Paleontology: An alleged sexual harasser is passed out of a famous dinosaur lab. Have institutions failed yet again? [Updated Aug 20 2021: A pattern of sexual harassment in the U Saskatchewan Geological Sciences department?]

Aaron van der Reest
This past May, a group of paleontologists in Canada, familiar with my reporting on #MeToo issues in the sciences, asked me to look into allegations concerning a former student of the famed dinosaur researcher Philip Currie of the University of Alberta (UA) in Edmonton.

The student, Aaron van der Reest, received his bachelors and masters degrees at UA, and is now working on a PhD at the University of Saskatchewan. After my preliminary reporting (which included an extensive on the record interview with Currie) revealed substantial evidence for allegations not only of sexual harassment but sexual assault by van der Reest, I wrote to him and asked him to discuss it with me.

That outreach to van der Reest was met on June 21 with a cease and desist letter from his attorney, with a clear threat to bring a lawsuit against me if I pursued the investigation (the attorney wrote that I had no "authority" to investigate the allegations.) I immediately put the letter online and provided readers with some preliminary background to the inquiry (as many readers of this blog know, this was far from the first time I have been threatened with legal action for trying to help survivors of abuse tell their stories.)

At least one direct witness to van der Reest's conduct also received a similar cease and desist letter about the same time. 

Nevertheless, thanks to the courage of numerous colleagues, I was able to continue my reporting. The results are published here.

As always, I relied strictly on sources who had directly witnessed or experienced the events I describe below. I never rely on rumors or second-hand information, except as leads for finding sources who do have first-hand knowledge, in keeping with normal journalistic practices. Although most of the sources have asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, I have corroborated what they told me with others. About a dozen people spoke to me for this investigation, roughly split between women and men. [Update: This number is steadily increasing as new sources, having seen this report, are getting in touch with me.]

For full disclosure: During the years that I covered dinosaurs and bird evolution for Science magazine, I occasionally covered Currie's research and also solicited comment from him about the research of others.


Hunting for fossils and hunting for women

Unlike archaeology and anthropology, related fields which have produced a number of sexual predators who have gone on to exercise significant power over students and other colleagues, so far paleontology has been spared a large number of public #MeToo or bullying scandals. The two most notable cases I am aware of, both of which I was involved in as a reporter, concerned Matthew Baron, formerly of the University of Cambridge, and Nick Longrich of the University of Bath. Baron was accused by a former partner of domestic abuse, and Longrich lost a 1 million pound Leverhulme grant after his pattern of bullying students was publicly exposed.

That doesn't mean women in paleontology have it any easier, however. As a 2018 article in Smithsonian entitled "The Many Ways Women Get Left Out of Paleontology" documented, paleontology remains a largely male-dominated terrain in which women have to fight hard to overcome the barriers which kept them out of the field until fairly recently (despite some legendary exceptions like Mary Anning.)

Aaron van der Reest came to UA as an undergraduate student in 2013, and began working with Currie and his wife Eva Koppelhus, an expert in fossil plants at UA, almost immediately, according to sources who were present at the time. Currie and Koppelhus were reportedly friends of van der Reest's family; van der Reest's mother had died shortly before he began attending the university (van der Reest later named a raptor he discovered in Dinosaur Provincial Park after his mother.)

Van der Reest quickly became known for two traits, one positive and one negative: He was talented at finding dinosaur fossils, and he developed an early habit of hitting on female students in the lab and in the field.

"Aaron always came off as desperate and he would fixate in turn on the women in the lab," says one former colleague. Van der Reest was somewhat older than the other students. "He would often express that he felt he was running out of time to have kids because of his age," this source recalled, "and so it frustrated him that he could not find a partner. Clearly, this intimidated women and they responded negatively."

One female paleontologist confirmed this impression. "I have certainly been in situations where he has made me exceptionally uncomfortable," this young researcher told me. "I have also witnessed multiple situations that made me concerned for the well being of other young women."

At the beginning, van der Reest's fellow students tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, some of them told me, thinking that his desperation to find a mate made him unaware of appropriate boundaries. But it soon became clear that the paleontologist was engaging in predatory behavior. For example, he would talk incessantly about his mother's death, which, while it no doubt affected him greatly, became a regular pick-up line to try to get women sympathetic and interested in him.

