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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« The Duke Cancer Scandal and Personalized Medicine | Main | On and Off »

July 8, 2011

The Sames / Sezen Fraud Case: Holy Cow

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Posted by Derek

C&E News has an extraordinary piece on the long-running Bengü Sezen case at Columbia U. They've obtained two detailed reports from the federal government on the matter, and, well, pretty much all ones worst suspicions are confirmed:

By the time Sezen received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 2005, under the supervision of Sames, her fraudulent activity had reached a crescendo, according to the reports. Specifically, the reports detail how Sezen logged into NMR spectrometry equipment under the name of at least one former Sames group member, then merged NMR data and used correction fluid to create fake spectra showing her desired reaction products.

The documents paint a picture of Sezen as a master of deception, a woman very much at ease with manipulating colleagues and supervisors alike to hide her fraudulent activity; a practiced liar who would defend the integrity of her research results in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Columbia has moved to revoke her Ph.D.

. . .the reports echo sources from inside the Sames lab who spoke with C&EN under conditions of anonymity when the case first became public in 2006. These sources described Sezen as Sames’ “golden child,” a brilliant student favored by a mentor who believed that her intellect and laboratory acumen provoked the envy of others in his research group. They said it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Sames retaliated when other members of his group questioned the validity of Sezen’s work.

For more on this, see ChemBark, where the same documents have been obtained (via FOIA requests). Here's Part One, and Part Two. The site has been on this case for a long time now, and that's the place to go for the details - and if you're a chemist, or are interested in what human beings are capable of getting up to, you'll want to read them. Years of faked NMR spectra, faked reaction products, faked logbooks - this is surely one of the longest-running and most thorough frauds in modern organic chemistry history. I await Part Three!

Comments (126) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side


COMMENTS

1. leftscienceawhileago on July 8, 2011 10:20 AM writes...

Derek,
While we are on Fraud Friday, I would love to know if we will ever find out what happened in the Hellinga case.

The Duke committee that ran the protracted investigation didnt disclose anything to the public; the whole thing may just end up being forgotten in the sands of time. A shame.

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2. Sili on July 8, 2011 10:46 AM writes...

Sadly some people are going to use this as an excuse to smear all women in science, while ignoring LaClair.

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3. Myma on July 8, 2011 11:03 AM writes...


This paragraph in the article is also worth copying here:
"Worse, the reports document the toll on other young scientists who worked with Sezen: “Members of the [redacted] expended considerable time attempting to reproduce Respondent’s results. The Committee found that the wasted time and effort, and the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had a severe negative impact on the graduate careers of three (3) of those students, two of whom [redacted] were asked to leave the [redacted] and one of whom decided to leave after her second year.”"

Those poor other students, graduate school is stressful enough without having falling into this situation, and then having to or being forced to quit.

I had a professor on my committee who asked me a question for my (first) A exam. He hammered me for a long while about how I didn't know the answer, that the correct answer is such and such, all the while I am quavering at the board with marker in hand. Needless to say I was failed on that attempt. Weeks later after I emotionally calmed down, I look it up, and he was wrong and my initial answer was right. My advisor didn't really care, or at least profess to me that he cared. -Fortunately for me- my second A exam went smoothly and I did eventually go on to get my PhD. But these three students, not so lucky.

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4. Anonymous on July 8, 2011 11:17 AM writes...

Completely agree with #1, Duke needs to release the details of the Hellinga investigation. Since Homme requested the investigation himself (in the pages of Nature), it strange that he hasn't pressured Duke to make the findings public.

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5. Innovorich on July 8, 2011 11:26 AM writes...

#2 - why? No they're not. That's irrelevant!

And now apparently this woman got another PhD in Germany, and is a professor in Turkey?!

As long as academia is dominated and incentivized purely by the need to publish, this will continue to happen.

All the time we see academic labs publishing repeatedly on unrepeatable work - sometimes for decades at a time!

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6. Terry Liu on July 8, 2011 11:47 AM writes...

Female PHD students in chemistry-golden girl and old man

I found the interesting phenomenon here in North America, especially in an old lab with a group more than 10 ppls working there.

Firstly, there is a very old guy who is in charge of every thing in the lab, usually it is a old weird guy, he know all the detail of the lab, the light, the fridge, the fumehood, the pump and where is the nail for the instruments, in short, everything except woman. He is the second boss of the lab, he worked in the lab even before I am born.

