Back in January, Caltech professor Christian Ott was suspended from his post after his inappropriate relationships with two female graduate students was revealed.
Ott had confessed his love for one, Io Kleiser, to another, Sarah Gossan. Ott's feelings prompted him to drop Kleiser as an advisee, and his increasingly emotional conversations with Gossan impacted her work. Eventually, the two students filed a harassment complaint against Ott, and the university took action against him.
"As some of you know," Caltech wrote in a statement at the time, "recently two graduate students raised complaints of harassment by a faculty member." Caltech continued:
The faculty committee concluded, and the provost concurred, that there was unambiguous gender-based harassment of both graduate students by the faculty member. The faculty member was placed on unpaid leave for a full academic year, and he is restricted from coming on campus… communications between the faculty member and members of his group are being carefully monitored.
Kleiser transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where she will complete her degree. Gossan remained at Caltech, where she continued to study gravitational waves at Caltech's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.
If those names ring a bell, it's because LIGO made news for discovering evidence of gravitational waves (GW), a scientific first that helped support Einstein's theory of relativity. It was a big deal, and should have been a triumph for any graduate student.
But Gossan, instead of basking in her success, was still dealing with the fallout from Ott's harassment. On Wednesday, the scientist wrote on Twitter that she'll be leaving the group she co-chaired at LIGO, and plans to leave the supernova (SN) field altogether.
Gossan's story is a stark example of how harassment in science prevents women from remaining in the field—and how it harms scientific research at large.
Gossan writes that during the investigation into the sexual harassment complaints, Ott took retaliatory action against her:
…. an action she said prompted her colleagues to defend him by saying, "he didn't rape anyone."
Gossan says her concerns weren't taken seriously:
Her colleagues, she said, wanted to protect Ott's (and their) reputation:
Gossan says that things came to a head during a March LIGO Virgo Collaboration meeting:
Gossan was named co-chair, but it only exacerbated the situation:
Eventually, Gossan says she learned that Ott was still wielding influence over her colleagues:
And she reached a decision:
Gossan's is an important story, that shows how insidious harassment can be. Despite Caltech's (lauded) actions against Ott, his behavior forced a scientist out of her field. No wonder there are so few women in science.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.