Monday, October 24, 2016

How to apologize--or not--if you are a department chair caught on video making extremely sexist remarks

Earlier today The Verge published my investigation into a trail of sexual misconduct that led from Texas Tech University to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. I tell the story of "Angie," a young researcher who struggled for several years to get help and justice after a sexual assault at the Smithsonian. The article relates the possible origins of the attitudes of her attacker in the sexist environment of the biology department of his former university, Texas Tech. The story includes a video of the chair of the biology department at Texas Tech making extremely sexist remarks at a retirement party last year, complete with Powerpoint. He is now the former chair, at least on an interim basis, pending an investigation by the university.

When the story came out, a source within the department sent me the following letter of apology that the former chair, Ronald Chesser, sent to faculty some days after he was forced to step down. I had not been made aware of it earlier. I will leave it to readers to judge whether it is an adequate explanation of what happened and a sincere apology, given the extreme nature of the remarks recorded on video. Further updates will be published in The Verge or on this blog.

 11 October 2016 

Dear Friends and Colleagues, 

In June, 2015, prior to becoming Chair of the Biological Sciences Department, I was asked to give a “roast” of Dr. Robert J. Baker in commemoration of his retirement. In the course of my roast I gave some exaggerations, and embellishments (all untrue) of Dr. Baker that some may have considered distasteful or derogatory to women. Although all who know me will realize that this was neither my intent nor reflective of my true feelings, I am deeply sorry for any disrespect my statements may have implied. Jokes are almost always absurdities; otherwise they would not be funny at all. Nevertheless, some have recently voiced concern. I take full responsibility for my misguided jokes and understand that interpretation supersedes intent. Please accept my sincere apologies for any perceived insensitivities on my part. You can rest assured that I will never again accept a similar request.

The faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences know that I have vigorously pursued any and all complaints or concerns regarding Title IX and EEO matters. The safety of our students and faculty and the integrity of the department have always been paramount priorities for me. I do not wish my statements to imply otherwise. 

Furthermore, I do not want my absurdities to overshadow or taint the incredible accomplishments of Dr. Robert Baker. I worked with Robert for 35 years at Texas Tech, Chernobyl, Mexico, and several US locales. He was protective of all of his graduate students, including the females working under his mentorship. I never knew him to treat his students with anything but complete respect while demanding their adherence to the highest academic standards. In the time I have worked with Dr. Baker I am not aware of any complaint or grievance issued against him. Dr. Baker has told me that he enjoyed my roasting of him and had no issues whatsoever. Still, I regret roasting him and for my participation in the ceremony. 

With profound apologies and respect, 

Ron Chesser

Afterword: Readers will note that Dr. Chesser states he has "vigorously pursued any and all complaints or concerns regarding Title IX and EEO matters." However, according to a message I received from Texas Tech communications chief Chris Cook just a couple of days ago, in response to my records request for all sexual misconduct complaints in the Biological Sciences department during the past 20 years:

"Our EEO office has checked retained files back to 1997 and did not find any complaints involving the Department of Biological Sciences or Dr. Baker."

Of course, this does not mean that sexual misconduct did not take place. Given the results of my reporting, it more likely reflects the fear that alleged victims felt in coming forward. As one student in the department put it to me, quoted in my article: "Chesser perfectly sums up Baker."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Separating fact from fiction about David Bowie

Since David Bowie's death last January, a cottage industry of new biographies has quickly cropped up, some more accurate than others. One of the newest is by Lesley-Ann Jones, a British author who has written about numerous celebs. About a week ago the Mail on Sunday ran an excerpt from the book about Bowie's childhood, complete with sensationalist headline suggesting that Bowie had killed himself in an assisted suicide. Other claims were made about Bowie's childhood, including that he had become infected with syphilis and that his mother was a prostitute.

As I pointed out when Bowie died, there is no better expert on his childhood than my friend Kristina Amadeus, Bowie's cousin. Kristina submitted a letter to the editor attempting to correct the record, which was published today although buried as usual. Below I have pasted the published letter, and following it, the full text of the original letter that Kristina submitted.

Bowie was a legend, and it is no surprise that myths and legends have sprung up around his memory. But while there are still witnesses alive to testify to actual facts, it is still possible to correct the record. Rock historians, take heed.

Bowie book claims hurtful and wrong

The speculation in Lesley-Ann Jones’s book that David Bowie’s eye condition might have been caused by congenital syphilis passed on by his mother, who might have been a prostitute, is completely outrageous.