Secondly, there is also a young girl, usually a PhD student there, she is smart and cute, at least superficially, she knows all the behaviour of the ppl in the lab, and knows who is later and who is off early everyday, he can do anything in the lab, even he fire a fire in the lab would not bring him any trouble. Unfortunately she takes it for grant to report everyone’s detail. She likes to report all the information to the boss, usually a middle aged man, who pretends to love science. In addition to that, she is the most favourite ppl by boss and they have conversation so often, and someone find that she always offer her leg to the boss for make him happy, but no one in the lab want to disclose it, I guess it is not sex harassment, conventional relation? I don’t know.

Finally, there is a middle aged boss in the office, he opens his door to the hallway everyday, showing that he is quite busy working. He likes to get the email from his golden girl to learn what happened in the lab, as well as spend most of his time thinking about the management of the lab, for instance, distributing projects, to calculate how many developing country students he can hire this year, how to give the most difficult task to these poor labour guys.

This is the rule of golden girl and old man in lab. Is this lucky for scientific research? Or sad for America? I discard America dream, instead, I have a Chinese dream now!

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7. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on July 8, 2011 12:09 PM writes...

@Myma:
Those three students were lucky. They got fired and now have the opportunity to start their real lives early.

I wish that I had been fired in my second year. I could have started my life 8 years earlier.

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8. Hap on July 8, 2011 12:15 PM writes...

2: if you can get NIH or whoever funded LaClair's hexacyclinol "synthesis" (whatever it is), then maybe it will be resolved, but because it was a total synthesis of the wrong structure, no one's going to get funded to redo it, and the paper will probably never be disproven. (Even then, it might be like quinine, and the lack of reproducibility might not mean it wasn't done.) Without the ability to get actual information on the research, LaClair's synthesis will remain undisprovable. Fortunately, this fraud is eminently provable.

As for women in chemistry, well, it's not like people who thought that women shouldn't be chemists needed actual anecdote, much less evidence, to impugn their efforts.

Sezen's dishonesty deserves all the invective it's getting - she wasted a lot of people's time and effort (and apparently, at least one grad student's career). Generalizing to all women is a stupid mistake, and its stupidity shouldn't obscure her fraud.

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9. Anonymous on July 8, 2011 12:15 PM writes...

Didn't I see this on an episode of "CSI Miami?" But I think the Russian mob was involved in that one...

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10. Hap on July 8, 2011 12:19 PM writes...

Based on the name of the PDF of the FOIA'd documents from C+E News on the Sames/Sezen case, ChemBark may have been the original FOIA requestor.

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11. Algore on July 8, 2011 12:41 PM writes...

Secondly, there is also a young girl, usually a PhD student there, she is smart and "cute"

Cute.. we are talking chemistry here. I have not seen too many cute chemists in my lifetime. There is cute and there is chemisty cute

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12. Old Timer on July 8, 2011 12:52 PM writes...

Algore is exactly the reason there are so few females in STEM fields. Ugh.

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13. Hap on July 8, 2011 1:25 PM writes...

I think C+E N got it independently (as Dr. Lowe said). Sorry.

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14. Ed on July 8, 2011 2:24 PM writes...

Derek,

After reading your piece and the piece on the Chembark blog my immediate reaction was that a lot of time and energy was wasted on the investigation. Why not just put Sezen in a lab with only the required reagents and have an impartial auditor observe the reactions. If they work, great. If not, then there is no doubt fraud is taking place. Seems like an easier solution.

Cheers,

Happy Friday.

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15. Anonymous on July 8, 2011 2:52 PM writes...

Terry Liu: Completely bizarre notion of life in US labs. (And yes, I'm female.)

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16. Anonymous on July 8, 2011 3:07 PM writes...

I have personally seen the golden child phenomenon in two different companies. The golden child could do no wrong and anyone who commented about the number of choice projects he got or complained about the way he treated his colleagues in public, was instantly persona non grata.

I don't know how much fraud took place but plagiarism? Definitely.

Golden children have a way of eliminating their competition. The guy in charge relies on them to their detriment.

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17. startup on July 8, 2011 3:33 PM writes...

#13 C&N may have gotten them independently, but the file name certainly suggests that it was generated based on ChemBark request, so at the very least he was the first one to file it.

#2 That's just silly.

#0 "Colombia U"? I like it!

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18. student on July 8, 2011 4:07 PM writes...

