Paleontology's #MeToo enablers

Philip Currie /Jason Woodhead/ Wikimedia
This past week has seen one of the most grotesque episodes in the long, sorry saga of sexual harassment and other misconduct issues on university campuses: The issuance, and then quick retraction, of a letter of support for accused sexual abuser and Harvard anthropologist John Comaroff by 38 colleagues supposedly concerned that he did not get due process.

I say supposedly, because it turned out that most of the signatories, by their own admission, had little knowledge of the facts of the case; four of them declined to join the retraction, for reasons which I will let other reporters explore. In signing the letter, these colleagues appear to have followed their basic instincts as academics, which is to quickly rush to the side of a powerful peer no matter what the consequences for his or her alleged victims.

The actions of the 38 signers fall into the category of what many #MeToo activists call "enabling," and which others see as full-blown complicity with abuse, depending on the circumstances. I have written a fair bit about enabling recently, both as a general problem spanning all walks of life and as a specific issue in a case I was personally involved in.

In those posts I argued that it is time to shift emphasis from the individual abuser and focus much more on the institutions and individuals that make the abuse possible, and without whom it would be nearly impossible. That will mean, in many cases, putting the spotlight on powerful, widely respected individuals, and creating a lot of discomfort for those who admire them, are dependent on them, or otherwise are reluctant to see the captains of their ships thrown overboard.

Last July, I wrote about the long history of harassment and related misdeeds by a paleontology graduate student, Aaron van der Reest, a protege of the famous University of Alberta dinosaur hunter Philip Currie and his wife, paleobotanist Eva Koppelhus. Among the things I was told by a large number of sources was that Currie and Koppelhus were well aware of complaints of harassment by van der Reest even before it became an issue within the Dinosaur Research Institute DRI) in 2018, and that Currie was aware that the university was investigating complaints that had been lodged by at least two alleged victims and supported by a number of other witnesses.

I also reported that Currie admitted to me that he had become aware of an earlier stalking episode when van der Reest was working at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta in the early 2000s. As Currie put it to me in an email:

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.

Yet, as a I reported, Currie continued to support van der Reest in his career even after the allegations became an issue within the DRI, whose board members became badly split on whether the organization should continue to fund him. Van der Reest is now working on his PhD in the University of Saskatchewan geological sciences department, where he is being allowed to teach undergraduates despite that department (and university's) full knowledge of the allegations against him. (More on that shortly.)

Given that Currie admits to being aware of the "sexual predation" story since at least the winter of 2016/17, I am going to expand here on what actually happened, based on testimony by direct witnesses. In particular, I am reproducing an email I received from a direct witness to the events at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. I have disguised the names of the individuals involved to protect their identities for the moment (it is possible that some of these witnesses will decide to go public in the near future.) I have also done some editing and redactions for the same purpose, and cut a few statements which were based on second half information or otherwise are unverifiable by other witnesses. However, I have let it run quite long, so that readers can have the full context for the severe stalking and violent conduct that van der Reest was seen to have directed at the young woman identified as "L."

Eva Koppelhus

Dear Mr. Balter,

Having just read your blog post on Aaron van der Reest, I am very sad to hear his tale has continued into the modern era. I worked with and lived beside Aaron in his brief tenure at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in May and June of 2003.

Given your paragraph outlining the vague accusations of this time at the Tyrrell, I thought I'd provide what I know about "Creepy Stalker Aaron" (our nickname for him as there multiple staff members at that time named Aaron...). I hope this is of some slight use, even just as background...

On the subject of institutional failure, I immediately I want to praise the Tyrrell's middle management of the time, in particular the two female supervisors (Aaron's direct supervisor, and another I will refer to as Landlord, as she was Aaron's landlord) involved in the ordeal. They used every procedural and institutional method they could to get rid of Aaron once his predation became more widely known. To the museum's greater credit the upper management did not resist these supervisors' efforts, and he was removed within a matter of weeks... which in our post Metoo world is still rare.

The Tyrrell did not fail its female staff institutionally, as the UoA and potentially UoS are in your story. 