I am David’s cousin and together we found the letter in question in 1957. I was 15 and David was almost 11. About a week before Christmas, we were looking for hidden presents because nothing was under the tree and we found a tin box in his mother Peggy’s underwear drawer.

The tin contained some curls of blonde hair tied with ribbon, and recent letters from the father of her first son.

Another letter had been written to Peggy by her mother Margaret – our grandmother – in 1943-44, following Peggy’s announcement that she had given up her second child, Myra Ann, for adoption.

Shocked to discover a hitherto unmentioned cousin – David’s halfsister – I read the letter out loud to David, who cried because he was afraid he’d be sent away too if he was bad.

Nanny accused Peggy of behaving like a common prostitute (she did not say that she was a prostitute) by becoming pregnant with yet another man. ‘You’re not worth the parings from under my fingernails’ was a phrase that stuck in my mind.

In the 1990s, Peggy lived with me in Cornwall until she needed residential care. I had full access to all her papers and medical records – there was no mention of syphilis or any STD. She enjoyed exceptionally good health during her life.

Kristina Amadeus, Romney Marsh, Kent

Now here is the full letter that Kristina wrote to the editor, before it was edited down:

Dear Editor:

Lesley Ann Jones’ feature (Sunday 18 September 2016) excerpted from her up-coming book Hero: David Bowie is filled with assumptions based on hearsay about letters supposedly found by David Bowie in his teen years when friends with George Underwood.  In fact, David and I found the letter in question in 1957. I was then fifteen and David almost 11.  About a week before Christmas we were digging through drawers looking for hidden presents because nothing was showing under the tree, when we found a small tin box hidden in her underwear drawer, along with some curls of blonde hair tied with ribbon, and some letters from his mother’s past lover Jack ‘Wolf Rosenberg’ who’d abandoned her when she was pregnant with his son, Terry. 

The letter had been written to Peggy, David’s mum, in 1943/44 by her motherMargaret Burns (aka Nanny) our maternal grandmother, following Peggy’s shock announcement that she’d just given up her second child, Myra Ann, for adoption.  I was so shocked to discover that I had another cousin that no one had ever mentioned before, that I read the letter out loud to David who cried because he was afraid he’d be given away too if he was bad.  Nanny (as she signed it) accused Peggy of behaving like a common prostitute by having yet another pregnancy with yet another man (her first child being Terence Guy Adair Burns 5 Nov 1937) and once again not taking responsibility.  She said Jim, that Peggy’s father, was ‘brought down’ that Myra Ann was given away without any warning.  The only sentencefrom that letter of which I have clear memory was: “you’re no better than a common prostitute, you’re like a cat in heat, and not worth the parings from under my fingernails.” 

In the nineties, Auntie Peg lived with me in Cornwall until she needed residential nursing care, During this time I had full access to all of her personal papers and medical records which went back to her teens, and there was no mention of syphilis, or any other STD.  She enjoyed exceptionally good health over her lifetime until shortly before her death in 2001 at the age of 87.

For Ms Jones to assume that the injury to David’s eye was because, in her jaundiced opinion, he must have been born with congenital syphilis because of this apocryphal prostitution is ludicrous, especially when Moorfield Hospital records can confirm the diagnosis of paralysis caused by bleeding behind the cornea and lens from the injury caused by George Underwood’s well-aimed blow. And for her to solicit such ill-informed medical opinions from Cosmo Hallstrom, psychiatrist and another unnamed ophthalmic specialist without either of them having viewed the medical diagnosis is irresponsible in the extreme.

I’m sure George and other friends, in addition to contemporaneous photographs, will confirm that David’s eye was perfectly normal until that incident.  David told me that this is how it happened and he would have had no need to lie to me.  Also, David never evidenced any of the other signs of congenital syphilis during his childhood, or later, and if severe enough in Ms Jones’ two experts’ opinions to cause such an eye dysfunction, surely there would have been other neuropathic indicators?

To publish this kind of assumption is irresponsible to say the least, and extremely hurtful to me and other family members. Does she not remember that he has agrieving teenage daughter? And a new grandson who will have to deal with potential bullying from peers?  If it is true that Ms Jones and David were ‘good friends over decades’ (although he never mentioned her as a friend to me) and that David loaned her his home in Mustique as a quiet place to write, then I find it truly disgusting that she would repay his kindness with such a callous conjecture just to hype her poorly written and badly researched book. 