In related news, J.J. LaClair strikes again--in Angewandte, no less! They still let him publish there--what are these morons thinking!!

10.1002/anie.201102546

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19. @18 on July 8, 2011 4:16 PM writes...

RUFKM?! As if the hexacyclinol imbroglio weren't enough to preclude future publication in ACIE! Who do you have to #### to get published in that journal anyways?

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20. newnickname on July 8, 2011 4:47 PM writes...

"The Committee found that the wasted time and effort, and the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had a severe negative impact on the graduate careers of three (3) of those students, two of whom [redacted] were asked to leave the [redacted] and one of whom decided to leave after her second year."

They were bahramed (defined and more examples in Note 10(b) of "serendipity" article at wikipedia). (Can't include links in posts.)

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21. Steve on July 8, 2011 5:39 PM writes...

I had my undergraduate organic chemistry students write a peer-critiqued research paper about this whole scandal, and I hope it was an eye-opening experience for them. We used this episode to discuss academic dishonesty and responsible conduct of research. Scientists are really smart people, and eventually a cheater will get caught. A few students jumped on the idea that Sezen and Sames were in a relationship. I'm just waiting for the cheesy TV movie to come out.

By the way, does anyone know for certain how to pronounce Sezen's advisor's (Dali Sames') name? I've always wondered. Is it pronounced "sahmes", "sahmish", "sahmesh"? Am I close? Hopefully this will give someone a giggle.

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22. IwasThereMan on July 8, 2011 7:19 PM writes...

@ Steve: it is pronounced SAHM-esh. I was in Sames' lab at the time when this went down and I have to say the C & E account is brutally accurate and not overstated. I don't want to be cliche, but I will back my old boss by saying he is a good, honest, smart guy who took too much on faith from an extremely clever, deceptive girl who unfortunately put her talents to bad use. We're talking snake-in-the-garden-of-eden deceptive. After experiencing this, i wonder how much of this goes on unnoticed in other places. . . . the real amazing thing about this story is actually how she was discovered, which is to the credit of an extremely bright post-doc who didn't roll over and play dead when he couldn't repeat her results. I can still remember the look on her face when she came back from vacation to see her boxes of NMR's piled up in the hallway, completed ravaged. It's been a while since i've even thought about this. . . thanks for shaking the memory tree Derek and C&E!

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23. Renee on July 8, 2011 7:57 PM writes...

"he is a good, honest, smart guy who took too much on faith..."

Yeah, but wait - he's a professor of chemistry. He's not supposed to take things based on faith. He's supposed to take things based on data. When all this was going on, did he ever once critically look at the work she was doing? Did he ever once wonder why her results for so much better than anyone else's?

And if Sames is so good and honest - has he apologized to the three former graduate students whose careers were ruined by this fraud? Now, that would be the epitome of goodness and honesty.

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24. milkshake on July 8, 2011 8:37 PM writes...

@22 I know Dalibor Sames since we were junior high kids doing chemistry olympiade in Czechoslovakia, and throughout the years I run into him in Prague and here in US repeatedly. I never worked for him or with him. He is very intelligent and ruthlessly ambitious guy but not quite impressive as a methodology guy or an organometallic chemist. He always seemed more interested in self-promotion and career advancement than in having a deep mechanistic understanding or developing a solid practical methodology. My assessment of Sames personal decency and integrity is also very different from your impression... but thats probably because our background and experience differs. But regardless of whether one is smitten by Sames charisma, and no matter how crafty Bengu Sezen has been, Sames did not have to push 3 grad students out of his group unfairly (for not being able to reproduce those fake results). And he should have not slept with a group member while he was her PhD advisor.

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25. Fishy Fish on July 8, 2011 9:13 PM writes...

This reminds me of a similar, but less publicized case happened in Ron Breslow's lab at Columbia Chem Dept in the mid 80's. In that case, this female grad student of his faked the data of catalytic chlorination reaction (artificial enzyme stuff). I was at the department at that time and knew that girl. If my memory serves me correctly, Breslow had almost everybody in his group trying to repeat her results. Columbia, at mean time, gave the student every opportunity to repeat her work anywhere she might choose. She knew that the data were fake. She just left the Dept without getting her Ph.D. I wonder how Breslow feels about the way Sames handles the situation.

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26. IwasThereMan on July 8, 2011 9:45 PM writes...

