Every year, around 1,200 scientists from around the world arrive on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal to conduct research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, an epicenter for cutting-edge studies on climate change, biodiversity, adaptation, and evolution amid a dense jungle lush with kinkajous, tapirs, howler monkeys, and more than 400 plant species. Better known as STRI, the sprawling complex of labs and dormitories is the Smithsonian Institution’s only facility outside the US.
Many researchers who set foot on the island consider the opportunity a dream. But 16 women scientists interviewed for this story described a pattern of sexual misconduct by high-ranking men at the institute, one of whom acknowledged his inappropriate behavior to BuzzFeed News. The women said that struggling to fend off the sexual demands of scientists with the power to determine a young researcher’s career trajectory left them feeling traumatized and isolated.
Seven of the scientists said they have stopped visiting the institute or collaborating with its staff on account of the unprofessional behavior they said they experienced or witnessed there, and two have left academia altogether — a #MeToo brain drain that has cost science an incalculable toll of lost research.
“I was spending more and more time figuring out how to navigate the culture there,” said Nina Wurzburger, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who worked at STRI from 2008 to 2012 but said she no longer pursues major research projects there because of the pervasive discrimination and sexual harassment.
Internal emails and complaints reviewed by BuzzFeed News, as well as interviews with 25 scientists, show that STRI leaders for years issued little more than verbal warnings or social restrictions to employees accused of sexual misconduct while allowing them to continue interacting with newly arrived young researchers. The institute eventually took additional disciplinary action against two of the accused scientists in 2019 and 2020. A third scientist, named in this story, continues to work at STRI.
“We are sorry if anyone has experienced harassment at STRI and are grateful for those who have come forward to tell us of their experiences,” director Joshua Tewksbury said, declining to comment on specific allegations. “We take this responsibility very seriously and we have clear protocols in place to investigate and address people’s concerns as they arise.”
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As the scientific community grapples with how to address reports of sexual misconduct, it must navigate complicated questions over intellectual property — the men who stand accused have been involved in decades of crucial research. At least three women mentioned in this story now face the striking predicament of seeing men they say harassed them listed as co-authors on their own career-defining papers and collaborators in their research. Three women said that a man they reported for misconduct withheld data from them in retaliation — one was later reimbursed for the funding she spent, another is trying to track down missing samples, the third received the data this week after a year-long effort. While STRI has begun the process of separating its legacy from at least one of the men accused of sexual assault by removing his name as co-author from certain projects, there appear to be no clear answers on how to weigh the duty to censure misconduct against the obligation to credit all contributors.
“Sorting this complexity will not be easy,” Tewksbury said in an email to staff scientists in October. “We have a responsibility to properly recognize intellectual involvement.”
The complaints at STRI spanned more than a decade, across the tenures of at least five directors, and include sexual misconduct allegations against three longtime current or former staff scientists. During that time, reports of sexual misconduct at STRI were an open secret conveyed through whisper networks, according to the interviews with women scientists. But eight scientists said that they were more willing to publicly speak up about their experiences now that they had more professional stability than they did as early-stage researchers chasing a dream opportunity.
“I feared that by reporting what happened, my collaborators would find out and think less of me,” said Sarah Batterman, who first visited the institute as a PhD student in 2008 and is now an assistant scientist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and associate professor at the University of Leeds. “I have felt isolated for years, but now I know I am not the only one.”
“I have felt isolated for years, but now I know I am not the only one.”
In a complaint she filed to the Smithsonian in 2020, Batterman said Benjamin Turner, who led the institute’s biogeochemistry lab, raped her at a scientific conference in San Francisco in 2011. Seven other women said that Turner sexually harassed them, including one who described his “predatory pattern of abuse” to STRI’s director in 2018. He remained at the institute for another two years and in 2019 received the Smithsonian Secretary’s Distinguished Researcher Award. Tewksbury said that the officials who issued the award were not aware of any complaint against Turner at the time, but that the decision is now under review. While Turner did not respond to repeated requests for comment, in an email to his former colleagues in April 2021, he wrote that “no-one at STRI ever asked my side of the story at all,” that “one of the complainants had been sexually harassing me for at least two years,” and that he provided investigators with an email “in which she states she is in love with me and wants an affair.”
“I know there is one serious complaint, but I have strenuously denied this (it's simply not true),” he wrote, “and I hope you both know me well enough to at least consider that possibility.”
Asked about Turner’s statements on the investigation, Tewksbury said, “When allegations of misconduct are found to be credible, we take action, and that action can include terminating the relationships with the employee. It is our policy and practice to initiate an objective and thorough investigation when we receive a complaint.”