Indeed, it seems to be true that when there’s a giant present - the pygmies* come out with blowguns. 

Yours sincerely,

Kristina Amadeus

*  Oxford Living Dictionary. Definition # 2‘he saw his brother as a poetic giant among literary pygmies’
    SYNONYMS  insignificant person, lightweight, mediocrity, nobody, gnat, insect, cipher, small fry.

Update from Kristina 3 October 2016

Dear Michael:

I feel that ethics requires that I should correct in your blog my recent description of Lesley-Ann Jones book. That opinion was based solely on the excerpts published in her feature article.  I’ve now read the book from cover to cover, and it is not  - as I said in my hurt and disappointed letter to the Mail on Sunday – a ‘poorly written book’ overall.  In fact, it is quite comprehensive and includes large quotes from his colleagues, most of which I had not run across before. Although the narrative moves along at a manic pace - albeit sometimes a bit jumbled it is, as Ms Jones claims, (for the most part), respectful. 

However, I do feel that her research should have been more thorough. Her egregious and vile theory about my Auntie Peggy and David’s damaged eye, is absolutely not true, and certainly not respectful. Because Ms Jones mentions me by name in her book, it would have made sense for her to contact me about something so volatile and damaging. On speaking with George Underwood he tells me that he did not say that David ‘spelled it all out’ for him, because David said little about it.  Other factual errors arise from cribbing from Peter & Leni Gillman’s book ‘Alias David Bowie’ and not doing her own research. The misspelling of Terry’s father’s name as ‘Rosemberg’ instead of ‘Rosenberg’ is wholly the Gillman’s.  Once again, the major error in her book (as in others) lies in her whole-cloth acceptance of Gillman’s fiction of inherited schizophrenia in our family. However, her reference to ‘first person tense’ when she means ‘present tense’ is her own.

Yes, there has been great tragedy in our family, but having been the family genealogist for over four decades, I’ve found no indication of mental illness or suicide in my grandparents, or great grandparent’s generations. My sweet and brilliant cousin Terry was the first and only one, and his may have derived from hallucinogens secretly tested on servicemen during that era.  I look forward to the day when writers stop using other writers’ self-serving biographies of the famous as their sole source material and search out information for themselves. It’s a shame that Lesley-Ann Jones did not contact Kevin Cann (David Bowie: A Chronology 1983) whose compilation of a massive Bowie archive is the place to start.  Kevin was one of the many who tried to dissuade Peter Gillman from his inventive and misinformed thesis that schizophrenia informs all of David’s work.
That glorious innovation, relentless creativity and genius were David’s own.

And on a final note, having traced the Jones branch of David’s family back to the mid 17thcentury in their Yorkshire environs, I have found no evidence for the Welsh ancestry Ms Jones claims for David in her book. The Mabinogion being one of our childhood favourites (read under our bedcover with a penlight) I wish such heritage existed.


Kristina Amadeus

Friday, September 2, 2016


Rotunda of the NMNH (Wikimedia Commons/Blake Patterson)
Today in The Verge, I report on the verdict handed down by National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson in the case of Kris Helgen, accused of misconduct during an expedition in Kenya last year. Helgen received a two week suspension and was stripped of his role as head of the museum's mammal division, despite evidence from my earlier investigation that the investigation into the charges was deeply flawed. The good news is that he kept his job, despite the recommendation of his supervisor, former chair of the vertebrate zoology department Gary Graves, that he be fired.

In today's article I excerpted Helgen's on the record reaction to the news--his first public statement since this whole affair began last November--but here I want to provide readers with his full statement:

"I am glad that the second investigation, internal within the museum, concluded that Gary Graves' proposal to remove me is not warranted and that various charges made by my staff were not supported by evidence and could not be sustained. I am disappointed that Kirk Johnson has nevertheless decided to suspend me without pay for 2 weeks even after I have endured 10 months of badly managed and damaging investigation. In light of the evidence I have provided from multiple sources, there are no grounds for this decision of suspension, or for limiting my duties, including removing my title as Curator. However, this decision does not surprise me. I presented evidence to the Smithsonian that Dr. Johnson was not an impartial party in this case, but he did not recuse himself from making this decision. The internal process is still ongoing, and for the first time I have the chance to appeal the case to higher officials within the Smithsonian who are outside of the limited circle of internal museum administrators who have handled this over the past year. It remains unclear who made the decision to pursue this investigation against me in the aftermath of the earlier investigation by the Office of the Inspector General, which cleared me of any wrongdoing in their review."

