The Peculiar Case of a Postdoc Sabotaging His Colleague's Cell Cultures

By Andrew Moseman | September 29, 2010 5:19 pm

SecurityCameraNobody wants to win more than lab rats—grad students and postdocs thanklessly toiling away at experiments into the night, trying to make a name for themselves. And when a lot of people want something badly, some of them cheat.

A spectacularly gratuitous case came out in Nature this week: that of former University of Michigan postdoc Vipul Bhrigu. After being caught on hidden camera using ethanol to poison the cell cultures of grad student Heather Ames, Bhrigu was sentenced for malicious destruction of personal property. Most people take that particular misdemeanor rap for vandalizing a car. Bhrigu vandalized months of research.

Bhrigu has said on multiple occasions that he was compelled by “internal pressure” and had hoped to slow down Ames’s work. Speaking earlier this month, he was contrite. “It was a complete lack of moral judgement on my part,” he said. [Nature]

Brendan Maher at Nature goes into great detail about the case: Ames’ first suspicions that she was sabotaged, the whispers that perhaps she was just making excuses for the experiments going poorly, and the lab finally installing cameras that captured Bhrigu in the act. He confessed when confronted.

While Ames’ annoyed diligence helped to catch her saboteur, there may be many more cases that go undetected.

Science is performed by people, and nasty bastards turn up everywhere. Indeed, if you get any senior scientist talking, they will relate stories of being sabotaged, though not in such an obviously criminal way. [Ars Technica]

And, of course, derailing someone’s career in science need not require such made-for-TV subterfuge.

Vindictive peer review, dishonest reference letters and withholding key aspects of protocols from colleagues or competitors can do just as much to derail a career or a research project as vandalizing experiments. These are just a few of the questionable practices that seem quite widespread in science, but are not technically considered misconduct. [Nature]

Related Content:
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80beats: Nuclear Fusion Researcher Found Guilty of Scientific Misconduct

Image: iStockphoto

  • Rhacodactylus

    The guy should be stripped of his degrees and not allowed to work in or near a lab ever again. He’s tainted his credibility for good.


  • jd

    I hope he enjoys roofing.

    On a side note, I know a Prof who, when searching for a second postdoc position, interviewed at a lab that took all his information from his interview and managed to publish it before he did, replicating his experiments. It cost him almost 4 years of work and a nature paper….

  • Georg

    In my days as a PhD student (70ties) there were tales about
    a Prof (org. chemistry) in Cologne, who regularly let two students
    work on the same theme at the same time.
    Result was a climate of envy and distrust, closed desks and labs,
    no open discussions.

  • Tomek

    I would blame the Profs….maybe not in this case, but some…Seriously, they are often messed up in pitting grad students against each other to “encourage competition” that seriously hurts a student if they’re on the losing side (they lose almost all the research they’ve done until that point).

    Professors will put two grad students on the same project, but have them working interdependently.

  • bill

    [This comment has been deleted.]

  • jemand

    bill, your gratuitious racism is really unnecessary


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