Two scientists said that Edward Allen Herre, a STRI staff scientist who specializes in evolutionary ecology, acted unprofessionally on repeated occasions, including making unwanted sexual advances, kissing without consent, and meeting with women scientists while wearing only a towel. Presented with the allegations in this story, Herre denied any misconduct: “having read this over and thought about what your outlined objectives for the piece are (stopping sexual harassment and quid pro quo retaliation), my response is that none of the substance of any of these accounts about me rises to either of those standards.”
Two other scientists said Egbert Leigh, a former emeritus staff scientist who had studied evolutionary biology on the island from 1969 until his retirement in 2019, sexually harassed them. In an email to BuzzFeed News, Leigh acknowledged “the substantial truth of the allegations” and said that STRI stripped him of his emeritus title in 2010 “because of conversations that made young women uncomfortable.” “Memory is good at forgetting what one is ashamed of,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I am very sorry for the hurt and discomfort my behavior caused, and I apologize to those who were hurt or offended by it.”
Two former interns said they were sexually assaulted by a chef who remains employed at the facility following an HR investigation that concluded that his conduct merited disciplinary action but not removal. A postdoctoral fellow said she was sexually assaulted by an intern who entered her bedroom at night in the field house she was sharing with him and another colleague, but the institute did not install a lock on the door until a year later, when another woman scientist complained about unsafe housing conditions.
The reports of sexual misconduct, which BuzzFeed News is making public for the first time, come as the Smithsonian Institution faces a reckoning over a workplace culture that has left many women feeling unwelcome or unsafe. An April 2020 report from the US Government Accountability Office found that the Smithsonian neglected to provide guidance to supervisors on how to handle sexual misconduct complaints. A group of staff scientists published an open letter in April 2021 asking the Smithsonian’s leadership to overhaul its systems for reporting and addressing sexual misconduct.
“The conditions that allowed this misconduct to take place are deep-seated,” said Rachel Page, a staff scientist at STRI.
STRI director Tewksbury declined to comment on specific sexual misconduct allegations but said that he is “fully committed to ensuring that this kind of behavior has no place at STRI.”
In recent months, he said, the institute has implemented bystander and boundary training, an Anti-Harassment Action plan, a hotline to report misconduct, and a process for sending employees and visitors information about preventing harassment; it has also conducted a survey of 3,100 current and former employees “to capture the scope and nature of the challenges we might face.” To mitigate the power staff scientists have had to determine who can access the facility, the institute is revising its visitor onboarding process to make it “less dependent on a specific sponsor,” Tewksbury said.
“The idea that even one of these visitors ever leaves that experience less excited about science, or STRI, than when they came, is deeply troubling,” said Tewksbury. “We are taking every action possible to support the health and wellbeing of all of our scientific community.”
“The time and energy they are losing grappling with this is a loss for all of science.”
But for the scientists forced to choose between tolerating a culture of exploitation or fleeing a coveted professional opportunity, the damage is already done.
“These women are the who’s who of tropical ecology,” said Liza Comita, a professor at the Yale School of the Environment and a research associate at STRI. “The time and energy they are losing grappling with this is a loss for all of science.”
When the Chagres River was dammed in 1913, water rose to engulf 164 square miles of tropical rainforest, creating Gatun Lake and many small islands peeking above the surface. Naturalists were drawn to Barro Colorado Island, but for decades women were barred from staying overnight. David Fairchild, one of the island’s founding figures, advocated for the prohibition of women, writing in a 1924 letter that the island should remain a place “where real research men can find quiet, keen intellectual stimulation, freedom from any outside distraction.”
The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research organization, took over the administration of Barro Colorado Island in 1946, allowed women to live on the island, and in 1980 established the first long-term, large-scale tropical forest monitoring plot.
STRI’s facility is the only site of human habitation on Barro Colorado Island, and its isolation is part of the appeal for tropical scientists eager to immerse themselves in the rich biodiversity while having access to laboratories devoted to studying flora, fauna, soil, and water. Game wardens, cooks, maintenance staff, scientific coordinators, visiting scientists, and students usually stay on the island while staff scientists and tourists come in by boat from Gamboa, a small town along the river.