Helgen made two other points in his on the record comments: First, that the timing of the suspension interfered with him accepting a major award from the University of Adelaide in Australia; and second, that the two week suspension "is the most severe penalty that can be imposed without him being able to appeal the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the independent government agency that reviews these decisions for fairness."

Museum officials are not commenting, on the grounds that this is a personnel matter and must remain confidential--even though the employee supposedly being protected wants full transparency. I will be monitoring the progress of Helgen's appeal as it goes forward.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


As those who have been following this blog and other events know, I am covering the current disciplinary proceedings against National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) mammalogist Kris Helgen. He is accused of attempting to illegally export animal specimens from Kenya and other related charges. My original story in The Verge was followed by two blog posts which I would urge you to read if you have not already.

The charges against Helgen, and the alleged evidence to support them, are laid out in an 8-page "Proposal to Remove" signed by Gary Graves, current chair of the NMNH's vertebrate zoology department. I discuss them at length in the above articles. However, there are some important aspects of the Proposal that I have not yet had the chance nor the space to reveal.
According to sources intimately familiar with the document, Graves, before deciding to recommend Helgen's dismissal, considers two "mitigating factors": His past "outstanding" work record, and his clean personnel record before these alleged incidents. These mitigating factors take up only six lines in the document. Graves then goes on to consider the "aggravating factors." These take up just short of two full pages, single-spaced. Among these aggravating factors, Graves cites Helgen's position as a "role model" to staff, and states that he does "not believe you can continue to supervise, or even to mentor" given the seriousness of the charges.
When Helgen's former mentees got wind of this, they put together a letter in support of him, signed by 35 of them. I mention this and quote out of it briefly in the article in The Verge, which I was permitted to do at the time. The letter signers have now agreed to make it entirely public, and so I have reproduced it below. They asked that their names not be included, for fear of possible retaliation, but I can certify that I have seen all the signatures and that the signers are who they say they are (and that there are indeed 35 of them.)
In my reporting on this story, I heard other testimony, from senior scientists, that Helgen was considered an excellent mentor. For example, Bernard Wood, a physical anthropologist at George Washington University who figured heavily in my earlier story about the sexual misconduct charges against Brian Richmond of the American Museum of Natural History, told me that Helgen is "an excellent scientist" who "cares about the collections and about the people who want to use them. He gives such people, especially inexperienced students, wise advice and deals with them in a way that reflects in an extremely positive way on SI's NMNH."
Don Wilson, who was head curator of mammals at NMNH just before Helgen, says that he "has always been an exemplary mentor of young graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior scientists." Wilson goes on to provide some background that could help explain why there might have been jealous feelings towards Helgen at the museum, as suggested in my article for The Verge:
"When Kris took over as Curator-in-charge of the Division of Mammals, it was a somewhat moribund group, with aging curators and little outside involvement of students and postdocs. Kris changed that in a very big way by attracting a large cadre of extremely talented students and fellows from all across the country. Kris spends a huge amount of time helping these young folks get on with their careers. He holds regular meetings of his lab group, and encourages them in a variety of ways. He generates field opportunities for them, and helps to generate funding for their research activities. He completely rejuvenated the Division of Mammals, turning it into a beehive of activity, with specimens coming in from all over the world, and visitors coming to work with him and his group."

And now the letter, reproduced here as it was given to me:

July 15, 2016

To: Dr. David Skorton, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution

CC:      Dr. Richard Kurin, Acting Provost, Smithsonian Institution
            Dr. Scott Miller, Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support
            Dr. Kirk Johnson, Director, National Museum of Natural History