I apologize if this is rather long. It turned into self therapy, for the overwhelmed and out of his league 22 year old I was at the time. I have held significant frustration about Aaron, and his literally getting away from real consequences back in 2003... while his transgressions were not as severe as these more modern ones, we all sadly predicted the exact tales in your story. 

I was forced by proximity to be quite close to Aaron for those two months. He lived directly across the street from me, and so not only was he my neighbor, but he started to befriend my roommate. In addition to all of this one of my best friends of this time was the roommate of Aaron's eventual fixation and predatory target. So I had a front row seat to his predatory behavior and firing.

Disclaimer: I was not a supervisor in the below events. However due to my proximity to Aaron and being a key witness to his behavior, I was in a lot of formal and informal meetings with supervisors during the time. So the below is based on these communications. The museum may have a slightly different formal version, but I can vouch this is my personal understanding of the behind the scenes to these events if there is a discrepancy :

I can say Aaron was NOT formally fired for sexual harassment. So you can amend that in your article. It was commonly known he was being investigated for it, but this did not conclude, and ultimately (sadly) played no part in his termination.

There were allegations made against him, but an investigation was deemed too lengthy and risky by supervisors. They wanted him gone quickly, partially for the museum's operations and also genuinely to just protect their female staff. 

Further as he had violated terminable staff procedures, it was easier to use these, as the investigation and dismissal would be rather instant. 

Aaron worked at the day dig program, where tourists would pay to go out on a real fossil dig for the day. He was one of the dig overseers/guest services personnel. I'm not sure when the program began, but it ended after 2004.

This dig was located at a vaguely remote location within Drumheller's city limits, and was about 10-15 minutes removed from the main roads..

Aaron had begun clandestinely taking the museum's program van from the dig site during his lunch breaks and driving into town to pick up take away. This was absolutely against the rules, as the van was the emergency backup on site should there be an accident on site and someone needed to be driven to medical aid (even during lunch!).

At the start of the week he was fired (sorry I can't remember exact dates 18 years later... either the last or second last week of June 2003) he ran into other museum staff at a local restaurant. Seeing him depart in the museum van, they reported it to his supervisor and the other museum personnel. 

My understanding is this was the biases for his termination. I believe they proved his serially doing this through a discrepancy with the van's mileage. I do know with the eye witnesses they could immediately prove the single time in any case... the van incident(s) were the main formal basis for his dismissal (though there was more I was led to believe, touched on in my alleged section)

Also in this week there was a complaint put in with the local RCMP about his harassment of a coworker (my friend's roommate). However this was never followed up with charges, and I believe she only submitted a brief statement with physical evidence when making the compliant. His being fired mere days later was a large part of the lack of follow up. More on this incident in the alleged section.

The same day as his firing, the Landlord supervisor, evicted him for not paying his rent. This left all of his stuff to deal with, and she hoped this would prevent him from lingering and lurking... in particular around his main target's home (more detail in alleged)

Thankfully for the only time while we knew him, he did NOT lurk around the scenes of his crimes (much like you outlined in your blog post.. him being around the labs and conference when told not too. He did this a LOT in 2003 as well.)

Given he called me from a nearby payphone asking me to store his stuff, I think this plan worked. Especially as I denied his request!


Aaron was quickly known for being "creepy" around the female staff. and soon fixated upon a fellow summer staffer I'll call L. I wish I was still in contact with her, so she could reach out to you. My friends from this time and I are trying to find her online, and encourage her to share her story with you (and I'm sure she'd welcome the chance! It definitely defined the first half of her summer at the Tyrrell ).

I was as close as any of that year were to L., as she did not form any real solid long term friendships with our group sadly. I was very good friends with her roommates, and hung out with the household of them quite a bit. 

L. was an anxious and socially awkward person, but unbelievably friendly and sweet. Unfortunately all the ingredients for a perfect predation target. Basically she was too friendly for her own good (and I'm not meaning that in a blaming way. Just as a personality type. I quite liked her, and helped out in the situation as best I could, as I hope will be apparent).

There were a number of inciting incidents, but I was not personally involved, and thus will not repeat my half memories of them. By two to three weeks in, it was clear Aaron was obsessed with L., and she was starting to get very uncomfortable around him. However he was blatantly ignoring her polite attempts at saying she was not interested in his advances.

