Skip to Main Content

It was the summer of 2020, and she couldn’t have scripted a better start as a new M.D.-Ph.D. student — at least until everything went so very wrong.

She’d just been admitted to Washington University in St. Louis. And for a young trainee fascinated with the complex crosstalk between the immune and nervous systems, she’d struck scientific gold — the chance to work in one of the world’s top neuro-immunology labs. But things quickly changed. Over the next several months, the student says a postdoctoral mentor coerced her into an unwanted sexual relationship and pressured her to keep it quiet.

For a while, that’s what she did. When she finally told her professor, renowned neuroscientist Jonathan Kipnis, he didn’t notify the university’s Title IX office of the alleged misconduct, a step required by university policy. Kipnis initially told her he would immediately dismiss the postdoc, but then allowed him to stay another four months.

The experience irrevocably changed the student’s career plans, causing her to drop the research portion of her dual degree program to focus on her medical training — though it meant losing about $100,000 in financial aid. The alleged misconduct, and the university’s response, has roiled WashU’s top-ranked medical school, surfacing concerns about the role of drinking in the Kipnis lab, the school’s handling of previous cases of harassment, and the treatment of trainees more broadly in academia. Through emails, text messages, and interviews with the student and past and current faculty — including Kipnis’ first public comments on the case — STAT has pieced together a comprehensive account of what happened.

Unlock this article by subscribing to STAT+ and enjoy your first 30 days free!


Create a display name to comment

This name will appear with your comment