She Claimed To Fight For Survivors Of Sexual Harassment In Science. But For Many, She Added To The Pain.
Neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin made headlines for posing on Twitter as an Indigenous professor she later said died of COVID. It was the culmination of a trail of abuse that has shaken a movement.
In 2018, Jerika Heinze was excited to begin her first big research project as an anthropologist. As a new PhD student, she had traveled alone to rural Greece to begin interviewing young people forced to migrate from major cities because of the nation’s financial crisis.
But from the very first night she began her fieldwork, Heinze told BuzzFeed News, she started receiving nude photos and “disgusting comments” from men. She constantly felt unsafe. The harassment culminated in a sexual assault, Heinze said.
Desperate for help and worried about endangering her project if she reported the case to her university, Heinze reached out to academic organizations, researchers, and advocacy groups. Not one offered any real help, she said, but several people suggested she contact a group called MeTooSTEM, which had been formed in June 2018 — initially as a website for women to share stories about sexual harassment.
MeTooSTEM’s founder, BethAnn McLaughlin, had emerged as an outspoken figurehead for the movement to combat sexual harassment in science. Heinze emailed the new organization — three times, she recalled. But she received no reply, aside from a response to a Facebook comment suggesting that she go to the police.
Heinze did report the assault to the police, having recorded a conversation in which the man allegedly confessed. But the tables quickly turned, Heinze said, when she was told she could be prosecuted for making a recording without his permission. “That was an absolutely terrifying experience,” Heinze said.
In 2019, Heinze formed a new grassroots organization, the Fieldwork Initiative, to provide training to prepare women and nonbinary scientists for the dangers they may experience in the field and a support network to help respond in crisis situations. But when she first tweeted about the group’s training module, Heinze said that MeTooSTEM’s Twitter account attacked her for putting the burden on victims instead of “harrassholes” — one of McLaughlin’s signature terms.
“I immediately deleted the tweet,” Heinze told BuzzFeed News.
Earlier this month, McLaughlin grabbed headlines for a disturbing and sensational story about a pseudonymous Twitter account called @Sciencing_Bi claiming to be a Native American professor at Arizona State University who purportedly died of COVID-19 after being forced to continue teaching. It turned out to be a fake Twitter persona created by McLaughlin in 2016, often tweeting about sexual harassment and lavishing praise on MeTooSTEM.
It came as Native faculty and students at ASU were devoting much of their energy to supporting Indigenous communities in the state being ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. “That’s what makes this particularly horrible,” Marisa Duarte, a Native American researcher at ASU who studies how Indigenous communities build internet infrastructure, told BuzzFeed News.
Heinze was one of many who had been deceived by McLaughlin, conversing with @Sciencing_Bi over Twitter DMs. “I had shared my own story of sexual assault with this individual,” Heinze said.
“I think the way we move forward is by centering marginalized voices, not just white voices, and that we move forward without one leader.”
McLaughlin had risen to prominence after high-profile cases of sexual harassment in university science departments, riding a wave of publicity from campaigns against powerful scientific institutions like the National Academy of Sciences. But long before the @Sciencing_Bi debacle, former volunteers at MeTooSTEM had raised allegations about McLaughlin’s own toxic and harassing behavior, especially toward people of color.
Heinze is one of many who said they turned to McLaughlin expecting to gain an ally and instead found an adversary. BuzzFeed News spoke to more than a dozen former MeTooSTEM volunteers, former colleagues, survivors of sexual harassment who had crossed paths with MeTooSTEM, and other advocates. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation by McLaughlin. Collectively, their accounts paint a disturbing picture of the harm caused by McLaughlin and raise serious questions about MeTooSTEM’s finances and the services it claimed to provide to victims.
McLaughlin did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
As the movement to fight sexual assault and harassment in science reckons with how to move on, many are calling for a more diverse, grassroots approach that isn’t dominated by the voice of one white woman.
“I think the way we move forward is by centering marginalized voices, not just white voices, and that we move forward without one leader,” Jaedyn Ruli, a former MeTooSTEM volunteer who is now working with PhD Balance, an organization to provide mental health support for graduate students, told BuzzFeed News. Ruli, who is Chinese American, left MeTooSTEM in February, after accusing McLaughlin of harassment. “Time and time again, she doesn’t listen to people of color,” Ruli said at the time.
Ruli’s concern echoed the comments of two women of color who left the organization in April 2019, writing in their joint resignation letter that they “felt that white leadership input was prioritized over our own.”
The @Sciencing_Bi affair is not the first time that McLaughlin had been accused of using a pseudonymous Twitter account to harass people.
Beginning in 2002, McLaughlin ran a neuroscience lab at Vanderbilt University, studying how brain cells respond to shortages of oxygen. In 2015, she became embroiled in a sexual harassment case that she’d cite as the origin story for her activism in the years to come.