Where I can confirm harassment first hand, was one night in mid May walking back home from the bar (I and Aaron lived about 10 blocks from the L. household) me and roommate arrived at their quadplex to a disturbing sight.

In the darkness looking through L.'s ground level basement apartment window, was a hunched person. As we walked up challenging them, it was Aaron who suddenly stood up startled. He attempted to play it off as just him just "looking for L". To which one of us sarcastically countered "by looking through her bedroom window?"... he denied this is what he was doing, and came up with some pathetic deflection like tying his shoe or similar. Roommate assertively told him to leave, and he grudgingly pretended to.

I popped in to their place, if just to try and let him get a head start, so I wouldn't have to walk with him. I can't remember if L. was home on this instance (there were more than one as you'll see). What I do know, is Aaron had NOT left the area. As when I left the L. household, he suddenly appeared beside me at their street corner, and proceeded to tell me bullshit excuse stories about what he was doing when we caught him and that he was JUST coincidentally arriving when we had... I didn't have the courage to tell him I knew he was lying.

I do not remember if this was the first time he was caught hovering by L.'s bedroom window, but it was not an isolated incident. It happened multiple times (I don't recall how many). I believe, the roommates caught him at least once more (before or after the time I was present for), and once she herself woke up to see him starring at her. It finally ended when she put up curtains or some sort of cover in the window... though he would show up frequently after dark ringing the door bell or knocking to "check if she was around"... 

As Drumheller is a smaller town, most of our socializing was at the bars. There were three main ones museum staff would go to. I don't recall if this evolved due to Aaron, but what I DO remember is our not openly sharing WHICH was going to be the meet up for a particular evening until he wasn't around at work... Aaron began a nightly habit of walking between the various bars on patrol to "casually" bump into L. should she go out.

It got to the point where she was self isolating and hiding at home out of fear of his "just showing up" constantly. To try and re-empower her, we decided to dress up in costumes one night and go pseudo confront him. She dressed up as a bee from a popular music video and vented in a silly way (her style!), but the "aggressive" strategy was me and one of the roommates cross dressing. I came in, in drag, and sat down between Aaron and L. Every time he tried to talk to her, I'd interrupt and pretend to flirt with him. He did not like this, and after about 15 minute angrily stormed out.

There were numerous other incidents I was not present for, and now only have half memories of. So I won't muddy the waters with them.

My main role ended up being the L. household's lookout. Aaron's two sidedness (the fossil expert vs the predator) came into play in these early days. My rather academic roommate fell in with Aaron's science passion. So they were hanging out all the time. Meaning I was hanging out all the time. I was not a fan, given what he was doing to my friend's house... However it meant I could be a spy of sorts.

The moment Aaron left my place, I knew his "having other things to do", meant he was going to embark on the 10 block walk to L.'s house. So I'd immediately call them and give them the heads up. It helped prepare and prevent house call ambushes. They'd either go out, or make the house "battle ready", by looking outwardly like they were out.

The final major incident, and the one for which the RCMP complaint was lodged, happened at an otherwise normal night out at the bar. I do not recall details of the beginning of the evening, but Aaron's arrival and departure that night are my main memory of him.

Towards the end of June, Aaron's predation and inappropriate behavior was a widely known secret amongst the summer staff (who all hung out as a rough unit). People had taken to telling Aaron one hangout venue, and we'd actually end up at another... I did not practice this myself, and I wish other's had not. It just made Aaron angry, and if L. was present when he'd arrive, he would get very aggressive and possessive towards her as a result of the lie and wasting of his time and energy.

This one evening in late June, someone had lied to Aaron again, and he was absolutely livid when he tracked us down. He stormed in, and beelined straight for L. He immediately got physically domineering towards her, and was making it clear he was not going to let her leave his proximity. She got instantly uncomfortable, and tried to get away, and he tailed her.

