In June 2011, Angie, a research student at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, was attending a popular Friday evening happy hour at the museum. During the event, she says, another scientist lured her into a hallway on a pretext and then suddenly groped her buttocks. That scientist was Miguel Pinto, a visiting researcher at NMNH and a PhD student at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. He admits that he did it. But the Smithsonian Institution, which runs NMNH, did little to protect Angie (not her real name) from further encounters with Pinto.
Pinto, widely regarded as a talented mammalogist, had a prior record of misconduct. In 2008, while a biology masters student at Texas Tech University, he was admonished for inappropriate behavior with an undergraduate. His advisor was Robert Baker, a legendary bat researcher. Baker was also, as one current student in the department opines, a legendary "dirty old man." Before Baker’s retirement last year, that student says, she witnessed him making physical contact with female students, including giving them hugs and backrubs. "He would come into the room and ask for hugs, but just the girls." The details uncovered by The Verge have now forced the chair of TTU’s biology department, behavioral ecologist Ronald Chesser, to step down pending an investigation of extremely sexist remarks he made at Baker’s retirement party last year, which were caught on video. The inquiry is also examining an alleged decades-long culture of sexism in the department.
Texas Tech is now examining an alleged decades-long culture of sexism in the department.
To some, what happened to Angie might seem like a minor "boys will be boys" episode. But for Angie, it was a traumatic violation. It left her a nervous wreck, terrified of running into Pinto again at the museum, and looking over her shoulder at every turn. Yet many NMNH personnel insisted on referring to actions that could constitute a sexual assault as a "misunderstanding," taking Pinto’s word for it that he would never do it again. The Verge’s reporting suggests that many administrators and researchers at the museum may have been blinded by Pinto’s supposed scientific brilliance and chose to minimize what he had done. Over the next several years, Angie was shuffled from office to office in Kafka-esque fashion, leaving her feeling hopeless and despondent. For Angie, the NMNH, which had been such a wonderful place to do research, now felt like a hostile work environment.
Over the past year, numerous sexual harassment scandals have surfaced in the sciences. Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, was found guilty of kissing and groping his female students. (Marcy resigned his position when the story broke in BuzzFeed.) Jason Lieb, a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, was said to have made unwanted sexual advances to graduate students; he also resigned. Caltech astronomer Christian Ott was suspended for harassment, a first in the university’s history. A paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, Brian Richmond, was repeatedly investigated for sexual misconduct. Angie’s story is an example of how systemic sexism in the sciences leaves many administrators ill-prepared to deal with victims of sexual misconduct.
All of the administrators involved at the NMNH we contacted have declined to comment, citing confidentiality rules, even though both Angie and Pinto have told their stories publicly. (Angie is using a pseudonym to protect her privacy, to avoid retaliation, and so she will be known for her research and not her status as a sexual assault victim.)
On the evening of June 3rd, 2011, Angie recalls, she’d gone to the student and staff happy hour. Pinto, whom she didn’t know well, was there, too. They struck up a conversation. After some minutes Pinto asked to borrow her cell phone, saying he wanted to call a friend. They stepped out into the hallway. No one else was around. Angie went to use a nearby restroom. When she returned, she saw that Pinto was accessing the internet on her phone.
She angrily demanded her phone back, she says, whereupon he suddenly grabbed her buttocks. Shocked, she grabbed the phone and ran back into the happy hour. "It was absolutely terrifying to have a near stranger’s hands on my body," Angie says. "He had lured me into an isolated space. I was overtaken by fear since I had no idea what was going to happen next. When I ran away I didn’t know if he was going to follow me."
Pinto admits to the basic facts
Pinto, in email comments to The Verge, admits the basic facts, including Angie’s assertion that he used the cell phone as a ruse to lure her outside. Pinto claims that he and Angie were "chatting and laughing" and that he received "verbal and physical clues" that she was flirting with him. Once in the hallway, he says, "I got nervous on how to respond to her flirting signals and I grab her behinds." (English is not Pinto’s native language.) When she rejected his advances, Pinto says, he realized that "I did a bad reading of the situation." He left the museum "very confused."
