Thursday, May 22, 2008

Adviser from hell

No student deserves the kind of ordeal Mary Dwyer went through; when certain problems were raised about a paper she and her adviser wrote, the latter accused her of having fabricated and falsified her research. The Chronicle blog provides a quick summary of this sordid affair:

In February, Homme W. Hellinga retracted articles that he had published in Science and the Journal of Molecular Biology claiming to use a computer program to design a highly active enzyme, one of biochemistry’s tough problems. Mary A. Dwyer, then a graduate student in Mr. Hellinga’s laboratory, had performed much of the work described in the two articles, but she told Nature that at the time of publication, “I felt like we weren’t quite there yet.”

Another scientist, John P. Richard, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, tried to repeat the work but could not, turning up what looked like problems with Mr. Hellinga’s experiments. After Mr. Richard contacted Mr. Hellinga, the Duke professor contacted Ms. Dwyer last fall, after she had moved to another department at Duke to do postdoctoral research.

She told Nature that Mr. Hellinga said, “I find it really hard to believe that you didn’t make this up.” She defended herself, showing him data from her laboratory notebooks. But Mr. Hellinga referred her to the dean’s office, which conducted an inquiry into potential research misconduct.

The full story is recounted in Nature by Erika Check Hayden; it's behind a subscription wall [Update: a free copy is available (pdf) at Hayden's website], but do read it if you can. Here's an excerpt:

All this time, Dwyer had heard nothing about Richard’s communication with Hellinga. After earning her doctorate in 2004, she had left Hellinga’s lab in 2005 to pursue postdoctoral research in a different department. So she was not seriously concerned when Hellinga e-mailed her on the Labor Day holiday on 3 September last year, asking her to meet with him later in the week to discuss issues about NovoTIM. But Dwyer’s new adviser, Donald McDonnell, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, advised her not to meet Hellinga alone; he felt she should go with someone who could advocate on her behalf. McDonnell arranged a meeting later that week at which he, Dwyer and Hellinga were joined by two other faculty members from the biochemistry department. And that’s when Hellinga dropped the bombshell. “He said, ‘I find it really hard to believe that you didn’t make this up’, and he kept saying that kind of statement over and over again,” Dwyer says. “It was horrible.”

Dwyer’s adviser defended her, and she proclaimed her innocence. “I said, ‘That’s ridiculous, no, I didn’t do that’,” she says. “What he was saying wasn’t true.”

A few weeks later, McDonnell, Hellinga, Dwyer and the head of the biochemistry department met again. Dwyer’s husband, who is also a scientist, was there. Dwyer showed Hellinga the data from her lab notebooks that, she thought, exonerated her. But, she recalls, “he didn’t want to look at any of that. It was just flat out my fault, and that was it.” Hellinga remembers it differently. “That’s not true,” he says. “Of course I looked at the data. I also had people in my lab repeat the experiments,” he says. [...]

A committee on research misconduct convened a formal inquiry hearing in December, at which Dwyer was asked to address the claims against her. On 4 February, she received a letter from Wesley Byerly, an associate dean in the medical school, clearing her of the allegation of falsifying and fabricating results.

This blog has quite a bit of info on l'affaire Hellinga; start with the latest post, and work backwards through links. In particular, note the contribution of pseudonymous commenters!

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Related stuff: Nature editorial, and a previous post on how blame gets assigned when a published paper is withdrawn.

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Thanks to Anand for the e-mail pointer to the Nature story.


  1. Anonymous said...


    Well, in India i wonder if anybody is so passionate about their research.

    PS:you have pasted a paragraph twice.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Nature story seems to be biased. Hellinga is portrayed as evil and Dwyer as innocent. Of course Hellinga cannot blame it all on Dwyer and he is certainly wrong in this. On the other hand one cannot, as in Nature editorial, take sides with Dwyer. At the minimum Dwyer had the choice of declining to be an author in the paper. At the maximum she could have changed the supervisor. Contrarily, she seems to have taken all advantages her Science paper had to offer and in the end regrets (when things went wrong after years!) she should have heeded the advice of her former colleagues. Anyway, those colleagues warned it was ‘difficult’ to work with Hellinga and it in no way meant a past history of foul practice. By the way, going to meet the former boss with other ‘advocates’ who presumably do not have any technical expertise on the paper seems strange and quite filmy. Did Dwyer expect some danger? Nature story should have focused on it.

  3. Abi said...

    Alex: Thanks for the alert about the cut-n-paste error. I have corrected the post.