One scientist compared the atmosphere at STRI to “a grueling summer camp,” where prominent and promising scientists are scattered across different parts of the island all day, working hard, and then come together over meals at the cafeteria, socialize over beers at the lounge, play musical instruments, or chat on a balcony overlooking the forest and lake. These gatherings aren’t just for letting off steam but offer invaluable networking opportunities to young scientists seeking mentors to sponsor them for short-term projects or a long-term position at STRI as a research associate, a title that brings full access to the institute’s trove of archives and data.
“Under the current system for awarding postdoctoral and predoctoral fellowships, anything less than enthusiastic support from all staff scientists with relevant expertise can kill an applicant's chances,'' said Helene Muller-Landau, a staff scientist at STRI. Tewksbury said the institute is implementing a new system that will eliminate the single “all-staff” selection meeting that hinges on sponsor advocacy and instead rely on a “small expert committee” to make decisions on fellowship applications.
Meg Crofoot, an anthropologist who studies how human society is different from nonhuman primate societies, first rode the morning ferry to the island in 2003, on a trip to see if STRI’s new automated radio telemetry system, which lets scientists simultaneously track multiple groups of animals, would be helpful for her dissertation research.
Near the end of her visit, Egbert “Bert” Leigh invited her and a male colleague to join him for drinks at his “chambers,” which was what Leigh called the field house room he used as an office, library, and bedroom at Barro Colorado Island during the week.
The conversation that night began well, as Leigh agreed to sponsor Crofoot’s application for a three-month fellowship at STRI. But, Crofoot said, the discussion later took an unexpected turn when Leigh told his guests that he had been “pleasuring” his wife when a recent earthquake struck and thought “he had made the world shake.”
“It was just uncomfortable and inappropriate,” Crofoot said. She concluded that on the island “Bert’s idiosyncrasies were just accepted for what they were.”
"Anything less than enthusiastic support from all staff scientists with relevant expertise can kill an applicant’s chances."
Three scientists who knew Leigh and requested anonymity explained that they and others put up with his behavior because, as one put it, he was “not physically dangerous,” simply a product of his time — “an old-fashioned lecher,” another said.
But asked about it now, Leigh said his behavior reflected “my unwanted and disruptive obsession with Meg Crofoot.” He offered “a sad acknowledgement” that the claims about him in this story are accurate.
One research associate, who worked with Leigh and requested anonymity for fear of damaging her career, told BuzzFeed News that he often greeted her by lifting her up by the waist, pressing his body against hers, and leaning back “so I was basically kind of lying on him.” On a bus ride one evening, Leigh told a group of scientists that one of them, a graduate student, was causing him to get an erection, Crofoot and another scientist recalled.
Crofoot got the three-month-long fellowship, returning to STRI in summer 2004. Leigh, her sponsor, often invited her for after-dinner drinks in his chambers. Crofoot said she felt unable to decline because Leigh often had “explosive reactions” whenever he felt socially rejected.
In 2008, she again returned to Panama, now as a postdoctoral researcher working as the director of the Automated Radio Telemetry System Initiative. Leigh’s wife died that year, leaving him in need of someone to drive him, shop for him, and cook for him. Some of the responsibility of providing this care, Crofoot said, fell upon young scientists handpicked by Leigh. He asked Crofoot to drive him to Panama City once a week, he said. In exchange, she could borrow his car whenever she needed. “If early-career researchers helped me during that time, they were not the main source,” he said.
Crofoot was unsure how to handle Leigh. “I was living in BCI for the next five years,” she said. “I had to find a way so I would not have this omnipresent sense of constantly walking on eggshells, trying to manage him, manage his emotions, manage his behavior... all in a way such that I could do my work, and not have this situation derail everything I was trying to accomplish.”
One day, Crofoot said, Leigh “confessed” to being “madly in love” with her and wanting to marry her.
By 2010, Crofoot decided to rent an apartment in Panama City, while still paying rent for her room on the island, so she could get away from Leigh. She bought her own car. She informed then-director Eldredge Bermingham about Leigh’s behavior toward her and other young women on the island.
Following Crofoot’s complaint, Bermingham set certain restrictions on Leigh: He could spend only Tuesday evening through Friday afternoon on the island, host people in his room only on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and invite no fewer than three guests, according to emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News. Bermingham also emailed Leigh’s priest in Panama, asking him to help Leigh stick to the new policies. “It is Bert’s responsibility to insure [sic] that the 3-person rule is upheld no matter what the surrounding circumstances,” Bermingham stated in one email. Leigh confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Bermingham put the rules in place to “calm the island,” which he said had “naturally been upset” by his pursuit of Crofoot.