Re: Dr. Kristofer Helgen’s Role as a Mentor and Supervisor

To whom it may concern,
            It has come to our attention that Dr. Kristofer Helgen has received a proposal to be removed from his position as Research Scientist and Curator of the Division of Mammals, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution. Though we are not aware of specific allegations involved, we are surprised to learn that concerns have been raised regarding Dr. Helgen’s integrity, ethics, and ability to effectively mentor and supervise students and staff. This letter is written by Dr. Helgen’s current and former interns, graduate students, and post-doctoral advisees who have benefited from his superior teaching and mentoring skills, and witnessed for many years his ability to ethically perform his role as a scientist and supervise with the utmost integrity.
Dr. Helgen has advised over forty students from fourteen countries in the relatively short time since his PhD was awarded in 2007. With a multidisciplinary and international group of early-career scientists working under his supervision, Dr. Helgen constantly guides and participates in the planning and execution of diverse research projects. These interactions provide Dr. Helgen’s advisees with opportunities for enhancing and acquiring professional skills, both conventional ones—like high-impact scientific writing, effective public speaking, securing research funds, and student mentorship—and less conventional, more modern ones—like science communication through mainstream and social media, research-group leadership, and considering scientific careers outside of academia. His supervisees regularly receive prestigious grants and fellowships from prominent institutions, including the National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowships, Dissertation Improvement Grants), Fulbright Program, National Geographic Society, and from the Smithsonian Institution and many other graduate programs. Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Helgen’s postdocs have received remarkable guidance and support while preparing for applications and interviews to secure academic positions. This is demonstrated through the remarkable record of postdocs in his research group continuing on to highly competitive positions as research scientists or faculty members at the United States Geological Survey, Smithsonian Institution, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Chicago, Marshall University, Cardiff University (UK), Tokai University (Japan), Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Brazil), University of Brasilia (Brazil), and Escuela Politécnica Nacional (Ecuador).
It is no coincidence that so many of Dr. Helgen’s mentees continue to succeed during their time at the Smithsonian and in their onward endeavors. His mentoring style includes regular check-ins, thoughtful editing and guidance, and prompt email responses (at any time of day or night!). Dr. Helgen is deeply dedicated to helping his students and fellows achieve their goals by focusing on their intellectual development. For example, he helps mentees improve their writing skills both through organized group writing sessions at which everyone is equally welcome and treated with respect, and focused discussions aimed to develop, for each individual, relevant skills toward scientific proficiency. In one of these recent group sessions, each participant selected a journal article from Nature or Science, wrote a thoughtful response, and presented it to the group and to Dr. Helgen for detailed discussion. Once honed, Dr. Helgen encouraged many supervisees to send their response pieces to Science and Nature to be considered for publication. Dr. Helgen succeeded in the difficult task of creating a space comfortable enough for honest critiques by focusing on the positive qualities of everyone’s work. Other group sessions organized by Dr. Helgen include updating CVs, critiquing journal articles, and practicing professional talks and presentations. He stresses that regardless of academic position, exceptional writing and public speaking skills are paramount to success in science.
Dr. Helgen has always emphasized and demonstrated the fundamental importance of scientific integrity in all facets. For example, Dr. Helgen urges compassionate and professional treatment of everyone involved in his research program, in designing and publishing research of the highest possible standard, and in the care and use of animals in research. He has worked with many of us, as well as our colleagues and collaborators, to ensure we uphold the most responsible and ethical practices in handling museum specimens and transactions, seeking appropriate permissions for every project and international transfer of samples. Moreover, Dr. Helgen always invites not just all of his fellows, students, and interns to his lab meetings and discussions, but also the technical staff in the Division of Mammals allowing for a diverse forum where people at many different stages of career development and with many different interests can interact productively and collegially. We also acknowledge Dr. Helgen’s modesty and selflessness. Most of his mentoring happens one-on-one, outside the view of others, and represents an incredible amount of time and effort. He creates as many opportunities as possible for his mentees to be involved and included in publications. He rarely takes first authorship of publications, does not argue about his position in the author line of a manuscript, and actively facilitates publications in his research group on which he is not included as an author.