    I wonder why you take Hellinga's nasty behavior as indicative of his passion for research. As I see it, it's unfair and unethical. The underlying personality trait I see is not passion, but arrogance.

    Passion for research has many behavioral components; intensity, focus, being engaged with one's students and other research groups, being on the look out for opportunities, etc.

    Arrogance and disregard for others' rights (and other such assholish behavior) -- which can easily be faked! -- should not be mistaken for passion for research. Instead, they deserve to be called out and punished. Or, at the least, ridiculed.

    Socrates: I disagree with you on the paper-publishing part. It appears to have been a good-faith effort, and the problems in the paper were not foreseen. If you are a student, and if your adviser says you have got enough for a publication (in Science, no less!), why would you argue with him/her?

    As for the other stuff -- about Dwyer getting all the benefits and none of its downsides -- who wouldn't do what Dwyer did, particularly when there was no misconduct in the original research?

  4. Anonymous said...

    I don’t see why you say, “the problems in the paper were not foreseen”. Nature story clearly states, “The paper did not mention the variability Dwyer had noticed. It included only her best data and claimed victory” and further goes on to say, “Dwyer says that she raised her concerns with Hellinga at the time”. That’s why it was reasonable for me to have expected Dwyer to have done (in the interest of Science) what I said in my previous comment. Of course, when it comes to personal interests, many (be it adviser or student) would be lured to the benefits of a paper in Science. But arguing from that angle is off the point, which would take one to the reward system science presents. Anyway, sticking to only the issue at hand, my point was: blame both Hellinga (to a greater extent) and Dwyer (to a lesser extent).

  5. Abi said...

    Socrates: To the extent that there was no intent to mislead (in other words, what they reported in Science was what they really found), the (shared) blame is about the authors' urge to published an incomplete (and it appears now, half-baked) study. But I would just attribute it to the lure of a Science publication, and leave it at that.

    The big blame that I am talking about here concerns what happened once the problems in the original study became apparent (or, outed by another group). It's absolutely unethical to take it all out on the student. I think the Nature story did a good job of bringing it out in the open.

  6. Anonymous said...


    I agree with your analysis. I am a graduate student in Duke's Biochemistry Dept. (home of Prof. Hellinga). In a perfect world, Mary Dwyer should have brought her concerns to university administrators before her papers were published. However, those who work here know that by virtue of his large grants, Hellinga is immune to ethical investigations and criticism. Any graduate student who crossed him could easily be replaced, as is demonstrated by the fact that only two of Hellinga's first twelve graduate students actually completed their doctorates. The appearance of faculty prestige is the priority of most research universities, while graduate students are clearly expendable.

    Ultimately, it is Hellinga's responsibility to carefully review the manuscripts he submits for publication. Given the high-profile nature of Mary's paper, I find it difficult to believe that Hellinga was unaware of the numerous flaws in his paper (especially since Mary communicated to him her deep misgivings regarding the validity of the paper's data). He must, to a greater extent than Dr. Dwyer, take responsibility for his laboratory's published science. The fact that his first (and only) response to his retractions was to baselessly accuse his student of fraud suggests that he is desperate to hide his own "admixture of dishonesty and incompetence." Truly an adviser from hell.

    Greetings from a scientific colleague in the US. I offer my best wishes for your research and career.

  7. Unknown said...

    Thanks for the post Abi! This is the first time I hear about this story. I think it is very hard for an adviser to determine whether errors in data were intentional - it is always possible that an unethical student fudged the numbers, in his/her eagerness to leave the lab (especially since the adviser in question doesn't seem particularly nice, accusing right away the student of misconduct when the case came to his attention). I would assume it's more likely that the student was sleep-deprived, desperate to leave her horrible adviser, and made a couple of big mistakes in that context. Thanks again for blogging about the case!

  8. Anonymous said...

    Thanks Abi. I see we've been saying same thing in different words: don't dump it ALL on the student AFTER everything was exposed. I was happy to see the issue raised in your blog brought an anonymous student from Duke providing more input. Well done Abi.

  9. Anonymous said...

    Well, I used to work in this lab. I worked on the designed protein, novoTIM and I, too, could not get it to work. I could produce tons of it, but it had no activity. No activity at all---and of course this was MY incompetence. But it would miraculously work when Dwyer was alone in the lab early in the morning, and the data would be laying on my desk.

    But Homme, yes, one of the most arrogant men I've ever met. Hubris, hubris, hubris.

  10. Anonymous said...

    Perhaps they sent the wrong construct...