But the high turnover at STRI — including Bermingham, who retired in 2013 — meant that within a few years new staff rotated in, largely replacing the cohort familiar with Leigh’s situation. “No one enforced the restrictions, and gradually Bert stopped following them,” said a scientist who worked with Leigh and requested anonymity.
In 2019, shortly after Leigh retired, a researcher filed a new complaint of sexual misconduct against him. Crofoot wrote to STRI’s then-director, Matthew Larsen, and other scientists who knew Leigh to remind them of the restrictions placed by Bermingham, as well as documents detailing her own complaints. Larsen did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Later that year, Leigh said, the institute declined to renew his emeritus status because of his inappropriate sexual comments. But he remained involved with the facility, meeting with new researchers and co-editing a book about STRI’s 100-year history, before other editors eventually asked him to leave the project. In an email exchange in 2019 two scientists expressed concern that Leigh’s “unique and interwoven relationship” with STRI continued on beyond his career’s end. “It is naïve of us to think that shifting Bert off island will solve the problems of his inappropriate sexual conduct toward young women,” one scientist wrote in 2019. “Already every few months Bert emails me to ask who the new lab members are, and then selectively picks the young, female English speakers for his Gamboa dinner companions.”
But while STRI leadership took some steps to curb Leigh’s behavior, the powerful men at the center of the institute continued to blur the line between professional networking and inappropriate behavior, according to interviews with women scientists.
Emma Sayer first met Benjamin Turner when he interviewed to become an STRI staff scientist. She then started working with him on the island in 2005 after earning her PhD, she said, and found him to be a welcoming and supportive colleague. He invited her to party at his house, where his entire research group gathered to dance, drink, and discuss biogeochemistry.
At STRI, Turner was known as “the soils guy” — he controlled access to the biogeochemical laboratory, analyzed samples for nearly every scientist on the island, and set prices that influenced research budgets at one of the most well-studied tropical forest sites in the world.
Turner had a reputation for holding court among a big group of young researchers who worked and partied together, according to three scientists who worked with him.
But Sayer’s introductory experience to social gatherings at Turner’s home, she said, left her feeling deeply uncomfortable.
“He would say things like, ‘We’re a great team! We’re the best team!’ and use this rhetoric to pressure people to drink,” said Sayer, who now teaches at Lancaster University in the UK. “I saw him pressure a young woman into drinking so much that she vomited all over his lawn while he took photos of her and said, ‘I'm going to use these to blackmail her later.’ And it was all seen as kind of a joke, everybody was laughing.”
Sayer decided to stop socializing with Turner and his team after the party. This, she said, was the beginning of a vicious cycle: Turner would openly criticize her for not being a “team-player,” and she would become increasingly withdrawn. When she needed samples analyzed at the soils lab, she said, she had to wait longer than anyone else, or was told by Turner that there was no available space for her to perform her work in the lab.
Sayer did not make an official complaint at the time, she said, because “I was told by other scientists that I was being paranoid or that I must have done something wrong for him to behave like that.”
The isolation, she said, ultimately drove her away from STRI in 2009.
As Sarah Batterman began gathering and analyzing data in Panama for her thesis in 2008, she knew she would eventually need a staff scientist to endorse her project. Though Turner ran the lab where she analyzed her samples, the two had barely spoken until two years into her research, in June 2011, when they both attended the same conference in Reykjavík, Iceland, she said. Turner sat down next to her on a tour bus and struck up a conversation.
“I remember being flattered, but also finding it strange,” Batterman said. “I was a nonentity and I was quite a bit younger than him and I was hyperaware of the difference of power between us. But I knew I was supposed to take advantage of every opportunity to get to know STRI scientists, and for them to get to know me.”
Over the next few days in Reykjavík, Batterman occasionally ran into Turner. She said Turner’s conversation on the bus ride had been flirtatious, and at a later interaction at the conference, he asked her and two other young PhD students who were women to travel through Iceland with him before they left the conference, describing it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to see geological sights with an expert. Batterman joined for part of the travels, spending a day with the group.
When they returned to Panama, Turner began inviting Batterman out for dinner and drinks, promising to discuss her career and endorse her postdoctoral fellowship application to STRI, she said. At these meetings, Turner would “point out the waitress to me and talk about how hot she is, and how he wants to have a threesome with her and me,” Batterman recalled. “Then he would once again encourage me to apply for the STRI postdoc fellowship, saying I had a ‘really good chance’ of getting it.” During one of these meetings, Turner mentioned that he was married but said he was unhappy and considering a divorce, then asked if Batterman was single, she said in the complaint.