(Allegations that some years earlier van der Reest was fired from a job at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, for sexual harassment were conveyed to me, but I was not able to confirm them.) [Update Jul 30, 2021: I have now been able to confirm that van der Reest was let go because of what was widely regarded as his "creepy" behavior towards women; while the museum may have given other reasons at the time, this was the real one.]

It also became clear to many of his colleagues that van der Reest harbored sexist attitudes towards women. "In camp, on three different occasions, I heard him describe three women as having 'great bodies and great asses,'" one paleontologist told me.  

Van der Reest's colleagues became increasingly alarmed at his behavior, especially when he began to pursue an undergraduate student about 15 years his junior. At the same time, Currie and Koppelhus, impressed with his prowess at finding fossils, took him on as a masters student in 2017, and gave him his own office in their lab at UA--unusual even for grad students.

Up to this time, there is no evidence that anyone expressed their concerns about van der Reest's conduct to Currie, although sources tell me that Koppelhus was made aware of it earlier and also observed some of it herself (Koppelhus has so far not responded to repeated requests for comment.)

"In the office, he continued to cycle through the women in the lab, approaching them under the guise of wanting to conduct research with them, but constantly flirting at their meetings," a former member of the lab told me. Finally, van der Reest went too far: According to a victim, who told me her story directly and in detail, van der Reest sexually assaulted her at a location off campus. (I am not giving details, including time and place, to protect her identity.)


Currie is finally put in the picture; the university launches an investigation.


Philip Currie/ Jason Woodhead/ Wikimedia Commons


In the spring of 2018, a paleontologist familiar with the above events told Currie and Koppelhus, without mentioning any names including van der Reest's, that there was a "serious problem" in the field camps that included sexual harassment and assault. Currie described this moment to me:

"When I first heard there was a problem, in spring 2018, somebody sat down and said we have a problem in the lab. Somebody there was in fact doing some things he wasn't supposed to do. Sexual harassment was implied but not said, and the name of the person was not said either."

Soon afterwards, according to Currie and other witnesses, the senior paleontologist sent around UA's sexual harassment policies to everyone in the lab. "I said basically I don't know who is causing the problem, but that I won't tolerate it, if anything is happening it has to end." Currie says that he made everyone sign a statement that they had looked at the regulations.

While many colleagues in the lab already knew or suspected that the culprit was van der Reest, Currie says that he continued to have no idea who it was until about fall 2018. At that time, during a meeting of the board of the Dinosaur Research Institute (DRI), a private organization which funds paleontology research and in which both Currie and Koppelhus play a major role, a letter was read to those present which named van der Reest and provided some details of the allegations against him.

Currie says that the DRI board decided not to take any action at that meeting, but rather to develop an "ethics statement" to deal with such situations. Nevertheless, Currie and others say, the board was very divided about how to handle the situation (more on Currie's own position shortly.)

In early December 2018, according to numerous sources, a number of individuals contacted the office of the dean of students, Andre Costopoulos, to report van der Reest's behavior. All told, there were two formal complainants and at least eight others who offered to provide testimony for a formal investigation. Currie recalls going with van der Reest to two meetings with the dean to discuss the investigation. During the first, they were told that an inquiry had begun, and van der Reest was instructed not to frequent the lab or make contact with students and other colleagues, nor to work at paleontology field camps; during the second meeting, Currie says, the dean admonished van der Reest for violating those restrictions.

Thus, despite the ban, one female paleontologist told me, van der Reest "would linger in the hall and talk to us in the doorway, eventually moseying into the room anyway. We saw him often in places he wasn't supposed to be."

(The university's public records office declined my request for documents about the investigation, telling me that it could neither "confirm or deny" that the inquiry had taken place. Likewise the communications office declined to discuss the matter with me, citing privacy concerns.)


The investigation drags on; van der Reest is banned from a paleontology meeting; Currie reportedly continues to support van der Reest's research and funding requests.

 In his interview with me, Currie insisted that he had been kept out of the loop by his junior colleagues, about the allegations concerning van der Reest and about the investigation as it proceeded. "I have nothing to hide," Currie told me, adding that he was "angry when [I was] shut out of this. People on both sides were cutting me out, students and others who were friends were assuming I knew all about it and was hiding things." Currie speculates that colleagues might have avoided telling him "to protect me, perhaps," adding that "none of the victims ever talked to me directly."

But other sources close to the situation have different memories.

