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Lab sabotage deemed research misconduct (with exclusive surveillance video)

Yesterday, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, issued a finding of research misconduct for Vipul Bhrigu, a former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, debarring him for three years from involvement in US federally funded research and from serving as an advisor to the US Public Health Service. The federal register carried the note today. Bhrigu, now in India, was caught on videotape sabotaging the experiments of a graduate student in his lab at the univeristy last year. And today, Nature releases exclusive surveillance tapes, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act in Michigan.

Beginning in December of 2009, Heather Ames, a graduate student doing basic cancer research, began noticing problems with her research materials: switched labels on petri dishes, errant antibodies dumped into her western blots, and several instances of ethanol in her cell culture media. Suspecting that someone was intentionally undermining her work, she notified her boss, Theo Ross, who contacted university officials. The University of Michigan police launched an investigation, and eventually installed hidden video cameras in the lab. Within less than 24 hours of being put in, one camera captured Bhrigu acting suspiciously. Under questioning, he confessed, saying that he was trying to slow the student down. He was fired and taken to court, where he pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of property. He was subsequently ordered to pay more than $30,000 total in fines and restitution. He’s currently repaid just over $20,000 according to the online records for Washtenaw County court.


Video: This video, obtained by Nature via the Freedom of Information Act, shows Vipul Bhrigu carrying a spray bottle full of ethanol into the refrigerator where Heather Ames had stored her cell culture media and contaminating her reagents.

Nature covered the case in detail in September of 2010, but it was unclear at the time whether the federal government would take action. The ORI has the power to review investigations of research misconduct by universities where federal money is involved and make its own conclusions. But their definition of research misconduct is strictly limited to plagiarism, falsification and fraud. Ross says that her lab was asked to turn over to the ORI all notebooks reflecting work done at the time of Bhrigu’s alleged transgressions. According to the note issued today in the federal register, by intentionally tampering with Ames’ western blots on five occasions and switching the labels on four culture dishes, Bhrigu caused “false results to be reported in the research record.” In this case, says Ross, that’s Ames’ notebooks.

The notice goes on to say:

“ORI also determined that the subterfuge in which he freely engaged for several months constitutes an aggravating factor. The Respondent attempted to mislead the University of Michigan (UM) police by initially denying involvement in the tampering and refusing to accept responsibility for this misconduct. The Respondent eventually made an admission only after the UM police informed him that his actions in the laboratory had been videotaped.”

While the University has given the surveillance tapes to Nature, the interview tapes have yet to be provided.

A notice was sent to Bhrigu giving him 30 days to reply before the finding of research misconduct was made public. It is unclear at this time if he responded.

Bhrigu has denied to Nature any involvement in the label-switching and western blot tampering events, and he declined to comment publicly for this story. Ross says she’s pleased that the government took notice: “I think that this action of the ORI is going to cause more events to be reported. And I think it will start to unfold in the future in a positive way.” As for Bhrigu, she says, “I still feel sorry for him. Anyone who has to resort to the things he’s done has to be really desperate.”

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Brad Casali said:

    Does it really add to the story to have the video here? Sure, this is somewhat of an unbelievable story, but it lends very little to it, in my opinion.

    Stuff like this happens all the time in labs—surely I am not contending that it is okay to behave this way, however. But this sort of ‘publish or perish’ or trying to delay or fellow lab mates and coworkers progress in science by backstabbing and obfuscation needs to be changed.

    I guess it’s because of this common sense type of stuff that I am not completely surprised.

  2. Report this comment

    Brendan Maher said:

    Thanks for the comment, Brad.

    As for whether this is surprising, perhaps from your vantage point it isn’t. But a spokesperson from the ORI posted a blog saying that it was a very unusual case from their perspective. I hope it’s not common, and I actually don’t suspect that acts this egregious are. Certainly the feature I wrote explores the issue of what kind of pressure might have led him to this end.

    As for the video, it was important for me to get this as well as the one I’m still waiting for of the interview between Bhrigu and UM detectives.

    Throughout the reporting of this case, I worried if perhaps Bhrigu was being railroaded (so often we see blame assigned to a powerless postdoc) and I wanted to see for myself the evidence against him. I was fairly certain that the detectives and the court (and now the ORI) made the right decision, but I think our readers deserve to see the evidence if they’re curious. I know a lot of people who were.

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    Bruce Jenkins said:

    I think this is a very unusual case. As someone who has been in science a long time I have seen most types of fraud as either a reviewer, a confidant, or in a few cases, directly. The most common form is data trimming which I believe is more common than most would admit. The second, that is relatively rare, is outright fraud (fabrication, inflating n’s, editing figures, etc.). There is a fair amount of plagiarism and even more of an insidious variation on plagiarism e.g. – I copy your ideas and/or experiments, I publish a paper, and if I do reference your work (usually because a reviewer suggests it) I reference it very obliquely in a way that it is not obvious that I am doing essentially the same thing.

    However, I must confess that I have never seen sabotage or even heard about it second hand. It is not unusual to get poor reviews of grants and papers from outside competitors, presumably to slow you down. I have also seen very competitive junior investigators withhold data from each other on common projects and things of that ilk, but never downright sabotage. I think it must be quite rare.

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    Blair Madison said:

    I think Brad may be correct…. I was a graduate student at Michigan (2000-2005) and an almost identical case of sabotage happened to a classmate of mine. The perpetrator was caught with a hidden camera and eventually deported, I believe. Almost identical! This does happen more frequently than ORI thinks. Funding is tight, and some PIs pressure students/postdocs too much. Some can’t take it, so they get desperate; they either cheat (falsify data) or sabotage the competition. I know of many cases of the former, which is hard to catch on tape!

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