On one of Batterman’s last nights in Panama, she said, Turner drove her back to her hotel after she had bid farewell to STRI staff and colleagues. As she was leaving, he asked if he could come up to her room. Batterman said no.
According to Batterman, Turner proceeded to beg and pressure her to allow him upstairs. “I remained in the car feeling bad that he was upset, but I kept saying no for about 20 minutes,” she stated in the 2020 complaint. “When he would not take no for an answer, I started to worry about all the opportunities that I could lose if I lost his support and felt powerless, so eventually, I gave in.”
After Batterman finished her research and returned to the US, she said, Turner suggested they meet at a conference in Arizona where he would introduce her to leading scientists, including two ecologists with whom she could possibly collaborate. She agreed, both for the professional opportunity and because she was excited about the venue, a place she had been obsessed with since she was a kid: Biosphere 2, the site of a monumental scientific experiment in which 3.14 acres in Pinal County were sealed off to replicate the Earth’s biosphere. The experiment didn’t last, but the space remained and now hosts conferences amid the miniature rainforest, ocean, wetlands, and fog desert.
By day, Turner introduced Batterman to scientists, and she attended talks and explored the Biosphere. The first night, Turner suggested that the two of them get “very, very drunk,” she recalled. After they drank together, Batterman said, he pressured her to have sex, and she complied.
After Arizona, Batterman said Turner proposed they meet at a conference in San Francisco. By then, she said, the two had become closer.
“I still felt like it was really not okay, he was paying all this attention to me, saying all these things to me, and then getting me to do all this stuff with him that I felt uncomfortable with, when he had a wife and kids,” she said in an interview. “But then on the other hand, he really preyed on my personal and professional vulnerability by saying he loved me or telling me that he had never felt this way about anyone.”
Turner suggested she read a book called Sperm Wars, she said in the complaint. In an interview, Batterman said she believed the book of short fictional stories and essays was meant to “assuage guilt about being involved with a married man,” but it presented ideas she was uncomfortable with. The author, an evolutionary biologist, compared date rape to “rough and tumble intercourse,” posited that “one of the criteria” a woman should evaluate when selecting a mate “is his ability to overcome her physical resistance,” and observed that “the more men and women drink, the more they both seek intercourse — or, at least, the less they resist it.”
On the last day of the San Francisco conference, Turner, Batterman, and another scientist, Daniela Cusack, went out for drinks.
“I remember drinking more heavily than usual that night as we were having a good time,” Batterman said.
While drinking was par for the course at conferences, going out with Turner that night felt “reckless,” said Cusack, who is now an associate professor at the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University. “He kept saying, ‘no, don’t go, let's have another drink, let's have another drink. I noticed that Sarah was getting drunker and drunker and drunker, but they seemed to be really good friends, and I had just met them, so I wasn’t too worried at the time.”
Batterman’s last memory from the night was of Cusack leaving the bar around 8 p.m.
The next morning, when Batterman woke up, Turner was packing his bags and about to check out of the hotel. He told Batterman that he had decided he would not be leaving his wife.
“I told him things needed to end because the situation was very unhealthy and upsetting,” Batterman said. Later in the day, Batterman felt a sharp pain that she said led her to believe that Turner had anally penetrated her the night before, she said in the complaint. “I was unwilling to admit that Turner had raped me because it was too much to handle on top of everything else, especially since we would likely be working together throughout my career,” she stated in the complaint. “I just wanted it all to go away.”
After 2011, Batterman rarely spoke with Turner, and only about professional matters, she said. Over the next five years, she said that Turner retaliated against her by withholding a data set that they collected collaboratively — a claim she informed other staff scientists about at the time, according to emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News. At the request of Batterman’s attorney in 2020, STRI offered to turn over the data set held by Turner, a process that was completed earlier this week.
Maga Gei also met Turner at the 2011 conference in Iceland. When they were in the hotel elevator together one evening, she said, he surprised her with a wet kiss near the mouth and invited her to his room.
“I remember shaking my head no, and as the doors closed, I was thinking, ‘whoa, what just happened?’” she said.
Two years later, Gei received a Smithsonian fellowship to do research on Barro Colorado Island. At a party shortly after she arrived, she approached a staff scientist, Edward Allen Herre, to discuss her project. Herre showed little interest in discussing her research, but invited her to accompany him on a drive across town instead, she said. A few days later, she said, he showed up uninvited to her house in Gamboa to ask her help organizing an event.
“I was so shocked to see him at my door,” she said. “I did not want him to come inside.”