Angie flatly dismisses Pinto’s suggestion that she was flirting with him. "Chatting and laughing is what social events are for," she says. If he really thought she was flirting, she adds, "why did he feel the need to be dishonest? He could have asked for my phone number [and] asked me to go on a date with him."
Some female researchers who know Pinto describe him as socially awkward, and, as two of them told The Verge, they felt he was a little "creepy." A former student at Texas Tech, who knew Pinto there, remarks that "he had a reputation as a man you didn’t want to be cornered by at a party."
The day after the happy hour, Angie contacted her adviser. (His name is also being withheld to help protect her identity.) The adviser wrote a memo to the museum’s equal employment opportunity (EEO) specialist, Shadella Davis, reporting the allegations. Later he went to her office to discuss the situation. Angie and her adviser thought that these actions constituted an official report on the matter. They would only learn later, they both say, that this was not the case.
On June 7th, Pinto sat down with his own adviser, NMNH mammalogist Kris Helgen, for a counseling session. In a memorandum of the meeting, which both signed the next day, Helgen wrote that Pinto had acknowledged that the episode with Angie had taken place, and "that it resulted from a misunderstanding and misjudgment on his part." Helgen added that "Miguel gave me his assurance that such an event would never happen again."
In a written statement to The Verge, Helgen says that he had known Pinto since 2004, when he was still an undergraduate student in Ecuador. "I was not aware of any previous complaints about his behavior." Helgen says that Pinto did not tell him about the 2008 allegations at Texas Tech, although he cannot now recall whether he asked about prior episodes. (Anne Canty, vice president for communications at the AMNH, told The Verge that the AMNH did not learn of any allegations concerning Pinto while he was a PhD student there, nor did his doctoral supervisors, mammalogists Susan Perkins and Nancy Simmons.)
'He had a reputation as a man you didn’t want to be cornered by at a party.'
The encounter with Pinto left Angie badly shaken. Yet her real troubles were just beginning. After a few years mostly away from the museum, while she pursued her formal education, Angie made plans for an extended stay back at the NMNH. But just before a short visit in 2014, she learned, to her horror, that Pinto had been awarded two prestigious postdoctoral fellowships at the NMNH. The fellowships would overlap with the time she was planning to be there.
Angie pleaded with administrators to keep Pinto away from her. They included Mary Sangrey, a coordinator of the NMNH’s visiting students program, and later Tracey Cones, a human resources officer at the museum. "I was freaking out. I ran into Mary Sangrey’s office crying," she recalls. But Angie says that she immediately started getting the runaround.
Sangrey told her to talk to Shadella Davis, the EEO adviser. After some difficulty she managed to get her on the telephone. Angie says that Davis berated her for not having filed a formal report, but promised to figure out a plan to keep Pinto away from her. This was the first time Angie heard her report wasn’t formal. And when they talked again a few days later, Davis had changed her tune. "She said that because I had never filed a report, she had no obligation to help me." (Davis, Sangrey, and Cones all declined to comment for this story.)
It turned out that Angie, unknowingly, had not followed the official procedure for filing a complaint. That required her to go in person to a specific office at SI within 45 days of the encounter with Pinto. Both Angie and her adviser say that they were not aware of this rule, and that no one — including Davis in 2011 — ever told them about it.
It turned out that Angie, unknowingly, had not followed the official procedure
At the Smithsonian Institution, which follows federal guidelines for reporting sexual misconduct, "it’s the person who is harassed who has to jump through all the hoops, and the hoops are not always specified," says Conrad Labandeira, a paleobiologist at the NMNH who emerged as an advocate for Angie during her struggles to be heard by administrators. "Interacting with the administrators was maddening," Angie says. And the absence of an official complaint would play heavily in what followed.
Over the following months Angie attended several meetings with Sangrey, Cones, and other administrators. One of them included Eric Woodard, head of the Smithsonian’s office of fellowships and internships and a former aide to Hillary Clinton. Angie says that Woodard was dismissive of her concerns, telling her that it could have been worse and repeating Pinto’s assertion that it was all a misunderstanding. Woodard, Angie recalls, pointed to his association with Clinton as evidence that he was pro-woman. Angie says that this meeting "was a disaster. They ganged up on me." (Woodard declined to comment for this story.)
