Taking a stand against abusive advising.

I have not spoken about this in public before with two exceptions: when speaking to prospective students or prospective employers with a need to know; during which I always speak with my own name (integrity demands so).  From today on I will speak openly to all audiences.

I was sad to hear SICB Division of Comparative Biomechanics was considering naming a student award after Berkeley professor Dr Mimi Koehl, who is a bad co-author and abusive advisor.  Naming a student award is implicitly about students, advising, mentorship, and the relationship and trust that must be between a professor and a student. There were other candidates, eliminated in the runoff process, who actually were good mentors in addition to outstanding scientists and it was time to speak out.

In 2010, I had an undergrad who was an Iraq veteran commit suicide.  My advisor was completely absent, giving talks and on sabbatical in Canada and Hawaii, and was no help; she compared the situation to why she divorced her first husband and later complained to other staff that we did not keep her informed.  I am a veteran too, and she insinuated that we all have PTSD (while I was writing a letter to his parents).  Bad things happen, that’s life; but the choices we make in how to deal with them tell us about one’s character. She used psychological pressure to force me to work on collecting data for a SICB 2011 symposium talk, which she told my committee was my top priority.  She tried to get me to remove content from an undergraduate poster so she could use it in her talk. I had nine undergrads remaining, we worked through Thanksgiving and Christmas to deliver a data set comprising tens of thousands of aerodynamic measurements, slides and draft manuscripts.  The large team was because the scope of what I was to collect would have taken 82 years to collect using methods devised by a previous student and used by unsupervised undergrads; the scale or appropriateness of what I was told to do was never considered. During that time, my grandmother died (I was the nearest family to be there during the end).  Koehl wrote in a card that I should find solace in collecting her data; and also contacted me on the day of the funeral trying to get me to convert a student’s recommendation letter to Word.  There were 4 other computer-capable people in lab; the only rationale for getting me to do it is to exercise her control – she knew I would not let my students down.

At SICB 2011, Koehl did not use what we provided, and instead gave a talk with few of our actual data and scientific conclusions, a talk which she has never shared the actual slides given; later when preparing the symposium paper I discovered she had intentionally replotted my data incorrectly – she refused to listen to my input on the paper without the intervention of others and ignored all but a few of my comments in the final version.  Koehl was absent during all preparations and method improvements, data collection and analysis; her only input to the actual science was 2 pages of Jackson Pollock scrawl of dinosaurs with smiley faces.  She exceeded deadlines on the symposium paper and I had to work on extremely short notice with changes she demanded by email from Hawaii.

Later, Koehl directed me to split my manuscript (which she still hadn’t read) into 5, claiming she couldn’t read it until she knew what journals and assigning a few to have herself as first author.  When I refused, she removed me from her lab.  She did not only remove me.  She removed my 9 undergrads (including minorities and women) who had worked for her despite the deaths of a teammate and family members. This is not behavior that should be rewarded.

Koehl did not provide comments on my manuscript for three years.  During that time, she gave talks on my work in China and in Florida and corresponded with other researchers referring to me only as “the student” (which is what she called me tonight), implying that my contributions were minimal.  She has a history of writing review chapters, articles, etc on student work that go out before (often years before) the student gets the actual full technical papers out; students comply because what choice do they have?

Good mentors do not tell their postdocs to work at Starbucks or their grad students not to embarrass them in front of colleagues. Awards should not be named after people who compare death of a veteran student to why they divorced their first husband. Co-authors should not have to wait 3 (my number) to 8 (other students) years for comments on manuscripts, or copies of SICB symposium slides of which they are co-authors.  Koehl tolerated off-color racist jokes from visitors about “that barnacle model – is he black?” and showed total insensitivity in writing exam questions about lynching.   When one of our undergrads gave his own SICB talk a few years later, she sat in the back rudely chatting away.  I am not the only student who has had problems with her of this nature; others have been driven from science either by neglect, by frustration, or because with 3-8 years delays they do not get papers out and are not competitive for funding or positions.  However, they do not speak out because they still need her recommendation even if they are getting a job out of academia. A postdoc told me students should succeed with the help of their advisor, not in spite of their advisor.

When I was finishing my thesis, Koehl blatantly attempted to manufacture panic by claiming I had to drop everything and work on her manuscript because the Chinese group was going to scoop it.  If she was worried they would, why did she give talks about the work to those she was worried about scooping us? The attempt was so blatant that UC Berkeley stepped in and issued an academic adjustment / restraining order instructing her not to contact me until my thesis was filed.  Koehl tried to make me sound crazy to my committee and to the departmental advisor assigned for such cases.

Koehl attempted to block my funding.  She stepped on physical models I had built for a labmate, destroying them.  She fell asleep in the talks of my new labmates and asked them unduly harsh (and incorrect) quals questions.  She intimidated my new advisor.  She conveniently “forgot” to do recommendations for the undergrads who had worked in her lab.  She confused the names of my undergrad minority women students and never bothered to learn the names of those working for her.  Just last year she emailed one of my former undergrads, now a medical student, with the same first name as one of her current students, demanding some bit of paperwork – my student was terrified and worried what to do.