Later, when Gei was leaving a group gathering, she said Herre “planted another one of those big, wet, sticky, too close to the mouth kisses.”
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, Herre said that Gei’s allegations consisted of “perceived personal slights where none were intended.”
Gei left STRI at the end of her 2013 fellowship and now works in communications.
“In science we have this idea of merit, that if you work really hard and you are really smart, you will make it to the top,” she said. “But the truth is, you can do everything right and never make it at STRI because over there, you are who you are working with.”
One scientist, who requested anonymity to protect her career prospects, said that Herre would “cultivate young women, frequently grad students, initially by giving scientific advice and then by embedding himself in their research and making them feel intellectually and sometimes financially indebted to him.” Another said that Herre harassed her for six months, pursuing a relationship even after she declined — “he would not take no for an answer.” A third scientist, Sayer, said that Herre once invited her and another woman to dinner then answered the door wearing only a towel and remained in that state of undress even after they asked him to put on clothing.
Herre said that none of the incidents described amounted to sexual harassment. He said that he meant no harm when he greeted Sayer in a towel, that he never threatened any retribution against the woman who rejected him and that her career has “flourished,” and that his support for young scientists is purely professional.
“The researchers whom I encourage include both men and women, young and old, often working far outside of any of my research interests,” he said. “Usually my advice demonstrably benefits their projects and careers.”
He noted that he was among the scientists who signed the 2021 open letter calling on the Smithsonian to more robustly address sexual misconduct.
Asked about the claims against Herre, Tewksbury said, “While I cannot comment directly about specific allegations, I take all allegations of misconduct seriously, particularly when alleged conduct creates dangerous or threatening situations for students, interns, or fellows.”
The culture of impunity at the institute persisted even as women filed complaints against colleagues. Seven scientists who reported sexual abuse at STRI within the last two decades said that they felt the institute didn’t take their concerns seriously enough.
In 2014, Katherine Sinacore, then a doctoral fellow, was living in a forest field station with two interns. The only room in the field house that could be locked was the bathroom, and Sinacore said she had to use a rock to secure her bedroom door shut. One night, she said, one of the interns entered her room and sexually assaulted her. She reported it to STRI, which directed her to the Panamanian police. An investigation ensued, but emails show that STRI and Sinacore did not hear of any arrests. She said she moved into a housing complex in Gamboa and asked STRI to add locks to bedroom doors in the field houses.
But more than a year later, when another scientist moved in, there were still no locks, according to STRI emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
“I just felt like what happened to my body wasn't important enough for them to think we should do something so this never happens to someone again,” she said.
STRI declined to comment on personnel matters, specific allegations, or internal investigations.
In 2018, Ellen Dyer, then a 21-year-old intern who spent her days running down ravines and scrambling up hills to keep up with the spider monkeys she was researching, reported to STRI HR that while dancing with her at a party in the facility’s lounge, the cafeteria’s chef had grabbed her bottom and pressed his erection against her. Though Dyer said that she told him she wasn’t interested in a sexual encounter, he followed her to her room and forcibly kissed her cheeks and neck outside her door before she managed to push him off and get inside.
“At this point I was very frightened,” she wrote in an email to STRI’s human resource manager on the following Monday.
“I just felt like what happened to my body wasn’t important enough for them to think we should do something so this never happens to someone again.”
Dyer said she felt unsafe because the chef knew the location of her room and could find her wherever she went on the island. She began to skip meals, stayed in her room, and avoided doing her laundry or visiting the lounge to meet her friends. The only time she did enter the cafeteria, Dyer, who has a panic disorder, saw the chef and experienced a panic attack, she said in her complaint to STRI HR. Her supervisor, Grace Davis, brought her meals so she could eat in her room, according to Davis and emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Two days after Dyer filed her HR complaint, STRI’s HR manager wrote back to her confirming a panel assembled to investigate the matter would visit her. Dyer said the interviewers asked about how much she’d had to drink that night, how many people had seen the chef dancing with her, why she ended up alone with him, and what she’d been wearing at the time.
“I remember it was literally like Nike shorts and a t-shirt, so I was like, what does that have to do with anything?” she said. “It felt as though they were shaming me, as if saying, ‘well, if you had not been drinking whiskey instead of beer, maybe you wouldn't have been drunk.’ I remember repeating to myself in my head — ‘you are allowed to get as drunk as you want and that still doesn't give someone the right to do anything to you.’”
The chef was put on administrative leave for two months, and Dyer was offered a different room, as well as contacts for counselors in Panama and Washington DC.