L. hit a point within 15-20 minutes where she couldn't take it anymore, and made for the door. He was hot on her heels... This is where L.'s disorganized supporters (my biggest regret, is I wish we'd pooled our efforts sooner) sprang into action. Her roommate and myself were in pursuit, as was his landlord (the true hero of the story!). Aaron grabbed L.'s arm incredibly violently, leaving finger bruises across her arm right in front of us, and at this Aaron's Landlord physically intervened shoving him away and berating him for his unpaid rent (but just as a front to protect L. I must emphasis!). Giving L. a chance to escape with roommate. The landlord and I tailed him home, as we both lived in that area, and I deemed she could use some backup after the confrontation.

The next day L. was encouraged to go to the Police, and a complaint was filed. However Landlord in around this time discovered the Van incident(s), and began using this to get rid of him. She had little faith the museum could discharge him due to harassment easily... especially as he did not do it towards L. at work (he was out at the day dig site all the time)

She was successful. He was called into a meeting. Part of his dismissal I was told, included being for claims of harassment, and that as a result he was barred from the Tyrrell. I am not sure if this is still (or ever was formally) mandated, but Landlord was confident of it at the time. 

In the grand finale, we were so worried about Aaron's demonstrated following up on things, that we took L. to the Day Dig site, to protect both her and the program site from potential revenge.

 We had reason to believe he did stop by the L. household (he was spotted close and walking in their direction by a staff driving by), but no one was home (they were at the dig site), and my roommate and myself were dismissive to him in his desperate phone calls to our place for help or support that last day. Thankfully he gave up on the museum and town by midafternoon, and was observed by staff catching the early evening Greyhound out of town. 

Thankfully that was the last time I had to directly speak with him. He tried to add me on facebook in the early 2010's but I blocked him without responding.


As I wrote above, I have included most of the detail provided by this witness so that readers can get the full context of the long and drawn out predatory behavior van der Reest exhibited towards L., and the valiant efforts that her friends made to protect her. This account was confirmed to me by another source, with direct knowledge of the circumstances of van der Reest's termination from the museum. This source writes (again, I have redacted a few phrases that might identify them):

... to confirm Aaron's reason for termination from the Museum... The official reason for his release was not for sexual harassment, it will have been for lack of performance or some such thing. I don't recall the actual wording but do remember having a number of conversations with him regarding his "creepy" behaviour. Creepy was the word used by a number of his co-workers. I had only ever received complaints about him making his co-workers feel creeped out. Even after some candid conversations he could not demonstrate a change in his behaviour, that was his chance. After which his employment was terminated.
There are perhaps a number of justifications for why his termination wasn't listed as sexual harassment, but none of them are really valid through today's lens or any lens for that matter. This most likely would have been the first signs he was a predator.... But I can say it was clear to him and to everyone in the room why he was being terminated.

I was always proud that I did the right thing... I often use this as an example of having difficult conversations and doing the right thing no matter what, but now I feel like I didn't do enough...

This source felt that they did not do enough because, by not officially terminating van der Reest for sexual harassment but using other pretexts for letting him go, the museum allowed a younger sexual predator to blossom into an older sexual predator, which he was later to become according to the accounts of the numerous witnesses I cited in my original report. Van der Reest was able to tell people that he was let go from the museum unfairly or for some minor offense, such as the misuse of the van.

I quoted Phil Currie above saying that he heard about this early incident around the time of Trump's election, that is, the winter of 2016/17. When I asked him to tell me more about what he heard, he cut off all further communication. However, according to witnesses, Eva Koppelhus knew as early as 2013, around the time that van der Reest came to work with her and Currie, that the new student had run into trouble at the Royal Tyrrell, although it was not clear how much Koppelhus knew about what the trouble was. Nevertheless, the couple's responsibility to find out what had happened was engaged early on; and after Currie heard that it involved sexual predation, there was no excuse (then or now) for them to do anything short of finding out all the facts (and there were many who would have told them had they asked.)

Nevertheless, as I reported earlier, Koppelhus continued to defend van der Reest even after numerous women had complained about his behavior, and several sources have told me that she blamed the women for "putting themselves in that situation."

With Currie and Koppelhus as his van der Reest's very powerful protectors, others who tried to do the right thing, or wanted to do the right thing, were at a loss. "Many of us have felt helpless to act because we fear the impact on our careers, especially if we burn bridges with a world-leading paleontologist," one researcher told me. "At the same time, we [were] dismayed by the inaction of the [University of Alberta] and its staff, and that Aaron has been allowed to continue in his career without any consequences."