@24. . . your impression of Dali is not totally inconsistent with mine, ruthlessly ambitious is not inaccurate. I do think he was careless, but not complicit. I didn't think he slept with her, but you may know better about that so i wouldn't argue. Dali used to tell stories about doing chemistry in his mom's basement. . . i wonder if you were there :-)

cheers-

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27. Fact-driven on July 8, 2011 10:16 PM writes...

I had a similar experience at Harvard. My sneaky formal colleague did a "copy & paste" job to get surprising data. He told me the boss would not happy if the data is not impressive, and I could not say the truth but showed the real result. I was one of the low-evaluated post-doc by the boss. In the end the boss asked other friend to repeat the experiment and my result was proven the fact. Sames cannot be free from the fraud.

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28. Jose on July 8, 2011 11:46 PM writes...

First, it is staggering to me to think how much time and energy that level of fraud must have taken- as much time as the method development itself ?! It isn't unreasonable for Sames to think that so much fakery would very unlikely.....

Second, does anyone really think a dinky letter from the dean is going to repair the massive damage to those three chemists' careers? I can only hope they are all in med school, or have MBAs, or what-have-you....

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29. Anonymous on July 9, 2011 12:15 AM writes...

The comments from this blog entry alone are enough for me to assemble a script that Fox would probably buy and make into a movie. If I collected all the comments from the other blogs, I could probably get to MTV level, just suggest that the cast of Jersey Shore play all the characters.

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30. Anonymous on July 9, 2011 1:15 AM writes...

@22 "honest, smart guy who took too much on faith"

You must be kidding. I've beein doing this for a long time and everywhere I've been in every single instance when the paper is about to be submitted every piece of data is put on the table and checked. It's done for a simple reason - we are not in faith business, we are in data business and the data must unimpeachable. So to me Sames' behavior is not gullibility or simple lack of oversight, I think he failed to do his job as a PI and did so willfully.

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31. Jose on July 9, 2011 3:59 AM writes...

Hey Hap, re: quinine, you've seen this, right? Quite possibly my favorite paper of the past decade or so..... the supp info is nothing short of staggering.

"Rabe Rest in Peace: Confirmation of the Rabe–Kindler Conversion of d-Quinotoxine Into Quinine: Experimental Affirmation of the Woodward–Doering Formal Total Synthesis of Quinine"
Smith and Williams

Angew Int Ed Volume 47, Issue 9, pages 1736–1740, February 15, 2008

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32. GladToMoveToProcess on July 9, 2011 7:16 AM writes...

I had some very counterintuitive results in my post-doc, also at Columbia. These were irrelevant to the main thrust of the research, but my advisor had someone else repeat the experiments before publishing. It hurt my feelings a bit at the time, but was the right thing to do.

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33. Been there on July 9, 2011 8:43 AM writes...

Back when I was in graduate school, I spent a year trying to identify one intermediate in an organometallic reaction. At the time, I got what I thought was considerable pressure to lie about the results and just say what it was. I never was able to prove what it was (I did years later as newer techniques were available) and I was decided the redheaded stepchild because I couldn't. While I wasn't told directly to lie, the hints were still very blatant. However not agreeing was good practice for life in general.

I've since seen similar cases and also the "golden child" affect - both worldwide sadly. I think the person going after the Chinese dream is about to be horrified as it is as bad or worse there.

As to women in chemistry, I didn't think there was still a problem. My last four post docs were women as were half of my graduate students before I escaped academia.

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34. IwasThereMan on July 9, 2011 11:16 AM writes...

@30: That's just not how it's done in a lot of labs, though i agree with your ideals on this one. I run my group as you describe, I learned from Dali's example.

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35. anon the II on July 9, 2011 3:01 PM writes...

When I was in graduate school, I knew a woman working in Efraim Racker's lab at the same time as Mark Spector. She said it was the same thing. "Why can't everyone else be as good as Mark?"

Well...

Mark was perpetrating one of the more infamous frauds of the last few decades.

see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retraction

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36. PDF on July 9, 2011 4:43 PM writes...

@ 22. Nice try Dalibor Sames.

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37. pharmadude on July 9, 2011 4:52 PM writes...

Most PIs, especially older ones in my opinion, don't double check data. Many of them, again in my opinion and experience, encourage thier students and post-docs to 'stretch the truth'. 'Come back when the yeild is >90%' they say. Sure enough, a week later the yeild is always a bit higher. I left academia because in