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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: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 19, 2011

Sezen / Sames: What Does it Say About Grad School?

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Posted by Derek

If you haven't seen it, Chembark has Part III of the series on the Sezen/Sames research scandal. And it's another good one, focusing this time on Prof. Sames and his responsibilities in the whole affair. Everyone who's interested should go over to Paul's blog to read what he has to say about things. He's not keeping things bottled up:

Apparently, there is a double standard when it comes to judging students and professors. I guess that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Apparently, students should be fired for failure to replicate fictitious results, but professors are to be rewarded with tenure for being so grossly negligent as to oversee the greatest case of scientific misconduct in the history of organic chemistry.

But that quote shouldn't give you the idea that his post is all invective - there's a lot to back up those statements as well. I'll add that I'm not surprised by a double standard, either - after all, tenured professors are around for years. They bring in grant money (and overhead), while students. . .well, they're transient, and there are always more of them where the last bunch came from.

And while I think it would be a good thing if some of that were to change, I'm not optimistic about that happening. Unstacking that deck would be very, very hard. What would help a bit, though, would be for graduate students (and prospective graduate students) to realize that the deck is stacked, or in some of the more extreme cases of cluelessness, to realize that the deck exists in the first place. Forewarned is forearmed. You are in a very unequal and potentially precarious position as a graduate student, which is one the reasons my standard grad-school advice is to get a PhD as quickly as is consistent with honor and propriety. Don't hang around one day longer than you have to. My own university educated me in that regard: whenever it was more advantageous for them to consider us students, well, that's what we were. Did it then, five minutes later, cost them less money and trouble with respect to some other issue to consider us staff? Then we were staff. Whatever put the university in a better relative position or allowed them to save a nickel.

That's not to say the world beyond graduate school is fair, because it isn't, of course. Wide-ranging hopes in that line will not serve you well. Fred Schwed put it well, quoting what he called "the falsest text in the language" (from Sterne), to the effect that the Lord tempereth the wind to the shorn lamb. "He doesn't, you know,, said Schwed. "Look around you". But at least in some other spheres there are usually more options, more means of redress, than are available to any graduate student. Those problems with university administration are small compared to the potential for trouble with your own professor, and in many cases there's not a damn thing you can do about it - even being in the right may help least of all. The students dismissed from the Sames group over Sezen's work appear, from this vantage point, to have been quite correct about her conduct and the quality of her work. In vain.

Comments (68) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School | The Dark Side


1. PharmaHeretic on July 19, 2011 3:27 PM writes...

A related question-

Given that university-based research today is almost exclusively repetitive, deliberately non-innovative and often fraudulent- would its disappearance be a good thing for science?

The dark ages ended when the influence of the church and clergy started declining. What are universities and professors today but modern day versions of religious institutions and clergy engaged in performing dogmatic and dishonest rituals which enrich them while hurting others?

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2. Soon To Be Grad Student on July 19, 2011 3:57 PM writes...

I'm just confused why Sames even still has a job, let alone how he attracts students. EVERYONE knows about this - and especially everybody in my shoes or who is interested the slightest bit organometallic chemistry or transition metal catalysis. There is no way in hell I would ever work for that guy, I'd got back to moving boxes around first. The best piece of advice I got from my undergrad adviser echoed your sentiment - don't worry too much about the labs with the shiniest instruments or the most toys, go to a program where you like the people, where you think you can pick an adviser who is not a jerk or a slave driver, and with whom you can work for five years.

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3. Aspirin on July 19, 2011 4:27 PM writes...

Pharmaheretic: Your assumption behind that statement seems to be that non-innovative research does not really advance science. As they say, we stand on the shoulders of legions of dwarfs; the non-innovative toilers provide the raw material that the geniuses then turn into gold. I agree with the part about fraud of course, but let's not underestimate the value of incremental work.

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4. Anonymous on July 19, 2011 5:01 PM writes...

You can always seek redress outside the law which can be a lot of fun. It's very educational for the faculty as well.

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5. Student on July 19, 2011 5:48 PM writes...