On to Saskatchewan.

Luis Buatois

As I reported earlier, thanks to letters of recommendation from Currie, van der Reest was able to secure a graduate student position at the University of Saskatchewan, in its geological sciences department. His advisors for his PhD work there are Luis Buatois and Gabriela Mangano. 

Gabriela Mangano

I do not yet know exactly what they knew about van der Reest when they agreed to be his advisors--neither they nor the university will respond to such questions--but I do have it confirmed that they are fully aware of his history now. Yet as of this writing they are continuing to serve as his advisors, and the department--apparently out of fear of a lawsuit if they do not--is reportedly allowing him to teach undergraduates face to face. This has caused a great deal of internal concern in the department, among undergrads, graduate students, and at least some of the faculty, but so far there is no indication that anyone is willing to do anything about it. Due to circumstances that I will describe in an upcoming post, that may soon have to change.

I have talked to a few colleagues privately who say they think it is unfair to call Currie and Koppelhus "enablers," and I understand the instinct to think the best of researchers who have contributed so much to paleontology. Believe it or not, on the scientific context, Phil Currie is still one of my heroes too, and I often talked to him when I was covering dinosaur and bird evolution for Science magazine. But the fact is that without their support for van der Reest over many years, he would not have been able to harass so many women. And if they were concerned about his career, they should have made it clear to him that he had to change his behavior. There is no evidence that they ever did; in fact, just the opposite.

Enabling and enablers of abuse do not wear signs on their chests identifying them as such. It's the daily acts of looking the other way, making excuses, writing letters of recommendation, and even attacking the victims, that add up to complicity with the abuses. This is what now needs to change, and for which we now need to show zero tolerance.

Post a Comment


Lee Rudolph said…
That is such a depressing and infuriating story. It was wonderful that a group of people--your informant and the persons described in their account--rallied around L., and it was certainly good that that program removed the harasser; but passing him on like a hot potato, to a new program where he apparently acquired enablers, was very bad. I got my BA 53 years ago (at a university which only began to admit women undergraduates the year after I graduated in its last all-male class; and which had a very small fraction of women graduate students, particularly--but not exceptionally!--in mathematics), then got my doctorate at a large institute of technology which had just that year (plus or minus 1) enrolled for the first time a first-year class with 100 women in it.

There were, I think, fewer than 10 tenured women faculty in the entire institute until several years later, and none in mathematics during my five years there. I got to know many of the institute's few women faculty (several very well, one of whom I officially married 10 years ago), two or maybe three women graduate students in computer science, and non-faculty women employees in several departments; I also saw first hand the (local) development of "second wave" feminism in a variety of locale=specific contexts; and I was aware (that is: I was made aware) of what would now cover most or all of the #metoo spectrum.

But I was only involved (in minor, though i believe helpfully supportive, ways) in one or maybe two cases (and was undoubtedly blind to many more), none involving the kind of intra-lab dynamics that seem to be endemic to all the science and engineering disciplines that have labs (and similar things like digs), which mathematics really doesn't (though it seems to have more now than then): except for one. The woman I later married was traduced in a roman à clef published by a tenured writer in her program (as well as another, male, junior faculty member and the President and Provost): he wrote a transparent pastiche of her person, her apartment, and her children, all entirely recognizable, in which the narrator (again, transparently the author) raped her. (He'd written a similar scene in a play, but the raped student in that professorial fantasy was not an identifiable person.)

After the lawyers got done with him, he was enjoined from entering any room where she was, and from staying in any room that she entered. The paperback edition was rewritten to remove identifiable details from her portrayal (and those of the junior colleague, president, and provost); but he kept his job and tenure, she did not get tenure (though she was bought off with extra paid terminal leave, etc.), and her program fell apart anyway. It all worked out for the best.

The point of this long comment is, I guess, to say that it's depressing that there's so much shit, and so much more shit; but it's still wonderful that some shit gets called out, and some actually gets stopped; and that more and more people, I think, are more safely and effectively able to say, with e. e. cumming's Olaf, "there is some shit I will not eat".

Good night.