When I went to publish Chapter 2, she attempted further delay, claiming she was on travel, or had to go to a banquet, or that she would read it right away.  It was clear she hadn’t read it in the 3 years intervening, and later claimed she “lost the email”, even though I had registered-mailed her a hard copy, and cc’d my new advisor on all the things I sent her and that she had said multiple times that she wouldn’t read it unless I said what journal when the journal was to be PLOS ONE from the beginning.  There were issues during review that I cannot discuss due to peer review requirements.  However, an advisor/co-author/last author should embody integrity in peer reviews, not draw questions about their collusion with competitors/hostile reviewers with conflicts of interest.

Bad advice in some book that students should fake confidence is destructive to careers; so is pressuring women students to house-sit for free while she was in Hawaii (the men were assumed to be able to fix machine tools or computers).  Outreach was to be outside of lab; it was suspected that inner city kids would steal all the “expensive equipment” in lab.  And contrary to what this professor said to my entire cohort during orientation, it’s OK to consider having babies – it won’t “ruin your career“.  Koehl’s published biographies make everything sound rosy but the truth is very different and the deception is very damaging to students and careers.

The worst is the psychological control; shaming and guilt-tripping; shifting expectations and targets, inconsistency, listening to the belittling of my fellow students that is the opposite of empowerment, shifting excuses for why what we needed was not done.  I worked over Christmas because she guilt-tripped me into it, mentioning a sick family member when really she was just at the beach with her grandkids.  When my student died and I needed support, she claimed she was out of contact but she was in Chapel Hill (where I know they have email, etc); seeing the poster on the wall with her name and the date my student died still makes me sad and angry (Koehl once told me, months later, “I can validate that you might be upset but you are wrong”).  I hated hearing students belittled for “not knowing how to write” when what she really wanted was just a different way of wording something.  Or “did not read your chapter because X is up for tenure and needs this other paper.”  Medical reasons delayed our stuff but never seemed to delay her travel or vacation plans; but if anythng was needed from us it was expected that the student respond right away.  The psychological control that no matter how bad she was, the students were terrified into not speaking out because that is not how the system works.  I will never let the demands of an abusive professor make my mother cry on Christmas again.

Why am I speaking out?

I speak out for those who cannot, because of the academic code of silence; and for my undergrad students. When awards are given based on superficial public perception, it sends a message to students of an abusive advisor.  It tells them either to shut up or quit! The profession will ignore abuse by those with names too big to fail (Berkeley Ombuds admitted so much when offering their sympathies), while student dreams, careers, health and welfare are expendable. People will vilify me for speaking; I don’t care. The way Koehl treated my labmates and undergrads made this decision 100% clear.

I have been told by other professors that Koehl says ugly things about me at meetings (such as the World Congress of Biomechanics, which she was a keynote speaker at).  That someone with such high office would use it to unfairly attempt to destroy a career is disgusting; I have never spoken about this until now because I too was bound by the code of academic silence, worried that she would at a word destroy my career.  No more.

I know what it is like to work for difficult, demanding bosses who are yet fair and care about their people.  I was a Navy lieutenant and I worked for five years for the most difficult and demanding nuclear engineering bosses in the world, where everything we did was high impact and the cost of failure was immense.  I learned how one should behave professionally and with integrity there and it is that training that requires me to declare when the emperor (or empress) has no clothes.  I speak out, even though it is damaging to me, because otherwise nothing will change. Honest signals are costly.

After working for her I changed advisors and completed my PhD; she could not stop me and my new advisor had the integrity to let me finish.  My students all followed me to the new lab, evidence that this is not just a “personal” problem.  I am not just “that student”, as Koehl refers to me, I am Dr Dennis Evangelista, I am Filipino, the son of immigrants, I have (without Koehl) achieved bachelors degrees and masters degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from MIT and the Naval Postgraduate School; I was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for my faithful service as a lieutenant.  I’m raising a guide dog puppy, to provide someone else with independence, mobility, and confidence; and I work with an inner city 3rd grade class.  I have worked with forty-something undergrads and have helped many achieve conference talks, journal publications, and a few with first-authored publications.  I consider the role of a leader to help the team to achieve things they did not think they could do, and these outstanding students are what I am most proud of.  I care immensely about my people; Koehl has taught me how toxic an advisor can be and motivated me to be the opposite of her.  If my career is over because I speak out, I still remain proud that I did not give in to abuse and that my students will still carry on.

#sicb2015 #mimikoehl #ucberkeley #sicb2011 #dcb


One Comment on “Taking a stand against abusive advising.”

  1. […] Take a stand against abusive advising. […]