McLaughlin has said that she was retaliated against and ultimately denied tenure after testifying against a colleague, Aurelio Galli, who had been accused of sexual harassment by a graduate student. Those claims of retaliation center on an investigation that was launched in 2016 against McLaughlin, who had been accused by Galli and other faculty of using pseudonymous Twitter accounts to attack colleagues. These allegedly included a tweet sent on May 15, 2014, that referred to a scientist “across the hall,” saying, “I may stab her today.”
By the end of 2014, Vanderbilt had completed a Title IX investigation into the complaints against Galli. The findings were not released, but he was dismissed from a lawsuit filed by the student against him and the university, and Vanderbilt reached a confidential legal settlement with the student.
But in January 2015, Dana Miller, a biologist at the University of Washington, emailed Mark Wallace, dean of the Vanderbilt Graduate School, with a new complaint. Miller referred to a dinner at Galli’s house she and McLaughlin had attended in 2014, saying Galli had made “lewd comments,” repeatedly mentioned Miller’s sexual orientation, and made threatening remarks about the student who had filed the lawsuit.
Miller backed McLaughlin through the investigation in 2016, testifying that multiple people, including herself, had used the Twitter account that sent the “stab her” tweet. McLaughlin denied being the author of that tweet.
“I was probably misled in ways I don't even know.”
In the end, no disciplinary sanctions were taken against McLaughlin, and Vanderbilt told Miller that it was “unable to conclude” that Galli had harassed her. Galli denied all of the allegations against him and is now suing McLaughlin for defamation over disparaging tweets and a blog post that she allegedly authored.
In the wake of the @Sciencing_Bi scandal, Miller revealed on Twitter that she had dated McLaughlin for three years from late 2012 and that she subsequently had also been one of the people whom McLaughlin DM’d using the fake account. “I’m still trying to heal from the abuse and gaslighting that I suffered in that relationship,” she wrote. “Now I know that she used the SB account to manipulate and torment me.”
Miller told BuzzFeed News by email that she had no regrets about making her complaint to Vanderbilt, but said she was concerned, in retrospect, that she may have been manipulated when supporting McLaughlin during the investigation into her tweets.
“I question everything about the time I knew BethAnn. I don't trust anything that she told me, especially if I can't independently verify it,” Miller said. “I was probably misled in ways I don't even know. It seems possible that she would have misled me in ways that were helpful to her defense.”
By 2018, McLaughlin had emerged as a champion for activism against sexual harassment, especially on her medium of choice, Twitter. In October of that year, she launched a GoFundMe to turn her new advocacy group, MeTooSTEM, into a tax-exempt nonprofit and provide resources to survivors of sexual harassment. “It’s Make or Break Time for MeToo Movement in Science,” the fundraising page said.
Former volunteers are now questioning the group’s finances and claims from McLaughlin about how they were used to support survivors who came to MeTooSTEM for help.
MeTooSTEM’s legal name is the Academic Decency League, and it was incorporated in Tennessee in October 2018. It was granted status as a tax-free nonprofit by the IRS the following July. But on August 1 this year, just as the @Sciencing_Bi scandal was breaking, the Tennessee Department of State sent a letter notifying the organization it had failed to provide an annual report that was due by April 1 and would be administratively dissolved if it failed to provide the document within 60 days.
There is also no record that the Academic Decency League has yet filed an annual statement of its finances with the IRS. In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, McLaughlin’s lawyer shared a Google document dated July 2020, described as MeTooSTEM’s annual report. But according to former members of the leadership team who reviewed the report, it raised more questions than it answered.
After fees were paid, MeTooSTEM raised about $70,000 from the GoFundMe campaign. The draft annual report indicated that a further $60,000 had been raised from onetime donors since the start of 2019, stating that McLaughlin herself donated $37,000 in honoraria from speaking events and workshops. The group’s biggest expenses in 2019, according to a chart in the document, were about $29,000 spent on travel and training and around $22,000 for legal services.
One of MeTooSTEM’s main activities was sending out care packages to survivors of harassment, including meal kits, weighted blankets, and stickers. According to the draft annual report, MeTooSTEM sent out 121 of these packages in 2019.
Former leaders and volunteers were unable to verify any of those numbers. Apart from a screen capture showing she had paid Ruli $500 for graphic design, “BethAnn never shared any financial details with us,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University who stepped down from MeTooSTEM’s leadership team in February over McLaughlin’s treatment of Ruli, told BuzzFeed News.
One client who did receive financial support from MeTooSTEM was Eunice Neeley, a public health researcher who filed complaints of sexual harassment at Emory University and UCSF. Neeley told BuzzFeed News by email that she had received $1,000 for a legal retainer in her case at Emory. She also briefly worked for the organization, becoming the only Black member of its leadership team, and said she was paid $1,400 to attend an event at the MIT Media Lab in September 2019. MeTooSTEM members showed up to support survivors when media technologist Michael Bove was ousted for violating the university’s sexual harassment policy.