I can respect the rules in place to prevent false allegations from determining a faculty's career...but in this instance there is nothing but malicious intentions falling on these students from every direction...its mind boggling.

@ #1 Those issues listed wouldn't be as bad if university based research was meant to train students...but its not. Our jobs could be done with an army of technicians by the NIH...but technicians costs more than $21,000 a year...
I agree with Derek that we need to forewarn undergrads and are considering this type of graduate school work.

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6. PharmaHeretic on July 19, 2011 6:03 PM writes...

The real problem is that publicly funded research, especially biomedical & related stuff, has now become a spiderweb-like scam of dubious value.

Calling it by its real name, a scam, is the first step to restoring science. Getting rid of secular priests and monasteries is also necessary. I am not opposed to extra-'legal' means of achieving those ends. It is hard to feel empathy for slave-drivers, conmen and sociopaths.. I mean academics.

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7. leftscienceawhileago on July 19, 2011 6:06 PM writes...

We haven't heard from the any of the students that were allegedly affected yet; we should be careful about putting outrage in their mouths.

It would probably be too easy to identify them if they wrote something anonymous, but according to one commenter here and on Chembark, two graduated from other labs and the other apparently went to industry.

I wouldn't be surprised if all of them just are just too disinterested in Sames to really bother commenting on the whole situation. All of us suffer many smaller injustices on a day to day basis, the best way to deal with them is not give them any attention at all.

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8. Fishy Fish on July 19, 2011 6:48 PM writes...

What does it say about grad school - it is like "hell". If you want to work in your "beloved" chemistry field, you have to work like a slave, suck it up and go through it, hopefully with minimal amount of "permanent" damage. Most of schools realize that chemistry grad students probably are least likely candidates to donate a shining bldg or endow a chair. MD's, JD's and "know-it-all" MBA's probably have very different grad school experience.

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9. Terry on July 19, 2011 7:37 PM writes...

to 8
I cant agree more, the graduate school in chemistry department in US is the only leftover of slave system!

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10. not bob on July 19, 2011 7:54 PM writes...

It would be one thing if Sezen was the only one who could get the reactions to work. That is obviously suspicious. However, remember how she was originally caught out - she allegedly came in at night, read her labmate's notebook and dosed the flask with the expected product. For all we know she may have been doing that for years.

Think about what that would look like to Sames. It would seem to him that his other students were successfully repeating the work, and therefore that the chemistry was valid. The fact that the same reaction would "work" on some days and not work on other days for other students would look like bad technique by the student.

In short, given the sheer complexity of the fraud (including doctored NMR's) I'm prepared to cut Sames a little slack. Should he have caught it earlier? Maybe. Its easy to say in hindsight.

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11. John Thacker on July 19, 2011 9:46 PM writes...

"MD's, JD's and "know-it-all" MBA's probably have very different grad school experience."

Oh, but you should hear them complain about their debts. Especially the ones who didn't get that prestigious appointment or associate position that they "knew" that they'd get, just like every incoming PhD student who assumes that they'll get a tenure track position at a top school...

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12. John Thacker on July 19, 2011 9:50 PM writes...

Yes, #10, but Sames was, of course, first author on all those papers. As ChemBark put it:

Somewhere between 2005 and 2011, the beautiful work of Sames became the horrible work of Sezen. How is it that a professor can be given the lionshare of credit for a body of good work when published, yet escape the lionshare of the blame when the work is proven fraudulent?

Also note that Columbia specifically changed its misconduct policy during the investigation to remove the responsibility of supervisors.

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13. cookingwithsolvents on July 19, 2011 10:16 PM writes...

I'm not going to defend Sames specifically. There are some general observations I would like to make, though.

With respect to credit/blame...every PI has an established track record of publishing quality original research first as an undergraduate/graduate student/postdoctoral scholar, then develops an independent track record. Graduate students have no such track record and thus are the logical first place to look when something doesn't work the way it was reported, whether due to fraud or simple mistake. PP (and others) have very eloquently explained why the contributions of trainees are frequently not as much as the trainees think and even 1 year into my independent career I concur.