Angie’s hopes were raised when Sangrey suggested that she go to see Chandra Heilman, the Smithsonian’s ombudsman, to discuss her case. "I expected that Heilman would at least have treated me with respect, if not sympathy," Angie says. But that meeting went just as badly. "She repeatedly told me what a great scientist Miguel Pinto is," Angie recalls, something that she had also heard from Sangrey and others. Heilman said that people usually approached her because they had an ongoing problem with misconduct, but that she had "only one incident," Angie says. And when Heilman mentioned that alcohol had been served at the 2011 happy hour, Angie asked her if that meant Pinto should not be held responsible for his actions. "She refused to tell me why she had brought up the subject of alcohol." (Heilman declined to comment.)
"My right to a safe workplace was a thorn in their sides."
Up to this point, Angie referred to what had happened to her as "sexual harassment." But when she realized that no one seemed to be taking her seriously, she decided to look up the legal definition of what Pinto had done. According to U.S. Justice Department guidelines, and to Washington, DC law, making unwanted sexual contact is considered a sexual assault. (In Washington, DC, this is actually called "sexual abuse.")
Angie says that her treatment by SI and NMNH administrators took a heavy toll. "For over a year, I felt that they were trying to run me out of academia because my right to a safe workplace was a thorn in their sides," she says. "I cannot overstate how demoralizing this was. Oftentimes I could barely function because I was so despondent. I was left with the impression that because so many people consider me to be worthless, I had no future. My years of hard work as a researcher would amount to nothing."
But it seemed the administrators eventually realized they had to do something. In a lengthy email dated August 13th, 2014, Sangrey laid out a series of restrictions that could be put on Pinto’s movements in the museum, including specifying certain exits and entrances that he would use. But she also cautioned Angie to "avoid the areas where you would most likely find Miguel." Sangrey told Angie to "give us a heads up" if she wanted to attend an event where Pinto might be present. And on January 5th, 2015, after Angie told Sangrey that she would be in the museum for most of the following March, Sangrey emailed her that security would be alerted, "so you’re covered."
But on March 8th, shortly before Angie arrived, Helgen sent an email to Sangrey, Cones, Davis, and others, stressing again that the 2011 episode involved "poor judgement and a mortifying misunderstanding" on Pinto’s part and that he did "not expect that Miguel will again behave unprofessionally." Helgen added that while he had advised Pinto to avoid contact with Angie, "my understanding from conversations I have had with Tracey Cones is that we cannot restrict what events these two people can and cannot attend at the Smithsonian."
The following Friday, March 13th, Angie attended another happy hour. She was talking with a friend when suddenly he looked over her shoulder. "Miguel is right behind you," he said.
When Miguel Pinto arrived on the Texas Tech campus from his native Ecuador in the mid–2000s, he was already making a name for himself as a talented mammalogist. At TTU, he began working with Robert Baker, a legendary bat researcher. His star rose quickly.
But Pinto may have been learning about more than just mammalogy. In 2008, Pinto told The Verge, "I was accused of sexual harassment" of an undergraduate student. "I gave her back massages, and grab [sic] her breast until she said stop." Pinto relates that he met that same day with Baker as well as the biology department chair, who at that time was John Zak, an expert in soil microbes. (Zak is now associate dean for research in TTU’s college of arts and sciences.) "I was verbally warned," Pinto relates, "and I stay away from the student. I am positive that this incident at TTU was my worst mistake in my life."
"My PhD advisor warned me about him in 1993."
Baker’s own reputation may have given Pinto the impression that his conduct was excusable. According to several sources, Baker was well known for both verbal and physical harassment of female students, often in the guise of supposedly friendly banter and affection. A former student in the department says that she was "warned about [Baker] by other students almost as soon as I started the program." Baker’s reputation apparently spread far beyond TTU. "My PhD adviser warned me about him back in 1993, before I went to my first scientific conference," says a senior female mammalogist who works at another institution.
