Two women have accused a prominent geologist of sexual harassment in a complaint to Boston University, Science magazine reports. The alleged harassment, which the university is investigating, took place two decades ago during field expeditions to remote parts of Antarctica.
According to a complaint filed by the women, David Marchant, who leads BU’s Antarctic Research Group, allegedly called female researchers misogynistic slurs, shoved them and blew painful volcanic ash into one graduate student’s eyes.
He also taunted female travelers, several women said, according to Science writer Meredith Wadman. “I’m going to break you down and build you up in my image,” they recalled him saying.
The accusations are the latest to call attention to sexist, racist or other degrading treatment in scientific arenas, an issue that has arisen in classrooms, laboratories, conferences and the field. But Kathryn Clancy, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois who has studied harassment in science, said that lewd come-ons and coercion in isolated locations are often different from bad behavior elsewhere. Sexual advances are more frequent, surveys have found. And the pressure to stay quiet can be more intense, she said.
During her studies, Clancy said she has been struck by how often people repeated the same phrase — “What happens in the field stays in the field.”
“There’s a certain kind of silencing that happens when you add the remoteness of the field to it,” Clancy told The Washington Post.
Two of Marchant’s former graduate students from the 1990s brought the complaint to Boston University last year. Other people who accompanied the women to Antarctica with Marchant issued statements supporting their accounts. Wadman wrote:
The first complainant, Jane Willenbring, now an associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, alleges that Marchant repeatedly shoved her down a steep slope, pelted her with rocks while she was urinating in the field, called her a “slut” and a “whore,” and urged her to have sex with his brother, who was also on the trip.
The other complainant, who was not named, said that Marchant’s verbal abuse was incessant, Science reported. She said that he swore to block her sources of funding, a threat that convinced her to abandon a scientific career. In a letter to investigators supporting these allegations, Hillary Tulley, a high school teacher from Illinois who accompanied Marchant to Antarctica on a research trip, wrote that “his taunts, degrading comments about my body, brain, and general inadequacies never ended.”
A representative for Boston University wrote in an email to The Post on Monday that “the University is conducting a thorough investigation pursuant to our Title IX procedures.”
In an email to Science, the 55-year-old Marchant wrote, “Boston University’s investigation into these allegations is ongoing. I have cooperated fully in that investigation. I do not wish to compromise the integrity of that investigation by making any comments before the investigation has been completed.”
Several of Marchant’s colleagues defended his character to the magazine, describing the alleged behavior as uncharacteristic of the scientist they know.
After the Science article was published Friday, a former undergraduate shared her own experiences several years ago with Marchant. In an interview, she recounted that he had told her she could go on an Antarctic research trip, only to rescind the invitation when a male student expressed interest. Marchant explained there would be physical labor involved, she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the possible impact on her career in Earth sciences.
In a public Facebook post she later made private, she wrote: “It was the first time in my life that anyone had ever implied that I would not be successful because I was a woman.”
The allegations against Marchant follow several others involving high-profile scientists in recent years.
In 2015, BuzzFeed published findings from an investigation at the University of California at Berkeley that astronomer Geoff Marcy had violated the school’s sexual harassment policy by touching and kissing undergraduates.
Last year, prominent paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond resigned his position as curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A museum employee accused Richmond of sexual assault, and in a subsequent investigation three undergraduate students said he groped them at a field site in Kenya.
In September, Mother Jones reported on a complaint filed by cognitive scientist Celeste Kidd against Florian Jaeger, a linguistics expert at the University of Rochester in New York. Kidd alleged that Jaeger sent her sexual messages and pressured her into renting a spare bedroom in his apartment, where he would mock her body and diet.
Jaeger had sexual relationships with a graduate student and a prospective student, a university investigation found. But officials initially determined that he had not violated any university harassment policies. He has since taken a leave of absence, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported.
Clancy and her colleagues surveyed field scientists about harassment in 2014. The results, published in the journal PLOS One, were disturbing.
Nearly 700 researchers responded — the majority of them women — and 64 percent reported sexual harassment in the form of inappropriate comments or jokes. Harassers targeted women far more frequently than men, with women 3.5 times more likely to report sexual harassment. The vast majority of those targeted were students, postdoctoral researchers or other trainees in positions of vulnerability relative to established academics.
“So far, a lot of the evidence does support what we call vertical abuses,” such as an adviser harassing a graduate student, Clancy said Monday. That power imbalance can lead to fears of professional retribution. In Willenbring’s case, she did not file a formal complaint until 2016, after she became a tenured professor.
Clancy applauded efforts that some field stations have taken to curb harassment. Residents of Toolik Field Station in the Arctic must complete Title IX and sexual misconduct training. “You harass somebody, you’re basically gone the next day,” Clancy said. “That’s not necessarily true for a lot of places.”
Too few field sites allow victims to independently report abuse, she said. In many cases, the lead researcher on an expedition might also be the person in charge of fielding complaints or the individual who controls the wireless Internet.
“If you’re in Antarctica and the [lead researcher] is the one blowing volcanic ash in your eye or pushing you down mountains,” Clancy asked, “who are you going to report to?”