“I was there with Ellen throughout the instances of sexual assault and harassment on BCI, and sadly, similar instances have happened to other field assistants and myself as well,” said Davis, now an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis. “There was no clear system in place for reporting such assault or harassment, no regard or respect for our voices in putting this forward, and little follow-through on the part of STRI during and after the investigation.”
Two months later, on Dyer’s last day in Panama, her HR contact informed her that the chef “had been given a stern talking to” but would continue to work at STRI, said Dyer, who is now a PhD student studying evolutionary anthropology at the University of New Mexico.
“As I was leaving, there were still more women, many young women like myself, young interns around 19 years old arriving on the island,” she said. “They had no idea that I had been assaulted by someone employed at STRI. It made me feel really worried for them.”
Three months after Dyer left STRI, her supervisors, Grace Davis and Crofoot, wrote to Larsen and two other staff scientists at STRI expressing their disappointment at the way STRI handled the complaint. Crofoot asked for “concrete steps to fix the institute’s broken system” for dealing with sexual misconduct complaints.
In response, STRI’s then-director Larsen noted that STRI’s team interviewed 11 people, reviewed 7 hours of security footage, and concluded “that the employee behaved improperly and that his conduct merited severe disciplinary action, but not removal.” He said that over the years, STRI had dismissed three employees and two scientific visitors for sexual harassment and taken disciplinary action against two others.
Among the witnesses who spoke to STRI’s investigating panel was an intern who said the chef had sexually assaulted her earlier that same evening and that she later witnessed him dancing with Dyer even after Dyer had drunkenly fallen down at least twice, she recalled in an interview with BuzzFeed News. She learned that the chef was still working at STRI when she ran into him at the dock on Barro Colorado.
For years, Tana Wood kept an eye on Ben Turner when she saw him at conferences mingling with groups of younger women. She overheard him asking about their relationship statuses and observed him brushing his hand along their backs or legs. At a conference in Tennessee in 2016, Wood said she observed Turner coax a student to go sightseeing with him in Europe, then snap at her when she asked if she could bring her boyfriend along. Turner’s reputation spread across a whisper network.
One scientist Turner sponsored, who requested to be identified by her initial M., recalled an occasion when Turner told her that a scientist he introduced her to had been more interested in her short dress than her work. After that, on the advice of a woman mentor, M. said she began to “dress like a man” and wear her hair short.
In 2016, Wood met a student who complained about older scientists harassing her and her peers at a conference. The student agreed to look through pictures of the conference attendees to identify the men, and one of the men she identified was Turner, Wood and the student recalled.
“She was very disturbed, and she asked me why female graduate students were even present at these meetings,” Wood said. “I remember how it felt to have somebody talking to you about science, and then realize that they're hitting on you, thereby negating anything positive that they had said about your research. I just felt like I hadn't done enough to protect her, and by not speaking out, I felt in some ways complicit.”
Wood and her colleagues tried to come up with ways to ensure the safety of their women students. They considered sending out messages to participants before conferences, outlining appropriate codes of conduct, identifying problematic scientists and flagging them to conference organizers, or making an internal decision to just stop inviting and promoting scientists who had reputations for engaging in inappropriate behavior.
Wood said she’d heard enough about Turner to believe that “it was not safe to invite” him to gatherings.
Now a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, she began raising alarms about Turner in 2016, sending emails and speaking with leadership within the USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry and to the National Science Foundation–funded Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research Program.
At a symposium in 2018, when Wood attended a talk by a University of Puerto Rico professor who described sexual harassment in science as a “loud secret,” she found herself in tears.
Larsen, then-director of STRI, was one of the speakers at the symposium. After the event, Wood took him aside and told him everything she had witnessed Turner do, as well as concerns she’d heard from other women.
“Dr. Larsen told me that he was very concerned and took this complaint very seriously and that he would talk with Dr. Turner,” she recalled.
In February 2019, Larsen emailed Wood and M., who had also spoken to him about Turner’s behavior, stating that he had spoken with Turner about the complaints “about his behavior with women scientists and students,” and that Turner “thanked me for relaying the concern to him and indicated that he will be mindful of this behavior going forward.”
Larsen asked that Wood contact him if any of her students or colleagues were to have such an experience with Turner again. “The more frequently we all take action and ‘call people out,’ the sooner we can end this problem,” he wrote in the email.