Baker was not alone in creating a sexually inappropriate atmosphere in the biology department, current and former members say. During the 2000s, Lou Densmore, a crocodile expert and also a former department chair, held annual Christmas parties with sexually charged themes, according to two former department members who attended the parties. One of them said that the parties included an exchange of sex toys. "It was really, really raunchy," this witness says, adding that they felt that "the actions of Densmore and other professors contributed to an atmosphere of sexual harassment" and the feeling that the biology department was "a hostile place for a woman to be."
In another departmental tradition, two sources told The Verge, some faculty would go out to ogle undergraduate women when the weather turned warm and everyone was wearing fewer clothes. Further, the sources said these faculty members would then return to the department and joke about it openly. According to the sources, Densmore was one of the participants.
Densmore did not respond to requests for comment on these allegations, and Zak did not respond to a request to discuss the 2008 events concerning Pinto.
However, Robert Baker, reached by telephone at his home in Lubbock, Texas said that he did not recall the sexual harassment accusations against Pinto. Baker denied engaging in any inappropriate behavior with students, including giving backrubs. Baker says that it was "not uncommon for people to walk up to me and give me a hug, both males and females. I tried to treat everybody equally and give everybody the same opportunities." (Another current biology faculty member told The Verge that Baker’s failure to remember the incident concerning Pinto could be due to his age and poor health.)
Several former female students of Baker’s, who asked not to be identified, said that he was an excellent mentor. These students said that Baker never acted inappropriately with them.
While the evidence of Baker’s inappropriate behavior may seem ambiguous, remarks made at his retirement party at the Texas Tech museum clarify both his own apparent attitudes and those of at least some members of the biology faculty. At the party, extremely sexist remarks and images were presented. The Verge has obtained a video of the event.
The first speaker was John Bickham, a graduate student of Baker’s during the 1970s who is now a scientist with the Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute. Bickham told a series of jokes that he attributed to Baker. In one, involving a play on words, young women athletes are clearly being referred to as "cunts." Another was about a competition to make up a poem with the word Timbuktu. The winning entry, according to Bickham — who illustrated it with a Powerpoint of couples having sex in a tent — was: "Tim and I a’hunting went/Spied three lovelies in a tent/In the morning wet with dew/I buck’d one and Tim buck’d two."
The last speaker, before Baker himself, was Ron Chesser, the department chair, who had collaborated with Baker on the health effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident on animals. Chesser’s Powerpoint presentation was entitled "Things Robert Baker NEVER said." Sprinkled among sometimes amusing anecdotes were blatantly sexist sayings and images.
One slide featured a photo of a young woman in a crop top, with her abdomen exposed down to low-riding jeans. According to Chesser, Baker never said, "Sure, those are nice, but what is her GPA?" In another, Chesser showed a photo of what appears to be a young female researcher; in this case Baker never said, "She is too young for me." And in what might be the pièce de résistance, Chesser pointed out that Baker never said, "I wrote the TTU sexual harassment policy." Chesser added that Baker had written a draft of the policy, "but he misunderstood what was being requested. Robert thought it was a how-to guide."
"Chesser perfectly sums up Baker," says one student in the department. Bickham, through a spokesperson at Battelle, declined to be interviewed, and Chesser did not respond to requests for comment. However, on October 6th, shortly after The Verge approached TTU’s communications chief Chris Cook for the university’s reaction to the video, Chesser was forced to step down as department chair, pending an investigation. The interim chair is now John Zak.
In a written statement, Cook said: "A potential issue in the Department of Biological Sciences was recently brought to the attention of university leadership and an inquiry process has been initiated. During this period, the department will operate under an interim chair. There will be no further comment until the inquiry is complete."
"I never really stood up for myself because I just wanted to make it through"
A former student in the department attempted to explain how these sexist behaviors and attitudes were able to persist for so long. "I never really stood up for myself because I just wanted to make it through and not rock the boat and endanger my career," she says. "I feel real guilt that I didn’t do enough to defend myself and my sex. It’s a shitty and cowardly mindset but a strategy for survival. I am older and braver now."
In this kind of sexist environment, an instinct for self-preservation is understandable. "The culture and climate of a lab or department must be incredibly toxic that a person thought it was an acceptable idea to take the time and effort to make a Powerpoint of sexist joke highlights," says Katie Hinde, an anthropologist at Arizona State University who has researched sexual harassment in the sciences, having seen the video. Miguel Pinto spent several years in that "incredibly toxic" environment.
