged in sexual misconduct at Princeton that did not turn into a Title IX investigation. You could suspect Princeton administrators found out something about Lieb’s conduct at UNC or elsewhere that made them decide they didn’t want Lieb teaching there. But you wouldn’t know. Neither would Chicago. According to Chicago officials, Princeton would tell them nothing other than that there was no misconduct investigation of Lieb while he was at Princeton.

    What was most troubling to me about this situation, and why I felt it deserved reporting beyond the troubling facts about that evening at Chicago, is that it highlights the culture of silence in academic science when it comes to sexual misconduct on the part of PIs toward their students. That culture, ostensibly based on protecting targets of harassment, serves to protect the reputation of universities and of harassers. And it is self-reinforcing: when administrators decline to discuss sexual misconduct investigations and their outcomes, when faculty who know who the serial harassers are in their midst but decline to discuss it, it discourages students who have been harassed from speaking out. That in turn makes it easier for administrators and fellow-faculty to do nothing about it.

    Did the person who sent anonymous emails to molecular biology departments warning them that Lieb was a sexual harasser have a legitimate complaint? Or was she a “disturbed person,” as he told colleagues and prospective employers? If she had a legitimate complaint, why did she not attach her name to the emails? Did she worry about being believed, and about hurting her career? Those are certainly reasons why many women don’t come forward. Two of the women I spoke at Chicago said they did not initially plan to tell anyone about his behavior even though they had been deeply upset by it. It was only when it became apparent that Lieb had targeted several women and upset many observers that they felt emboldened to report — and even then they did not want to have their names used in my story.

    But the truth is we don’t know if Lieb harassed the individual who made allegation at UNC because a) if something did happen, she did not want to go on record explaining it to the world b) there is no way to tell how thorough UNC’s investigation was since the university will not discuss the investigation.

    We don’t know whether anything more happened at Princeton, because no one from Princeton will say anything.

    We do know that UNC did not enforce its misconduct policy in regard to Lieb’s affair with his student — and per the unanimous vote to hire him at Chicago, many science faculty think it’s fine for a PI to have a sexual relationship with a grad student, even with the acknowledged risk that it will disrupt that student’s training and the training of others in the lab. As one of them told me, a sentiment echoed on Twitter “everyone knows marriages that started that way.”

    So is Lieb a “serial harasser,” by some widely-accepted definition? The point of my story really is that we don’t know. And honestly, in my opinion, that is even more fucked up than his conduct was on that one evening at the annual retreat of Chicago’s molecular biosciences division. Which is saying a lot.

    Link to Amy Harmon’s original story:

  3. Post
    Diana Crow

    Got another email from someone saying that they couldn’t post a comment. Checking into the wordpress plug-ins now:

    Dear Ms/Dr Crow
    I write this having been part of a team that investigated the social media firestorm of allegations of sexism leveled at Prof Tim Hunt, and, having looked at allegations of sexual harassment directed at Rajendra Pachauri the ex-IPCC chief.

    It is clear that UNC, Princeton and UofC want to remain tight-lipped and provide no evidence. The public is left wondering whether the swirling claims around Jason Lieb are true, if true to what extent, or, whether these institutions do not have much to provide because there is not much available.

    A student of Lieb’s lab, who was quoted directly in one of the few articles written on the matter, stated how Lieb was seen to make inappropriate jokes when under the influence.

    An organization known as the Phoenix Survivors Alliance has been protesting/agitating for several changes at UofC with regards to their handling of sexual assault cases under Title IX. They have a petition asking for dismissal of the student Title IX in charge and additional staff to be assigned to Sarah Wake the faculty Title IX person, among other things, including demands for increased funding for their own organization. The UofC has been under a cloud of sorts, with the Chicago Maroon having run an investigative series of 5 articles about its processes for handling sexual assault/harassment.

    To an outsider, these demands from the organization seem a bit irregular and out of place. A little too specific and targeted.

    A few questions are therefore in order:
    Do we know, for instance, that any PSA members were in touch with the students that wrote to complain about Lieb?
    Do we know if Sarah Wake, or any one from the university, interviewed Lieb to obtain his side of the story?

    Such questions are important because, I have realized, when it comes to matters of sexual harassment or sexism, we all have archetypal villain figure in mind and when we hear allegations we tend to fit them into a pattern regardless of whether it actually exists.

    So, you read Harmon’s article and concluded that he was a serial harasser, when as she points out above it is not at all clear whether this is true (it may well be, or not). I have seen other scientists conclude ‘rape’, ‘sexual predator’, ‘serial predator’, ‘sexual assault’ from the same NYT article even though it is carefully worded to avoid such conclusions.

    Just as the lack of direct evidence could mean inaction and coverups by institutions safeguarding their grants, it could mean much has been made of less harmful and mundane sexual mishaps, which a professor should certainly be not indulging in with students but yet is still something less than ‘rape’. The lack of open-ness especially once when matters are out in the open, simply harms everyone and spreads suspicions around.

    Secondly, you state you have no problem believing a ‘bro-y’ guy like Lieb having committed harassment. I find this to be an incredible statement. What does ‘bro-y’ mean? I think the pendulum has fully swung from when women were viewed as seductresses and not respected for their work, to where men are viewed as ‘bros’ and potential lurking sexual abusers.

    Sending this comment to you because it cannot be posted at the blog.


    Writer, Shub Niggurath Climate blog

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  5. Dr. C. James Ingles

    Serial sexual harasser he certainly was. It is known that another of his female student victims was from the University of Toronto, while attending a meeting at Cold Spring Harbor. Many in the lab knew but the victim, a coauthor of papers with Lieb, chose not to report it officially for all the usual reasons. Hope this is the last occasion he gets this opportunity to be a predator

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