"[Currie] was spoken to by others about Aaron, about other things that Aaron had done," says one paleontologist. "One, a trusted senior associate, told him that Aaron was a 'predator.' Still, he did nothing. His colleagues, and the chair of the faculty were perplexed and bothered that the supervisor took no action and kept Aaron as his student. As a result, as long as Aaron was at the university, the graduate students took it upon themselves to warn incoming undergraduate and graduate female students about him."

As for Koppelhus, she "went into denial and started going on about how the women should be smarter than to get themselves into risky situations" one colleague told me.

According to several sources, for a long period of time Currie and Koppelhus continued to support van der Reest's requests for funding from DRI, at the same that other board members vehemently opposed it. The couple continued this stance even after van der Reest was banned from attending the October 2019 meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology in Brisbane, Australia, after organizers were informed of the situation (according to one witness, van der Reest showed up at the meeting anyway, hanging out in a nearly cafe and at one point being escorted out of the meeting by security.)


Once again institutions fail to act; van der Reest continues his career at the University of Saskatchewan.

According to Currie and others, the university never told anyone the outcome of its investigation into van der Reest's conduct. Van der Reest himself told colleagues that it was over, and indeed he was allowed to finish his masters at UA, under Currie's supervision.

Some sources told me that van der Reest was represented by at least one attorney during the investigation, "lawyers that were a bit too good for someone on a grad student stipend," one student said, adding that the university wanted victims to file police reports, which they were reluctant to do.

"I never got anything from the dean's office [and] never anything from Aaron formally," Currie says, adding that he told van der Reest "you've got to get a letter from the university saying it's over, otherwise who is going to believe you? He said it was a good idea, he would do that, but several months later he had not produced one to me, and never has."

Meanwhile, at the DRI, the debate over whether or not to fund van der Reest continued. I asked Currie to respond to assertions by sources that he continued to support the grant despite everything that had happened. Since Currie has continued on the record, I think it best to quote his full response to me, for full context, which he emailed me on July 8:


Hi Michael. Sorry about the delayed response but we are in the field now and connections are sporadic (there were none yesterday or earlier this evening, so I suspect it has something to do with how many people are online in the park). 


Interesting to hear that you learned about what went on in a DRI meeting when this flared into a major dispute that almost tore the organization apart because several of us were accused of telling people (specifically Aaron) outside of the organization that he should retract his grant request, which he did. No, it was not me (or Eva) who told him to withdraw, even though I am sure many in that meeting probably wished he had never put in the grant request in the first place. In the long run, it is not an issue because the board turned down the grant request for now, and Aaron withdrew the request within days of the meeting. But the accusations of people talking of board matters outside of the meetings is clearly a huge concern, because it is working in two diametrically opposing directions (some accusing board members of talking directly with Aaron, and others taking those accusations to you...and both sides accusing the others of breach of confidentiality).

You may have got a version of this email last night (I thought I had sent it then, but found this in the 'draft' box this morning). Thank you for continuing to be fair by checking with both sides. Now we are off to the field for the day. Phil


Meanwhile, van der Reest, having matriculated from UA with his masters, began applying for PhD programs. Currie says that he wrote "at least a half dozen" letters of recommendation for the student, but says that he always included a note referring to the investigation at UA. "I don't believe in foisting problems off on other people," Currie told me. "I always included a statement at the end that Aaron had had some troubles, I don't have the details, they should contact [UA] and find out the status."

Van der Reest was eventually accepted at the University of Saskatchewan to do his PhD studies with Luis Buatois, where he is now based. I made two attempts to contact Buatois for comment and to ask what he knew and had been told about van der Reest's past history; eventually a vice provost responded to my queries, emphasizing how seriously her university takes misconduct allegations but asking me not to contact Buatois or other staff or faculty again (I politely declined to agree to this.)


Dear Mr. Balter,

 

The University of Saskatchewan has robust policies and procedures associated with both Discrimination and Harassment and Sexual Assault Prevention. These policies are diligently enforced, and the university will respond immediately to any complaints that are brought forward. Due to privacy restrictions, members of the university community are not permitted to provide you with information regarding individual students. Please do not have any further contact with Professor Buatois or other faculty or staff regarding specific student matters.

 

 

Patricia McDougall, PhD
Vice Provost Teaching, Learning and Student Experience

 

University of Saskatchewan

Teaching, Learning and Student Experience (TLSE)


Lessons learned: Institutional failures continue to allow harassers to be passed. Who is taking responsibility for the consequences?

