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.”