I also agree with comment #10. Faked NMR's? I couldn't and still can't even imagine how that is possible in the NMR software. Someone shows you a slide or printout which has the data points pulled into some other plot program, well, that's one thing, but if the acq parameters are all on the printout and the page obviously came from (e.g.) varian's software it wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years that the whole spectra was fabricated. I agree with the many comments to the effect of 'it would be easier to just do the science'! (and a hell of a lot more fun, too....)

How the f do you decide what number to use for the shifts? Ahhhh, this looks like 3.14159 ppm today...??!?!(*&*%^

The whole thing still blows my mind. I all ready dissect data with my students but I suppose we must all keep our guard up

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14. Anonymous on July 19, 2011 10:58 PM writes...

Although I suspect I will get labeled by some as a troll or a professor pretending to be a student, I wanted to give a slightly different perspective than any that I have seen above. I am in the 3rd year of my PhD program, doing natural product total synthesis at a top 10 school for a PI that many of you have probably heard of, and enjoying it. I don't work slavish hours and my PI does value my education, even when the things I am interested in studying will not help him get a publication. Are people like my PI a majority? I suspect not. Are we going to make the next wonder drug? I doubt it (although I would say the same thing if I were working in industry.) But based on my experience both here and elsewhere, I don't think that universities need to be burned to the ground, as PharmaHeretic seems to be implying. Well, at least not all universities...

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15. PharmaHeretic on July 20, 2011 12:44 AM writes...


Why burn useful buildings to the grounds, when only the faculty within them is deserving of it.

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16. markus on July 20, 2011 2:40 AM writes...

Isn't it all coming down to a single Point:
If we had a real quality control of scientific publications it would be a real step forward.
Personally I've suffered a lot during my PhD thesis from my own professor who thought that everything that is published is true!
This attitude certainly ignores the fact that 'true' is very dependent of your personal opinion.

So let's talk about solutions:
Isn't it time for public research institutions to fund some kind of 'reproducibility research'?
After all, false results and wrong conclusions do not seem to be prevented as long as papers are published by professors and (mostly) reviewed by other professors. That's rather a vicious circle that leads to bloomers like the Sezen/Sames scandal!

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17. Morten G on July 20, 2011 6:07 AM writes...

So half the comments complain that academia is doing the same work that everybody else is and the other half is complaining that work isn't being checked (I'm assuming by replication in a different lab).

Maybe some of these problems would go away if grant applications in addition to publication lists also had to include references where your work was replicated or built on in a different, independent lab. Job applications too for that matter.

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18. RB Woodweird on July 20, 2011 6:43 AM writes...

@ 14. Anonymous: I believe you. I have met PIs like that. When I was a second or third- year grad student and had finally realized what a horrible trainwreck I had gotten myself into working for an atrocious PI, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dave Hart of OSU. He was describing for us how he had a training program for his new grad students and how he went over with them all the basic techniques they would need to use in their work so they had a solid background and could be productive sooner. I just sat there like a slack-jawed idiot, amazed at the concept of a PI having an actual training program instead of tossing his students into the lab like Christians into the lion-filled Colosseum to see who might survive the learning curve.

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19. You're Pfizered on July 20, 2011 8:12 AM writes...


Please stop comparing graduate school, or anything, to slavery. Really.


Dave Hart is a great guy. I taught two advanced organic labs for him in graduate school and found him to be a very, very unique individual with the dedication to train, not crush, the people who worked for him. He was an outstanding teacher.

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20. Klaus Fluoride on July 20, 2011 9:03 AM writes...

I don't know Dave Hart but I really appreciate reading about a PI who does the right thing. The scandals and catastrophes draw a lot of attention, but it sure is valuable to have a positive example. The truth of the matter is that a lot of great science and training occurs in academic labs. A lot of PIs care passionately for their students. Some choose to give additional financial support to their labs rather than take the summer salary from their grant budgets. That is just the kind of daily hum-drum thing that doesn't garner a lot of blog posts. It's crucial to drag the gruesome details of the Sames/Sezen story into the light of day so we can learn from this episode. But let's also applaud Prof. Hart. I hope to learn from his example and the many others like him.