Pinto says that he did not know Angie was there when he walked into the happy hour on March 13th, 2015. "Kris always told me to avoid her," he says. "I never realize she was in the same room. I never intended to harass or intimidate her, and I will never do." (Pinto initially answered, on the record, a number of questions posed by The Verge. But later, after he was asked about Robert Baker, he requested that his name and affiliation be removed from this story and he stopped communicating.)
A photo of Pinto, taken by one of Angie’s friends and which The Verge has obtained, shows him standing a few feet behind her, but with his back turned. Angie is convinced that he knew she was there, or that he should have, given all the warnings he had to stay away from her. There is no firm evidence, and there were no interactions between the two. Later that evening, Angie wrote a blistering email to Sangrey and Cones describing what had happened. She demanded a serious plan to insure that she would not encounter Pinto again during her time at the museum.
Cones responded on March 14th that she was "sorry" Angie was "having these experiences" and asked what Angie wanted management to do. (Cones did not respond to Angie’s suggestions until months later.) Sangrey, the same day, wrote a lengthy email expressing surprise that Angie had attended the happy hour. She also claimed — falsely, given her earlier acknowledgement of Angie’s plans to be there during the month of March — that she had not been notified of Angie’s arrival date at the museum until the day of the happy hour.
Pinto was given another reminder to adhere to "professional behavior"
On March 15th, Helgen pulled Pinto into his office for another conference. In a new memo, Helgen reported Pinto’s statements that he did not know Angie was there. Pinto was given another reminder to adhere to "professional behavior," and he was again given a copy of the SI’s harassment guidelines.
By this time, Angie says, "I felt there was no hope, either for me personally to be able to work in the museum without having to worry about running into him, or for attitudes and policies to change at the Smithsonian. I experienced periods of despondency that seemed as if they would never end."
For Angie, things had to get worse before they got better. The following June, when NMNH administrators realized that she would soon be returning, there was another flurry of emails. Brian Huber — then the chair of the paleobiology department, where the happy hours were held — wrote to Angie on June 8th, assuring her that "Miguel will be told he cannot set foot in Paleo again and that this issue will not just go away."
But by June 19th, Huber had apparently changed his mind. In an email addressed to Angie’s adviser and copied to Sangrey, Cones, and Helgen, he wrote: "Your statement assumes that Miguel Pinto is a sexual predator, but we don’t really know what happened. The fact that [Angie] did not file a report with the security office or police and did not claim that a ‘sexual assault’ occurred until long after their encounter is problematic." Huber added that "we need to be careful that we do not go too far and violate Miguel Pinto’s rights while at the same time [helping Angie] feel that she should not feel threatened when she is here." (Huber declined to comment for this story.)
Helgen, in an email to the group the same day, expressed similar concerns. Helgen referred twice to the 2011 episode as a "misunderstanding" and expressed his "very high opinion of Miguel, both in terms of academic background and conduct…"
"The fact that [Angie] did not file a report with the security office or police and did not claim that a ‘sexual assault’ occurred until long after their encounter is problematic."
Helgen insists that he followed the "institutional guidelines and legal advice" given by museum administrators. Helgen, who stresses that he is speaking only for himself and not the Smithsonian, adds that when, late in 2015, administrators finally decided to toughen their stance concerning Pinto’s movements in the museum, he did not put up any resistance. He "agreed to advise Pinto to fully avoid certain areas of the museums and events" where he might run into Angie. This shift in policy, sources say, is largely attributable to Maureen Kearney, the NMNH’s new associate director for science, whom Angie contacted about her situation after Kearney took over the job in August 2015.
(As for Helgen, he later had his own firsthand experience with the Smithsonian’s procedures: this year he narrowly escaped being fired for allegations that he engaged in research misconduct during an expedition he led in Kenya, after an investigation by The Verge showed that an inquiry into those allegations was deeply flawed.)
But Conrad Labandeira thinks that Helgen may have gone "above and beyond" what he was told by Sangrey and Cones. "Kris was enabled by the intransigence of Mary and Tracey that they were unable to make any allowance or accommodation for [her]."
"Sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct… constitutes scientific misconduct as well."
Labandeira, along with Angie, is also critical of the decision to allow Pinto back into the museum for the postdoctoral fellowships. Helgen insists that there was no choice: "I was advised by NMNH management that this was a confidential matter… that should not have been considered in fellowship reviews." But Labandeira counters that this was the wrong call. Competition for the fellowships is very stiff, and the candidates’ academic records are closely scrutinized, he says. "We should also be asking about their standing in the community. Other kinds of issues, misconduct, plagiarism, and so forth have to be put on the table. To not do that is a dereliction of a research scientist’s duty." Labandeira says he doubts Pinto would have received his fellowship if sexual harassment had been considered.
Katie Hinde, the ASU researcher who studies sexual harassment, agrees with this basic principle, though she declined to comment on this specific case. "Science is not just the data and papers, it is also the people and the process," Hinde says. "Sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct within the research community… constitutes scientific misconduct as well."
Advocates for sexual misconduct victims say that a key problem is that institutions may be more interested in protecting their reputations than helping victims get justice. That concern can result in an excessive reliance on secrecy and confidentiality, even when the identity of both the accused and accusers are publicly known. This may explain why administrators at the NMNH and Smithsonian declined to comment on the Pinto case, referring to the confidentiality guidelines.
"There’s no escaping what it looks like," says Janet Stemwedel, chair of philosophy at San Jose State University in California. "That [institutions are] maintaining confidentiality to avoid exposing details of a process that hasn’t been effective, that hasn’t been fair, and that would bring more negative attention if the details were known." Stemwedel adds that the institutions may think they have good reason to do this, such as avoiding litigation. "But building trust without transparency is hard."
Even at US universities, which — unlike the Smithsonian — are governed by the somewhat more victim-friendly Title IX of the education code, misconduct victims face "a structure that focuses on compliance rather than doing the right thing," says Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois and sexual harassment researcher.
Misconduct victims face "a structure that focuses on compliance rather than doing the right thing."
Sources at the NMNH say that the Pinto case has been a wake-up call for some administrators, including Maureen Kearney. She and other museum officials are reportedly looking for new ways to make sure that the NMNH can go beyond the bureaucratic procedures that have often made the SI’s procedures ineffective and victim unfriendly. But officials refuse to discuss publicly what they might be doing to update their sexual harassment guidelines, saying only that they are constantly reviewing them for improvements.
Meanwhile, The Verge’s investigation has uncovered no evidence that Pinto engaged in sexual misconduct since 2011. Pinto says that he has learned his lesson. "Constantly I question my behavior during the 2008 and 2011 episodes," he says. "I am extremely grateful for having good friends and colleagues, that gave me a hard time for these actions and also gave me advice to avoid situations that may lead to sexual harassment." Pinto, who now leads a research group at the National Polytechnic School in Quito, says that his team "includes seven women in different stages of their careers. I am trying to learn from my mistakes."
How will we know that Pinto and other perpetrators really have reformed? "I don’t think we can be confident that a harasser won’t do it again," Stemwedel told The Verge. But she thinks the main focus should be on the institutions rather than the individuals. "The environment makes it possible, and dealing with harassers as isolated bad apples does little to change that environment."
Meanwhile, Angie is trying to get on with her life. She has just started an exciting new graduate program far from the museum. "When I am away from the museum I am often able to keep my previous experiences out of my thoughts," she says. "But the anger has never gone away because the administrative mishandling of my situation just goes on and on." All too often, Angie says, she suffers from the headaches and knotted up stomach that have afflicted her for the past five years. And Smithsonian administrators, she adds, are still free "to destroy women’s careers and break their spirits. As long as this is the case, it will be impossible for me to move past this."
Just a few weeks ago, Angie received a copy of the conclusions of a recent investigation by SI’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) into her complaints that her case had been mishandled.
"The OIG has determined that there were no violations of Smithsonian policies with respect to this matter," it reads. "We recommend this matter to be closed at this time."
Correction: The original version of this story mis-identified one of Pinto's co-advisors. She is Nancy Simmons, not Nancy Sullivan. We regret the error.