Since the news broke about the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against movie executive Harvey Weinstein, the issue has been everywhere. More high profile men in entertainment and other fields have been accused, mostly by women, and scrutiny has increased in the cases we already knew about, like Bill O’Reilly at Fox News. This week the U.S. House of Representatives launched an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against David Marchant, a prominent Antarctic geologist at Boston University. The probe follows a piece recently published in Science Magazine about a sexual harassment case against a prominent geologist. Kara Holsopple talked with Elizabeth Culotta, deputy news editor at Science, about the story. (Photo:  Eli Duke / flickr)

KARA HOLSOPPLE: The article details the case of two women who are bringing a sexual harassment case against a prominent geologist for actions that they say he took while they were doing field work with him in an Antarctica. Briefly, can you just say what they’re alleging?

ELIZABETH CULOTTA: They are alleging that while they were in small groups doing fieldwork in Antarctica, he sexually harassed them in a very disturbing way. He didn’t hit on them, at least that’s not what they’re alleging. They allege that he singled them out because they were women for other kinds of abuse: He physically shoved them; One woman, whenever she tried to go to the bathroom in the field, he threw rocks at her; He pushed her down slopes;  He swore at them; called them terrible names. So they say that he singled them out and harassed them severely. And I also want to say the backdrop for this is Antarctica. So you are really remote. The way it works is Antarctica is that there is one main research base called McMurdo Station. But then small field teams go off into very remote areas. So in the main complaint, the woman – her name is Jane Willenbring and she’s now at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California – she says that they were in the small field groups, and sometimes they would only have contact with the main base by radio. So it was herself, David Marchant, the professor she alleges did the harassing, David Marchant’s brother, who was along as a field assistant, and one other male graduate student, Adam Lewis. So she and three men. And she really had no recourse. They were alone in the field.

KH: It’s really shocking to read her account and it’s scary.

EC: When we received this account at first it was documents. I started reading them and my jaw dropped. I just couldn’t believe some of the things that these women were alleging. It is very shocking to read. The other things that struck me is it happened 20 years ago. And yet these women are bringing this now. We published this story the day after the Harvey Weinstein stories was published. And that’s just an accident.

Research expeditions in Antarctica often mean isolated small groups. PhotoL Eli Duke / flickr

KH: I wanted to ask you about that. It’s been two decades since the main complainant’s time in Antarctica and her co-complainant. Why are the women and witnesses moving forward with the case now?

EC: So the chief complainant, Jane Willenbring, says that she feared professional retribution from Professor David Marchant, and did not dare to make this complaint until after she was established as a scholar. So she received tenure from Scripps Institution of Oceanography last summer. Last October, she filed this complaint –  it’s what they call a Title 9 complaint  – with Boston University. She said she felt like if she had complained, he would have savaged her career. And the other complainant did not come forward until after this first one did. So there’s sort of this effect of once one person starts, then another person apparently feels emboldened to to come forward.  I want to mention one other aspect about this case that I think is really interesting. This happened 20 years ago, and yet these accounts are corroborated. In each case, there were other people at the field site who back up the accounts of the complainants. We felt like that made the accounts credible. In the case of the main complainant, the other graduate student there was Adam Lewis. And he confirms many of her accounts. But he says also that he has been troubled by this for the past two decades. And he said, “This is one of the only real regrets I have in my whole life. I had the chance to stand up for people and I didn’t.” So this is part of the reason why he’s speaking out now, because he’s been regretting, for the past 20 years, he says, that he didn’t do more at the time when these things were happening.

LISTEN: “Chilling Allegations of Sexual Harassment in Science”

KH: And what is Marchant saying?

EC: Meredith Wadman, a terrific and expert experienced journalist who wrote this story, contacted David Marchant repeatedly. And he really did not want to comment in any way. He said that the Boston University investigation is ongoing, that he is cooperating with that investigation, that he would not comment until the investigation was finished. We do have other documents in the case that suggest that he denies these allegations.

KH: We should say that your piece mentions other female colleagues and students have stood up for him saying, they’ve never witnessed this kind of behavior from him.

EC: Absolutely. So because we couldn’t get him to comment for us, we asked many of his former students. And we found a number of women who defended him. We felt like the final portrait of this man that comes out, it’s almost portraits of two different men. The women who are complaining allege terrible behavior in the field. Other women, more recently, say that he is kind and genuine, defend his conduct, and say that he has been a helpful mentor to them.

KH: As you mentioned, there’s sort of this phenomenon now – Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual assault and harassment. And a lot of women are coming out and telling their stories. Let’s zoom out a little bit. How common is this kind of a legal case within the scientific community?

EC: First let me clarify this is a certain kind of case. They’re not bringing a lawsuit against him. They are filing a Title 9 complaint which is basically complaining to the university. But as for how common this is, in science what we say is that if a senior professor sexually harasses a junior student, it’s not necessarily news because unfortunately it is fairly common. However, what is changing right now is that everybody speaking about it. Women are finally coming forward. They seem to be coming up in many fields of life, and science has it, too.

KH: The second complaint in the case against Marchant, Deborah Doe (not her real name), actually dropped out of academia. And your article mentions her allegations that Marchant said he’d block her access to research funding in the event that Doe earned a Ph.D. From your what you’ve seen and reported about, does sexual harassment routinely keep women from pursuing research science or advancing in that field?

EC: There are many papers written, and much ink spilled, over the question of why there aren’t more women scientists. From what I’ve read, people seem to feel that sexual harassment is certainly one of the factors that can keep women out of science. And in this particular case, Deborah Doe, left science. She said that David Marchant would block her access to research funding. And so she felt her career dreams had gone down the drain.

“In the field, you’re creating a whole new little society. The usual institutions that you can go to are just absent.”

KH: So how are these allegations against Marchant changing the conversation about sexual harassment? What kind of impact could this have?

EC: I think there are two impacts that this case could have. One is it illuminates something people in the sciences are talking about a lot, which is what can happen in the field. Fieldwork can be ripe for creating the conditions where abuse can flourish. That’s what a number of studies of harassment in science have shown. There was just one out last week that said that there are ways to prevent that in the field, but that you really have to be careful and that it starts at the top, with the field director. So I feel like this case is helping to spark the conversation about what can be done to make field experiences safe and productive for women as well as men.

KH: So in other words, a person in a position of power in the field, there aren’t any checks and balances in terms of the person’s power and how it might be abused?

EC: That’s right. In the field, the usual institutions that you can go to are just absent. And so you’re creating a whole new little society, and the person who is on the top can have more power in the field than he might have in any other place. And sexual harassment, I believe, is about power. And so whenever you have a place where that power imbalance is magnified, you have a condition that is ripe for a more dangerous situation. This isn’t to say this always happens. Fieldwork is super important for many scientists because that’s how you get the data, and a lot of people just love field work. And so to have field work be a time of crisis or fright is just a terrible thing for women. Another impact is now women are emboldened to speak out. And so despite the fact that these allegations refer to events that took place two decades ago, they feel that they can still make the case. And so that is unusual and interesting and may signal a new development in the kinds of sexual harassment cases we see.


UPDATE 12/2/2017: A Boston University geologist who faces termination after an investigation concluded that he sexually harassed a graduate student during fieldwork in Antarctica nearly twenty years ago, is appealing that finding, according to Science magazine. David Marchant’s appeal could take weeks, and postpones resolution of a case that has stirred up the campus and focused attention on harassment of women at remote field sites.

UPDATE 10/26/2017: The U.S. House of Representatives science committee opened a bipartisan investigation into the allegations against David Marchant.

With reporting from Julie Grant