Dr. Helgen also encourages students to participate in otherwise inaccessible outreach activities throughout the museum. These range from intimate opportunities for meeting visiting scholars or dignitaries to high-profile events, and have included the Congressional Night at the Museum, NMNH Director’s Circle event, ‘The Scientist Is In’ programs across many of the museum’s halls, Women and Girls in STEM, Smithsonian Science How, Smithsonian Family Day, the US Science and Engineering Festival, and visits to local elementary schools, among others. His leading role in the two-week intensive field course Species Monitoring and Conservation of Terrestrial Mammals (Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation at Front Royal, VA) draws students from around the world to learn firsthand the critical skills which are required to succeed in mammalian conservation biology. Dr. Helgen teaches a day of museum studies where a variety of specimen-focused activities are planned to introduce collections-based research for the first time to many of the participants. He also leads activities in the field and laboratory across the intensive two weeks of the course. The course design allows for a large amount of interaction between the participants and instructors, and has fostered many international friendships and collaborations, and every year Dr. Helgen picks students and fellows in his research group to assist in teaching the course. By encouraging his students to participate in these activities that are traditionally considered extracurricular in academia, Dr. Helgen exposes students to fundraising, public scientific engagement, and mentoring skills that are crucial to our success in a difficult and unpredictable job market.
We deeply appreciate Kris Helgen and feel lucky to have or have had him as our academic supervisor. He has taught us the importance of conservation and biodiversity, the utility of museum collections, and importantly, how to be an effective, ethical, and compassionate leader. In the words of Professor Colin Groves of the Australian National University,
He [Helgen] is one of the finest scientists I know; he is invariably hospitable and helpful to visiting colleagues; his mentoring of students is, in my experience, exemplary … and his own work has added immeasurably to the understanding of mammals, and in this and other respects he has added immeasurably to the international standing of the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution as a locus for the highest quality research towards our understanding of the biosphere.”
Dr. Helgen’s scientific energy and integrity, the level and scope of his expertise, and his engagement as a mentor have surpassed our expectations during our time under his supervision. Student and fellow involvement in the NMNH Division of Mammals was rare prior to Dr. Helgen’s hiring and has been transformed since his appointment in 2008, with more students and fellows associated with the Division of Mammals than any other division at NMNH, especially since Dr. Helgen was appointed as Curator-in-Charge in 2009. This position of leadership and supervision allowed Dr. Helgen to create a “safe” space for young scientists of all backgrounds. The Division of Mammals has seen remarkable activity by Dr. Helgen’s mentees, including participation at weekly “Mammals Coffee”, collections use, and collaborations with other departments and Smithsonian units, for example the NMNH Departments of Anthropology and Paleobiology, the Smithsonian Mason School of Conservation, and the Center for Conservation Genomics, SCBI. For the past 5 years, Dr. Helgen has overseen what is arguably the largest and most active research group of young mammalogists in the world. Dr. Helgen is the reason why many students and fellows choose to apply to the Division of Mammals and we have felt fortunate to be advised by him and inspired by his excellence and compassion. We have been impressed by his ability to supervise large and complex teams and to ably manage, across the past seven years, a Division that consists of interns, students, fellows, contractors, technicians, visiting scientists, and many active and emeritus principal investigators, from multiple government agencies, including many well-known scientists and challenging personalities! That he has done this at such a young age (appointed as head of the division at age 29) and while building a family is an inspiration to all of us as young scientists.
Finally, Dr. Helgen spends an equal amount of time, energy, and devotion to each of his students, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. While women are equally represented in science at the level of graduate school, they are still woefully underrepresented at the highest rungs of the academic ladder. Many anecdotes suggest that one contributing factor is the lack of access to networking for women, and women with families in particular. Similarly, minority students do not always have the same level of access to networks or supervisory support necessary to succeed as scientists. Dr. Helgen’s leadership style eliminates this factor, as he invites every team member to any event, work-related or for fun, and also encourages mentees and staff who are new parents to feel free to be able to bring their babies to work, including to lab meetings and divisional events. He celebrates every student victory vocally, and supports students in distress privately. His door is always open. Dr. Helgen has been a great pillar of support in understanding diversity issues in STEM and broadening participation. His guidance impacts not only the professional trajectory of his students, but also their personal well-being in handling the acute stresses and challenges of academic development.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Dr. Helgen has inspired a generation of young scientists, and his impact on mammalogy and conservation biology is redoubtable. Dr. Helgen’s efficacious mentoring constitutes a remarkable track record of success for the Smithsonian and has made an invaluable impact toward increasing the number and diversity of young scientists working at the NMNH. His removal would be an incredible injustice and a calamitous and embarrassing mistake for the National Museum of Natural History. We find any criticism of Dr. Helgen’s integrity, ethical standards, or ability to supervise to be contrary to our collective experiences, and completely unsupportable. We respectfully ask that you consider our letter and our statements, provided by a diverse cross-section of young scientists from around the world, in reviewing Dr. Helgen’s conduct as a Smithsonian scientist, which in our view has always been of the highest and most professional standard.
Thank you for your attention.