By 2019, at least two women had complained to Larsen about Turner. In 2020, another scientist, who requested anonymity, submitted a complaint against Turner, alleging harassment and retaliation, through a page on the Smithsonian’s website where members of the public can flag inappropriate behavior by its employees. In the complaint, this scientist said that after she refused to go to a hotel room with Turner at a conference, her research team was kicked out of the STRI soils lab and her samples were left unanalyzed indefinitely, and her data was then withheld from her. “I am a Research Associate at STRI, and my work there depends on him as my official mentor and sponsor within the organization,” she wrote.
Batterman also filed an official complaint about Turner to the Smithsonian Institution. In it, she included supporting statements from other women who said they had witnessed or experienced harassment from Turner.
That same year, the Smithsonian Institution hired an independent investigator who contacted the women supporting Batterman’s complaint, according to three scientists affiliated with STRI and five women who spoke to the investigator. The institute didn’t inform the women about the outcome of the investigation, they said. Tewksbury said people who allege misconduct are told when an investigation is closed but not the details of disciplinary actions.
“Why would you ever expect someone to put themselves in the hot seat, in a small community of mostly white men, put themselves up as a bull’s eye, if they can't even know the outcome at the end of the process?” said Laura L. Dunn, an attorney representing Batterman and 13 other women scientists speaking up about STRI who received support from the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund.
A senior scientist, Bill Wcislo, who led the institute as interim director in 2013 and 2014, has called on the institute to change its policy of not commenting on specific personnel matters.
“It is possible to allow transparency and accountability, while maintaining confidentiality,” he said, “but this has not been implemented.”
In November, staff scientists received a one-line email from STRI’s then-director, Oris Sanjur, informing them that Turner no longer worked at the institution without further explanation.
“The STRI community had no idea why Dr. Turner had left.”
In email exchanges, four staff scientists at STRI told BuzzFeed News that they were shocked at the sudden dismissal of a highly productive member of their team who was frequently published in academic journals and cited in research papers. One scientist said that the secrecy around the reason for Turner’s dismissal meant the scientific community could not make an informed choice about whether they still wanted to collaborate with Turner in the future.
For nearly four months, most scientists at STRI had heard only rumors of allegations against Turner. “The STRI community had no idea why Dr. Turner had left,” Rachel Page, a staff scientist, said. “Dr. Turner told the few people he was in contact with that he had left because of family reasons, and no one questioned this.”
In April 2021, Carlos Jaramillo, who collaborated with Turner on a paper published in Science, wrote a note of apology to the women who said Turner harassed them, stating that the institute’s refusal to explain why Turner was dismissed had made Turner’s coauthors “accomplices of his behavior.”
Later that month, then-director Sanjur emailed staff scientists acknowledging that several of them had reached out to her asking about continued collaborations with Turner and stating that the Smithsonian had decided to “cease on-going collaborations” with him, according to emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News. In October, nearly a year after Turner’s dismissal, newly appointed director Tewksbury told staff scientists not to initiate new work with Turner because “STRI will not provide material or intellectual support to work in which Ben Turner is involved,” according to the email.
But the parting is not so simple. Over his years at STRI, Turner was solely responsible for the biogeochemical laboratory — his “personal fiefdom,” as one colleague put it. Women who collaborated with Turner and say he sexually harassed have to see his name attached to all their work. Some fear they may lose data without Turner’s cooperation. Batterman hired an attorney to try to regain control of data she said Turner was withholding from her. Sayer informed STRI in April 2021 that she had prepaid around $10,000 for soil analyses in Turner’s lab but had only ever received around $750 worth. “I do not have much hope of recovering these funds, as Ben has ignored all previous emails about the funds and outstanding analyses,” she told STRI’s then-director Oris Sanjur. In November, the institute agreed to reimburse her.
The task of recovering data from projects Turner was involved in fell on a small group of scientists, including Joseph Wright, who has worked at STRI for 38 years and said that he “might have been Dr. Turner’s closest collaborator on the STRI scientific staff” but will never work with him again in light of the sexual misconduct allegations.
Wright was in communication with Turner about the data, but that ended after he informed Turner that STRI advised its staff to stop collaborating with him. “Turner no longer responds to messages from me,” Wright said. Yet some data sets remain unusable until Turner sends over their corresponding documentation, which Wright said he is still waiting for, delaying projects that now hang in the balance. ●
Opening images: Erika P. Rodriguez for BuzzFeed News; Anna-Tia Buss for BuzzFeed News; Courtesy Ellen Dyer; Tarina Rodriguez for BuzzFeed News; Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for BuzzFeed News; Courtesy Nina Wurzburger