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]


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I think anyone with experience as a grad student or postdoc will know how much this praise means. It is not every advisor that treats their students this way - some would say it's downright rare.

Anonymous said...

Helgen Schmelgen. He isn't that great. His H-index isn't impressive... oh wait that was debunked in other comment. Turns out he is a superstar. But, but, but... he copied the signature illegally... oh wait, that document was never submitted.

OIG cleared him.
Balter has copy of the Proposal to Remove of the second (double jeopardy) investigation and has illustrated that its completely flawed.

So what's next for Helgen? New charges? Triple Jeopardy?

And why has this dragged on for months? That is what should be investigated. Six months to interview almost none of the key people? Embarrassingly bad.

Anonymous said...

Skorton et al are going to have to grow a pair and stand up for Kris before the Smithsonian becomes a laughing stock.
Obviously, Graves has to go and be replaced by Helgen so that the SI can once again become a great institution once again.

Anonymous said...

Here is a guide to how this news is being received outside the USA.

Me: "I can't believe what's happening to Kris Helgen!!" Everyone: "OMG, how can we help right this injustice??"

Me: "I can't believe they are letting this be handled by Gary Graves." Everyone: "Who?"

Me: "I can't believe there hasn't been an intervention from Kirk Johnson." Everyone: "Who?"

Michael Balter said...

Nice try but actually not true. I am in touch with researchers all around the world, as I always am as a science writer, and they are following closely. Like Americans, they are capable of following links back to the original stories.

Anonymous said...

The provisions are clear that any researcher requires a export permit from the chief licensing officer at KWS to move biological/genetic materials out of Kenya. That is the law. Can Dr. Helgen provide a copy of his export permit from KWS for the samples that he collected from Mt. Kenya and that he is holding at Smithsonian.

If he does not have that export permit, then he has a serious case to answer.

Anonymous said...

The provisions are clear that any researcher requires a export permit from the chief licensing officer at KWS to move biological/genetic materials out of Kenya. That is the law. Can Dr. Helgen provide a copy of his export permit from KWS for the samples that he collected from Mt. Kenya and that he is holding at Smithsonian.

If he does not have that export permit, then he has a serious case to answer.