 [35 signatures and 7 pages of personal testimonials removed to respect the privacy and confidentiality of Dr. Helgen’s students and mentees]

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


The letter below was supplied by Bernard Agwanda--a mammalogist at the National Museums of Kenya and one of the four co-leaders of the Kenya expedition including Kris Helgen--to Helgen's attorney to be used in his defense of the current charges against him lodged by the National Museum of Natural History. Agwanda, who was interviewed for my article for The Verge on this case, kindly provided it to me and gave me permission to make it public. I think it speaks for itself in many ways. A couple of people are named in it: Molly McDonough, a postdoctoral fellow at NMNH who was a member of the expedition; and Priscillar Mutungi, the KWS technician mentioned in the article as the supposed "inspector" of the samples at issue. To fit this blog page I have made some formatting changes in the original letter, but it is reproduced in full with no changes or cuts in the text. I think it will shed considerable light on the problems with the museum's investigation of these charges, and provide some insights into their likely validity.
Date: 13th August 2016

To Whom It May Concern:

Subject: False allegations against Kristofer Helgen regarding Mt Kenya Expedition in 2015

It has come to my notice that Dr Kristofer Helgen is facing allegations of misconduct from Smithsonian management regarding our Mt Kenya expedition (Roosevelt Re-survey project) in Kenya in 2015. This has shocked me because:

1. I was and I still am the project’s Kenyan counterpart PI at the sponsoring Kenyan institution (National Museums Kenya, NMK), and I was thus an integral part of the project planning and implementing team, and I worked with due diligence to follow all relevant laws and policies and guide the project accordingly.

2. As part of the project leadership, I have never received any communications from the Smithsonian or from Kenyan institutions/persons requesting for a statement to confirm/dispel accusations against Kris regarding Kenyan samples and permissions.

3. As far as I can see, there is no Kenyan institution accusing Kris of misconduct, rather, the accusations are generated within USA by Smithsonian specifically.

I’m deeply shocked and saddened that Kris has been subjected to not one but at least two separate investigations on the same case, for the last 9-months, by SI officials who didn’t find it necessary to consult the Kenyan sponsor, Co-PI, and co-organizer over these ridiculous allegations. This is as disrespectful as it is flawed. Are these investigating persons genuinely after the truth on this case? Or is the case against Kris really about the expedition in Kenya, or are there other motivations by Smithsonian parties? These are the questions my mind has been grappling with since I received the news.

While I find it distasteful to try to answer such obviously false incriminations against Kris, I wish to force myself to speak to these allegations in order to defend his honour as he has done no wrong. I first briefly highlight legal procedures of doing research in Kenya, because Smithsonian officials involved likely have very limited understanding of these matters.

A foreigner intending to undertake research in Kenya has to find an affiliation in a local institution competent in the discipline of that research. In this case, Kris applied and obtained affiliations with NMK (my employing institution). He went further to apply for affiliation with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

With affiliation, one can then apply for government of Kenya research permit under National Council for science and Technology (NACOSTI). Kris did this, obtaining overall research permit/clearance by Government of Kenya (GoK).

Next, in biodiversity research, the community around the site has to give consent in what is called Prior Informed Consent (PIC). The institutions holding mandate too must give consent, in this case KWS since it is a park, provided PIC. Because biological collections were involved, Kris insisted that NMK had to give him a statement of objection or no objection before going to the field. NMK gave him greenlight.

To go and research in a protected area (national park or forest reserve) one has to be cleared by KWS and KFS respectively. Since the Mt Kenya expedition was traversing both park and reserve, Kris applied for both KWS and KFS permission to:

--Enter the Mt Kenya National park and Forest reserve

--Conduct research in these protected areas

--Collect biological samples in the protected areas

With all these permissions, Kris went further and successfully applied for overarching government of Kenya biological sample export permit, under National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

One would expect that with overall GoK research clearance (NACOSTI) and overall GoK export permit (NEMA), the project is good to go. Kris however insisted on getting Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) with the institution legally mandated to manage biological collection-NMK. He also requested to meet NMK and KWS leaderships to ensure that even individual/personal concerns are fully addressed.

One can ask which project in Kenya has this level of permission! In my experience there is none.
These permits took us many months (nearly two years) to navigate, on top of the ridicule and emotions Kris was forced to contend with. The patience, commitment and devotion Kris put forward in order to obey local laws, institutional policies and to listen to personal concerns were formidable. Charges against Kristofer Helgen regarding this project, in view of these laws, and everyone’s familiarity with his character, have no merit.