Throughout this report I have said that the allegations against van der Reest are just that, allegations, and we simply don't know what the University of Alberta concluded in its investigation--for the simple reason that the university will not tell anyone. What I have been told, however, is that some of the victims and witnesses were reluctant to go on the record and be named in the investigation. Given how most institutions handle (or mishandle) misconduct accusations--something that I and many other #MeToo reporters have documented time and time again--it is no surprise that vulnerable students do not trust them to do the right thing and to protect them from retaliation and other consequences of coming forward.

What makes matters worse is that institutions always insist on "confidentiality," and repeatedly tell victims and other witnesses that they should not talk publicly about what is going on. But way too often, this chronic lack of transparency is designed to protect the reputation of the institution, rather than the victims and survivors of abuses. In some cases, it allows perpetrators to maintain that they were exonerated by an investigation when that was either not the case, or barely a half-truth.

(Nevertheless, I am told, some of the more junior administrators at UA involved in the investigation did take it seriously, even if the end result was buried and kept even from the complainants.)

But while the accusations against van der Reest are "only" allegations, my reporting, based on a significant number of direct witnesses, gives them serious credibility, I think anyone honest person reading this would agree.

Aaron van der Reest is still a student, early in his career. But so far nothing has happened that would discourage him from engaging in sexual harassment, or even sexual assault, in the future. In fact, his first reaction to the realization that his conduct might be exposed was to retain an attorney and begin threatening both this reporter and witnesses.

Until the publication of this report, it is likely that very few at the University of Saskatchewan knew about his past history; obviously, they will know now. What they do with the information, time will tell. I hope they will not create, through negligence and apathy, new victims in the future.

As for van der Reest, somehow he thought that by threatening a reporter and other witnesses with legal action he would escape the truth and consequences of what he has done. I believe in redemption and in the principle that people can change. But van der Reest should not be surprised if, in the future, others refuse to give him that benefit of the doubt.


Update July 30, 2021: It often happens that after I publish an investigation of this kind, additional sources get in touch to tell me what they know. That has already happened, and I will be processing the information they are providing. I can say now that I have confirmation that van der Reest was let go from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, some years before he began at University of Alberta, for sexual harassment (his conduct towards women was widely regarded as "creepy.") See also the note in the text above.

Update July 31, 2021: More witnesses are approaching me to discuss their knowledge of van der Reest's past behavior, including the events at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology described above that led to his termination from the museum. The key event was van der Reest's severe and incessant pursuit of a young woman he had apparently become obsessed with, to the point that he was making her miserable and her friends and colleagues had to go to extreme lengths to protect her. Museum officials were made aware of this, but found a pretext to terminate him due to his unauthorized personal use of a museum vehicle.

Philip Currie was a cofounder of the museum and reportedly working at the museum when these events took place. I have asked him to comment on what he knew at the time about van der Reest's abuses and the circumstances of his termination from the museum, and will report back if and when he responds.

Meanwhile I am going to ask van der Reest's attorney to rescind all "cease and desist" letters he has sent to me and witnesses of this misconduct, and to provide assurances that he will not abuse the laws of Alberta and of Canada to help his client intimidate victims and witnesses into being silent about what they have experienced and observed. Obviously any such legal action would ultimately fail.


Update August 3, 2021: Phil Currie acknowledges being aware of earlier sexual harassment allegations concerning Aaron van der Reest more than a year before the events of 2018.

As I reported above, van der Reest was let go from the Royal Tyrrell Museum (in 2003) at least in part because of serious allegations of sexual predation of a colleague. I asked Phil Currie what he knew about this and when he knew it. It turns out that he heard about it no later than winter 2016/17, by his own account, from what appears to have been a reliable source. As my discussions with Currie continue to be on the record, I am pasting in his response to my question, which is comes first, then followed by my latest email to him. I will update this thread again if he responds.


July 31

Dear Phil,


Since the story was published, witnesses to what happened at the museum in 2003 have approached me to fill in details, which I have been updating on the post.

It is now clear that Aaron engaged in severe predation of a young woman during May and June of that year, who had to be protected from his relentless pursuit of her. I am told that the museum finally had a reason to formally terminate Aaron when he engaged in unauthorized personal use of a van, but that the museum knew about the sexual harassment and that this figured into the decision to get rid of him.

My question is what you knew or were told about these events at the time or afterwards. Did museum officials or anyone else tell you what happened at the time or later, and what did Aaron tell you about why he was let go from the museum?