MeTooSTEM made three “Courage In Action” awards, ranging from $3,500 to $4,500 in 2019, to Miller, Teresa Swanson, who was a member of the group’s leadership team, and Sharona Gordon, a biophysicist at the University of Washington.
The draft annual report claimed that MeTooStem “has provided free services for 18 months to over 500 clients.” Swanson, who also resigned from MeTooSTEM in February over Ruli’s treatment, said she would treat numbers in the report “with a grain of salt.” After one event, she said that McLaughlin claimed that more than 30 new clients had signed up. “I offered to help lighten the workload of responding to all of them, but was never given the opportunity, so I cannot confirm this number and believe it's likely false,” Swanson told BuzzFeed News by email.
In an email sent to MeTooSTEM supporters on July 29, just days before the @Sciencing_Bi meltdown, McLaughlin claimed 221 new clients had signed up in June and July alone. “That is completely implausible,” Rasmussen told BuzzFeed News.
McLaughlin’s approach to supporting survivors has also drawn criticism.
MeTooSTEM held regular Zoom calls and McLaughlin spoke at events on university campuses. Some attendees and volunteers in these calls and events were concerned that her approach risked retraumatizing survivors of harassment and assault.
Kelly Mistry, a graduate student at the University of Washington, told BuzzFeed News that she dissociated at an event in Seattle in April 2019. Before McLaughlin spoke, there was a presentation with dramatic music with multiple headlines about incidents of harassment and assault, often with the names blacked out. “It was basically 10 minutes of dehumanization of victims being displayed,” Mistry said. “I saw a lot of people in the audience who were very affected.”
“BethAnn would want to keep people in the trauma.”
About a week later, Mistry sent anonymous feedback to McLaughlin about how traumatizing the event had been to her.
The draft annual report, while noting “one written complaint,” said that 92% of respondents “rated the content as ‘Very helpful’ and above.”
Some former volunteers told BuzzFeed News that McLaughlin seemed to relish the emotional reactions her talks could cause. “BethAnn would often say that so many people cried at [her] events. It was almost as if she was bragging about it,” one former member of the leadership team said.
One mental health professional who participated in MeTooSTEM Zoom calls to provide information on resources to seek help said that she withdrew because of similar concerns. “Advocacy and support are two completely opposed things,” she said. “BethAnn would want to keep people in the trauma.”
Heinze, the founder of the Fieldwork Initiative, was not the only advocate who said her efforts were denigrated by McLaughlin.
Lori Neuman-Lee, a physiologist at Arkansas State University who studies freshwater turtles, said she was attacked by McLaughlin over her efforts to promote diversity in science.
In July 2018, a scientist named Richard Vogt accepted an award from the Herpetologists’ League with an acceptance speech that contained photos of bikini-clad women working in the field. An ensuing backlash spurred the group to rescind the award.
McLaughlin amplified tweets about the photos and later claimed credit for the withdrawal of the award. But the pictures, according to Neuman-Lee, weren’t the main issue. Researchers who knew Vogt were outraged that he was being honored despite long-standing concerns about sexist and harassing behavior. (Vogt declined to address these allegations at the time.)
To this day, Neuman-Lee told BuzzFeed News, Vogt is backed by some scientists who believe what happened was an overreaction to a picture. “Her co-opting of the narrative really damaged the effect that we could have,” Neuman-Lee said.
Still, Neuman-Lee and others used the incident to form a diversity and inclusion committee for the Herpetologists League to make the field more welcoming to women and people of color. When she tweeted about it, McLaughlin responded with a tweet indicating her disapproval: “If I ever make a statement that I’m thrilled to be the inaugural chair of diversity for a science society that honors harassers, it means I’m being held hostage.”
The criticism continued for more than a week. “It just kept going and it was extremely disheartening,” Neuman-Lee said.
This incident was part of a pattern in which McLaughlin seemed to equate herself and her organization with the wider movement working against sexual harassment in science. Just before MeTooSTEM’s website went down in August, it proclaimed: “Because of Your 2019 MeTooSTEM Actions: NIH has Removed 12 Scientists from Grants. Barred 55 Individuals from Peer Review. More Is Needed. Join Us.”
It was true that McLaughlin had been among the advocates who exerted pressure on the National Institutes of Health, which spends more than $30 billion on biomedical research each year, to start requiring that Title IX findings be reported to the agency so that harassers would not get funding. She had spoken at NIH headquarters at events organized by a working group on sexual harassment February and May 2019, and was praised in a statement issued by NIH Director Francis Collins after the February event.
