HHMI discriminated against two Asian American women investigators, lawsuits allege
Howard Hughes Medical Institute — the noted nonprofit known for doling out generous investigator awards to researchers all around the US — is facing lawsuits by two Asian American biologists who allege they were unfairly denied renewal of grants because of their sex, age, national origin or disability.
Meredith Wadman of Science first reported the lawsuits, which according to legal experts and several other Asian American women who were discontinued as HHMI investigators reflect a pattern of prejudice at the organization. They also come amid a general increase in awareness about the obstacles women in life sciences face in their careers. Earlier this year, the Salk Institute in San Diego came under fire after in which female faculty members claim an “old boys’ club” of seniors restricted their access to funds, resources and networks.
But the lawsuit brought by Jeannie Lee — and the one to be filed by Vivian Cheung — might be the first high profile cases to address age, national origin and disability.
Lee, an epigeneticist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, sued in August 2016, two months after the HHMI refused to renew her for a fourth five-year term. In addition to disputing the renewal, she asserted in the lawsuit that the HHMI underpaid her compared to male colleagues at Mass General, where her lab is based, despite recommendations from the hospital. The 55-year-old is a naturalized US citizen of Taiwanese origin.
The inequality that Lee was subjected to, according to the complaint, was obvious if you compare the treatment she received to another, white male investigator: Nobel laureate and former HHMI president Thomas Cech.
A scientific disagreement between Lee and Cech emerged in 2013, during Lee’s 2011-2016 term as an HHMI investigator, centered around the role of a type of protein dubbed polycomb repressive complex 2, or PRC2. Back in 2008, Lee’s lab proposed that PRC2 binds to RNA in a specific manner. But in 2013, Cech disputed that well-accepted “specificity” model, claiming in a paper that he’s found evidence that PRC2 binding is “promiscuous” without well-defined motifs.
During his own HHMI renewal review on September 13, 2016 — hours before Lee’s — Cech, 72, cited that paper as one of his top achievements in the past five years as it had “completely changed the direction of an entire field.”
Except that it didn’t, Lee’s complaint stated.
In fact, Dr. Cech had submitted a manuscript in August 2016, before his HHMI review, to the journal Molecular Cell, in which he directly contradicted his statements to HHMI that Dr. Lee’s model was wrong. […] Upon information and belief, Dr. Cech dismissed Dr. Lee’s Specificity Model in the submission and PowerPoint he prepared for his September 2016 HHMI review, despite knowing that results from his lab had confirmed the Specificity Model, and despite having submitted an article to a scholarly journal reporting those findings, in order to enhance his own scientific reputation and achievements at the expense of Dr. Lee.
HHMI renewed Cech’s investigator award but terminated Lee’s, giving her until September 2018 to find an alternative source of funding.
In their evaluation, the institute faulted Lee for “view[ing] some topics dogmatically even when presented with new or conflicting data” and failing to “deeply consider conflicting data from other labs.”
From the complaint:
In effect, HHMI applied a different standard to Dr. Cech than to Dr. Lee, choosing to credit, reward and renew a white man, and to discredit, criticize and not renew an Asian woman, where both had strongly held scientific views on a common subject, which, in Dr. Lee’s case, had been confirmed by multiple other labs (including, as it turns out, Dr. Cech’s lab).
To further understand Lee’s shock, one needn’t go further than HHMI’s own words from 2011, her last renewal. Writing in a cover letter for her evaluation, then-CSO Jack Dixon noted: “Dr. Lee remains the single most influential leader in the field of X-inactivation and one of half dozen or so in the broader field of mammalian epigenetics.”
After initially filing her case with the Suffolk Superior Court, Lee has now taken it to the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, where the two sides are still debating HHMI’s motion to dismiss parts of Lee’s claim.
For Cheung, a 52-year-old RNA biologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, there was no person to compare to. Rather, she claimed that her relationship with HHMI (beginning in 2008) turned sour when she informed them that she was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder causing progressive vision loss. HHMI responded by turning down her requests for accommodations and threatened to terminate her contract.
HHMI officials then pressured her to accept a 5-year phaseout award, she told Science. She refused, and in 2018 she too was denied a renewal.
After receiving a notice from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission giving her the right to sue for discrimination based on sex, age and disability this month, Cheung plans to press her case in court soon.
HHMI President Erin O’Shea, who was promoted to the top in September 2016, wrote to Science that they are “fully confident in the integrity of our review process.”
“We respect Drs. Lee and Cheung and value their contributions during their tenures as HHMI Investigators,” she added. “While we cannot provide details of personnel matters, particularly in cases of litigation, we have investigated these claims and believe they have no merit.”