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21. Have you seen myHunsdiecker on July 20, 2011 11:27 AM writes...

Sames knew what was going on. It might not have been direct knowledge but at some point he felt it in his gut. We have all been there. You have plenty of data that looks good and you desperately want to have the compound, but you have you suspicions. You know that just that one additional test or piece of analysis will tell you that you don’t have the goods. What if you have already told your PI? It once took me two days to work up the courage to run a mixed melting point. Everyone talking about slave labor and terrible PIs should have met my boss. He was an asshole because it was his style of training. Grad school might have been hell for us but we were forged in fire and Im thankful for it. It should be noted that it took me a few years to reach this conclusion!

This Sezen woman is a monster. She will lose her PhD but she will likely provide doctorates for several psychology students who will use her as a case study. It’s only a shame that she will probably avoid criminal prosecution; otherwise she might have been forced to get some help.

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22. daen on July 20, 2011 11:58 AM writes...

I wish I knew who the students were who called out Sezen and stood up to Sames so I could contact them and put them up for a job a friend of mine has going at his company. These are, after all, exactly the kind of people you want on your side - smart enough to call BS out and principled enough to say they've called BS out.

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23. Ed on July 20, 2011 12:28 PM writes...

Daen #22 - you really going to wait around for 8 years to prove that someone else was talking BS?

I agree with you in principle, but in real life, things are different. 99.99% of rational folk would give up and move on, which is probably what Sezen was counting on.

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24. RKN on July 20, 2011 12:29 PM writes...

which is one the reasons my standard grad-school advice is to get a PhD as quickly as is consistent with honor and propriety

Good advice.

I defended my dissertation late in '09, 4.5 years after entering a program in Pharmacology. I was a non-traditional student (45 yrs old, no background in biology). I learned that finishing quickly minimally requires 1) a mentor who encourages you to publish quality work as early as possible, 2) makes editing your papers her priority, rather than letting drafts languish on her desk, and 3) the motivation to write early. Many steps in getting papers published are out of your control. Waiting until year 4 or 5 to publish one or more papers will likely delay your defense, in the case of some of my fellow students, a year or more.

Jiving with your PI's work ethic is also important, and matriculating an affluent lab doesn't hurt.

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25. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on July 20, 2011 1:22 PM writes...

Glad things are going well so far. Watch how your prof treats the students nearing the end. I was at a school once where one professor would treat his students very nicely until they got toward the end of their 4th year and really put the screws to them. He'd want multiple years worth of work in the last year of their graduate school careers. Evidently, he surmised that they could not just leave after being there 4 years, so he could treat them as he wished. There are a lot of students who have a good first three years and then they work under a different standard.

"There's a graduate student born every minute!"

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26. Terry on July 20, 2011 2:37 PM writes...

we got it, some insider already made fiction about this story, actually, one of the student being kicked out is a male Chinese.
all Chinese students in chemistry know this scandal now, and every one think that there is inappropriate relation between the student and prof.

the one being kicked out planed to sue Mr Sames due to his negligence.

发信人: littleboat (littleboat), 信区: Chemistry
标 题: 与Bengu在一起的悲惨日子(3)
发信站: BBS 未名空间站 (Tue Jul 19 22:42:46 2011, 美东)

的是一些贵金属钯铂之类的。用英文讲叫“coordination directed C-H activation".

Sames 的push在系里是有名的,不过俺不怕,自认搞科研还是有点创新力的,在国内就


量比的钯改进到只要催化计量的钯,开始产率不高,后来Sames 说要70%才能投稿,很


厚的工作全放进去了。一天她得意地说:“XXX(一个大牛,也是她的committe member)

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27. Terry on July 20, 2011 2:47 PM writes...

How about the prof?
will they revoke his tenure?

Official: Columbia Has Revoked Bengu Sezen’s Ph.D.
July 19th, 2011

Following an inquiry from ChemBark whe