“Beyond this, neither Dr. McLaughlin nor MeTooSTEM had any direct involvement with NIH’s anti-sexual harassment efforts,” the NIH told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement, denying that McLaughlin and MeTooSTEM were involved in the actions described on its website.
By the time McLaughlin spoke at NIH, MeTooSTEM was already beginning to fracture.
Volunteers left in November 2018 and April 2019, raising complaints about McLaughlin’s hostility, lack of transparency, and harassing behavior toward non-white volunteers in particular. That second wave of departures included the only two people of color who were then on the leadership team. Five months later, @Sciencing_Bi attacked one of them, tweeting: “You left the nonprofit, lied about training and organization and have been exceptionally nasty.”
When the story about McLaughlin tweeting as @Sciencing_Bi broke earlier this month, it became clear she had also used the account to directly approach survivors of sexual harassment. In one case, @Sciencing_Bi messaged a complainant involved in a Title IX investigation at Harvard, fabricating an instance of her own harassment at the university, and encouraged them to get in touch with McLaughlin.
McLaughlin admitted to creating the account in a statement released to the New York Times through her lawyer: “I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account. My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.”
McLaughlin also said she was pursuing mental health treatment and “stepping away from all activities with MeTooSTEM to ensure that it isn't unfairly criticized for my actions.”
But in the wake of the @Sciencing_Bi scandal, it’s unclear whether MeTooSTEM still exists in any meaningful form. Its website has been taken offline and its Twitter account, which was first restricted by the company for “unusual activity,” has now been suspended. (@Sciencing_Bi and McLaughlin’s personal account were both suspended by Twitter on August 2.)
McLaughlin has started to feel some consequences of her actions. After BuzzFeed News asked about the status of the MIT Media Lab 2018 Disobedience Award, a $250,000 prize that she shared with other activists including Tarana Burke, the founder of the wider #MeToo movement, the lab posted a notice on the award website saying that it would “no longer recognize Dr. McLaughlin as a co-recipient.”
Heinze and Ruli both told BuzzFeed News that they thought MeTooSTEM should now be wound up and have its remaining assets distributed to those who were harmed by McLaughlin. “People need therapy,” Heinze said.
“A lot of people were complicit in her behavior, because white people think it’s OK for white ladies to do a lot of things.”
BuzzFeed News tried to reach members of the organization’s governing board, without success. After the departures of Rasmussen, Ruli, and Swanson, the board backed McLaughlin, rejecting a call from Rasmussen and Swanson for her resignation. Members at that time included the Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist Carol Greider, then at Johns Hopkins University, Vicki Lundblad of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and McLaughlin’s brother, John.
Greider told BuzzFeed News that she stepped down in March because she needed to focus on moving her lab to the University of California, Santa Cruz. Lundblad, listed as treasurer in the Academic Decency League’s 2019 annual report to the Tennessee Department of State, did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls. John McLaughlin could also not be reached for comment.
Whatever happens to what remains of MeTooSTEM, other advocates told BuzzFeed News that the wider movement needs to regroup in a way that isn’t focused on one individual or organization.
Kate Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois who studies sexual and racial harassment in science, told BuzzFeed News that the greatest harm caused by McLaughlin was that she made advocacy around sexual harassment an unwelcoming place for many people.
“She made it an unsafe space for women of color. She made it an unsafe place for transgender people,” Clancy said. “A lot of people were complicit in her behavior, because white people think it’s OK for white ladies to do a lot of things.”
Advocates are still counting the cost of McLaughlin’s behavior. “What upsets me the most is how hard we have to work as survivors to be believed, and how hard we have to work to be anonymous,” Heinze said. “And all that has been dragged through the mud by BethAnn.”
Others said it is important not to let the damage caused by McLaughlin drag the wider movement down. “I would also love to see a recognition that for too long, the systems of oppression have used bad apples to distract us from the real issues,” Gordon, the University of Washington biophysicist, told BuzzFeed News.
Gordon, whose own group Below the Waterline focuses on changing the wider culture of gender harassment in academia, agreed with Ruli that the movement needed to prioritize diverse voices. “That’s an unmet need,” Gordon said.
Heinze hopes that hers and other efforts to help survivors of sexual harassment will be able to flourish, now that McLaughlin and her organization can no longer claim to represent the movement. “MeTooSTEM usurped all of the attention and the funds,” she said.
Even so, her network is now up and running, spreading its message about training to counter the dangers of fieldwork and providing a voice on the other end of the phone for those in crisis.
“We’ve had, I’d say, between 75 and 100 people reach out to us for help,” Heinze said. “The vast majority just want us to know this happened and to talk about it. Mostly it’s the first time they’ve spoken to anybody about it.” ●
Azeen Ghorayshi contributed reporting to this story.
This story has been updated to include details about three "Courage in Action" awards given by MeTooSTEM.