Thanks for any responses you can make. I hope you will continue to engage in the transparency you have shown so far in this matter, which allows me to be as fair as possible in my reporting.

best regards,

Michael



August 2

Hi Michael. There is not too much I can report about that incident.  There was (and probably still is) little contact between the people at the Tyrrell Museum who do research and the people that hire the summer staff. I was not aware of who had been hired for the summer that year because they started after our fieldwork started in Dinosaur Provincial Park (May 10th). Researchers are usually not asked to evaluate prospective student summer staff applications (particularly if it is not directly under their program). Aaron (I assume) was presumably part of the Day Digs public excavation program, so not in my jurisdiction (and it was in a different part of the province). I never heard any skuttlebut about his hiring, employment and termination until long after he had come and gone. And even then there were many different versions as to why he was let go (including "lording it over" other students, using a government truck in an unauthorized way, running out of funds, etc.). I suspect that the story you have is correct that when he was terminated he was not told what the real reason was behind the decision. I did talk to him at some point when he became my student (at that time I thought the "lording it over" other students was the reason he was let go) and he genuinely seemed shocked that he did not know there was an alternative reason for him being let go. I did subsequently hear (ironically when Donald Trump was elected) of the "sexual predation" story from someone close enough to it that they knew the person involved. However it is very hard to act on something when people don't want to become directly involved. Hope that helps. Cheers, Phil



August 2

Hi Phil,

I have pulled my thoughts together about this and hope you will respond to a few more questions.

As you probably know, you are getting a lot of criticism right now from colleagues who have long admired you and your science. A lot of this is happening on Facebook, in particular the Women in Vertebrate Paleontology group. I admit to being perplexed myself, as one who has long considered you a scientific hero.

If you heard credible information (or even just rumors) around the time Trump was elected (winter 2016/17), did that not raise a red flag for you? And when further allegations came up in 2018, which led to Aaron being investigated (there was more than one complainant at that time, and numerous other witnesses) did that not raise the red flag even higher?

To be frank, it seems that you are putting a lot of the blame on colleagues who you said would not come forward or would not talk to you about these things. But in talking to colleagues, it is clear that many or most saw you as Aaron’s protector and sponsor, not just around #MeToo issues but other matters around the lab (office space, etc.) and within DRI concerning his grant funding request (you have said that was divisive but all my sources say you supported Aaron at least initially.)

So, as a reporter it’s not my job to give you suggestions about what to say, but perhaps it is time for you to express some contrition about the way you handled all this, or at least some self-criticism and acknowledgement that you could have handled it better? Aaron is now at Saskatchewan and the exposure of his story is not likely to help him there, it would seem.

As things stand now there are some who are beginning to see you as Aaron’s chief enabler, and I am sure that is not an impression you want to leave with anyone.

Thanks for any thoughts you can send my way,

Michael



Update Aug 19, 2021: I am now hearing credible allegations of sexual harassment concerning two male faculty members in the University of Saskatchewan Geological Sciences department. These are apparently well known situations to those colleagues who have been in the department over the past years. Perhaps this helps to explain why Aaron van der Reest was able to be admitted to the department despite his past history, which Phil Currie says he made known those who recruited him? Anyone who wants to share information can get in touch with me privately, in complete confidence.

Continued update: Thanks to a number of brave sources, I can now update the reporting to indicate that one of the two male faculty members referred to above is Brian Pratt. I hope to be able to name the second one soon.

Update Aug 20: The other individual is Bill Patterson. I always wait before naming someone to be sure I have enough sources and direct testimony. There has been an outpouring of sources coming forward about two these men as well as others, and in other Canadian universities. In some cases the institutions have taken token actions but these abusers are still in their posts. Let's clean this up.



Post a Comment

3 Comments

Anonymous said…
Today I feel like an enormous weight has been lifted from me, because I found out that someone is listening to the victims and actually doing something about it. There are too few people like you in this world. Please don’t stop digging into the UofS, and don’t stop digging anywhere, this cult of silence in academia needs to come to an end. There are not enough ways to say thank you for doing this work and changing people’s lives.
Michael Balter said…
Thanks to the previous commenter for the very kind words. I am very glad that this reporting is making a difference. When institutions begin making the safety of junior colleagues their highest priority, instead of protecting their reputations and those of the abusers, it might no longer be necessary.
Anonymous said…
Pratt (in particular) and Patterson's conduct have been an open secret for years. A dark side of tenure.

Found your email in my spam folder (unsurprisingly). Good luck.