Even though Kenya has many agencies looking after biological resources (KWS, KFS, NEMA, KARI, KEFRI), only one is mandated to take care of collections-NMK. Like in any other collection based expeditions, samples from Mt Kenya expedition are legal property of NMK (held in trust for the people of Kenya). It is for this reason that the MTA for this and others have a loan reference number. They are to be returned to NMK at expiry of loan or after concluding research. Specimen collections that Kris exported to USA are property of NMK on loan to SI. I realize suspicions have arisen about intentions over the various versions and drafts of the MTAs involved here at NMK, but I can personally vouch firsthand that Kris had no bad intentions in any action or engagement with me or NMK. I confirm as the project’s sponsor in Kenya that any issues reflect basic misunderstandings of the situation and plans. Kris regularly noted that the various MTA lists might need review and further attention from Smithsonian before export of samples to US. This all seems very strange. Why the Smithsonian should handle a loyal scientist like Kris with such distrust is shocking and very saddening to me. I see no way to understand this.

I am made to understand that Kris Helgen is also accused of illegally exporting wild dog samples from Kenya to the USA. There is no basis for this claim! The wild dog samples involved are various tissues which are NMK collections under my research program. The samples were to be analysed at University of California by myself and Prof Hillary Young, of which there is a parallel approval from University of California. These samples are of course legal (why have they been called illegal?) and are NOT associated with paperwork and permissions for Mt Kenya samples, in any way! To the very best of my knowledge, these samples have not left Kenya for USA or anywhere. Kris helped us with our requests about how to handle these specimens after they were left in Nairobi by Hillary, and he did so with NMK affiliation and permission. How can Kris Helgen be accused of exporting what was not his and was never exported. He was not involved in plans or paperwork for this project. It seems like this is a strange premise meant to pour suspicion on Kris.

It really shocks to hear that Kris Helgen is suspended and is considered for sacking because he is suspected to have tried/attempted to obstruct KWS officer from inspecting the samples collected on the expedition. Whereas it is me who picked a phone and called KWS officer, Priscillar, inviting her to catalogue our samples, it is actually Kris who instructed me to do so. How can he invite this person if he intends to “hide” what should be inspected!! There was never a plan to open frozen tanks for good reasons everyone understands. Are investigators really after the truth in this case? This is an imaginary charge.

The idea championed by Dr Molly McDonough to study genomics or transcriptome of small mammals was associated with two conditions: a) muscle tissues were to be extracted within one minute of knocking down the animal and putting straight to the liquid nitrogen, b) the samples were to be protected from thermal shock. This idea was hatched in middle camp (where Molly and I were based) but enjoyed support in all the 3 camps including by Kris and Hillary. The concern that sample ‘inspection’ by KWS employee could compromise integrity of these samples was therefore discussed in a meeting where everybody attended in the lower camp, and was discussed between Kris, Hillary, and KWS leadership in advance. Everyone was aware of this plan. How this issue has become an accusation toward Kris who was in Australia and how it has become painted as a plan to hide samples from KWS officer is unfathomable.

I categorically and emphatically state that the charges pressed against Dr Kristofer Helgen are baseless, have no merit and are untrue. If investigation had professional aim and respect for Kenyan situation, they would contact me as partner scientist in Kenya. This could have happened almost a year ago and I could explain situation to exonerate Kris, instead he has suffered.

I also wish to reiterate that a report on the Roosevelt Resurvey Project is long overdue for submission to NEMA and NACOSTI here in Kenya. As the Kenyan counterpart for this project, this puts me under a lot of pressure to submit the reports. We cannot proceed because Smithsonian staff and review have blocked any study or further export of specimens. This is damaging to investment from NMK and all partners and making my situation challenging.

I would have thought that everyone knows Kris never breaks rules and is loyal to his museum. He is a senior mammalogist deserving respect. I am appalled by his treatment. I appeal to the leadership of NMNH-SI to at long last look with sense at the true picture, and allow Kris to continue with his research, especially on the Roosevelt samples so that he can send us the report and we can maintain good faith partnerships and move on with the science from this important and long planned expedition and collaboration.

Finally, I advise, as Curator of Mammals at NMK and the Kenyan co-PI in the project that if Smithsonian continues to pursue action against Kris under false pretence, I must insist that NMNH is required to repatriate all the specimens back to Kenya immediately to enable further analysis and reporting. I hope the investigating committee will choose the path of truth and justice over malice and rumour.

Thank you


Bernard Agwanda

Curator and Research Scientist