The Sezen Files – Part II: Unraveling the Fabrication

July 8th, 2011

ChemBark InvestigatesIn July of 2005, most people would have viewed Bengu Sezen as a promising young star of organic chemistry.  She had finished her Ph.D. at Columbia in less than five years, published several high-impact papers in the hot area of C–H activation, and secured a postdoctoral position at Stanford in the laboratory of esteemed chemist Chaitan Khosla.  But Bengu Sezen’s Ph.D. defense was not just the latest mountain conquered in her ostensibly stellar career…it was the beginning of her career’s end.

Sezen began grad school in August of 2000, and by the time she was done in 2005, she had produced six first-author papers.  It had long been known within the Sames Lab—and in the world of C–H activation research—that the chemistry developed by Sezen and Sames had issues.  Chemists were having trouble reproducing the results as early as the summer of 2002.  Sames had been contacted by several groups outside Columbia who could not get the reactions to work, and inside the Sames Lab, many students were having problems launching spin-off projects.  In response to these troubles, Sames directed Sezen to provide guidance to those who made outside inquiries, and she assisted her labmates in running their reactions.  Even with Sezen’s assistance, the results were inconsistent.  The most charitable assessment of the body of work was that the reactions were finicky or “sensitive” (to the conditions).

The gravity of the situation peaked in July of 2005, when Sezen defended her thesis and was going to leave campus for good.  After her departure, the other students in the Sames Lab would be forced to fend for themselves; Sezen would no longer be present to provide assistance.  To say that the stakes for the remaining researchers were high is an understatement.  Sames had previously dismissed students from his lab, in part, for their inability to reproduce Sezen’s published, peer-reviewed work.

It was at this time that one astute labmate noticed that the reactions only produced an appreciable quantity of product when Sezen had access to the laboratory in private.  Operating on the assumption that she might have been tampering with the reactions, the labmate set up dual copies of a run-of-the-mill example of Sezen’s chemistry, the conversion of imidazole to phenylimidazole.

At least, that is what the labmate told Sezen.  What he actually did was to set up one reaction with imidazole as the starting material and the other with N-methylimidazole.  The next day, when the reactions were worked up, the product expected of (plain) imidazole was present in both flasks.  The methyl label had vanished from the other substrate…a result that could only be explained by sabotage.

The results of the “trap” were relayed to Sames, who initiated a more thorough (but informal) “in-house” investigation.  The lab poured through her notebooks (aptly named “BS-I” through “BS-XI”) and her electronic data.  It was soon discovered that these documents contained very little information that made sense.  The reactions she appeared to run were reported in *very* scant detail, which was particularly odd for reactions that were supposedly as finicky to the conditions as hers.  The last date written in her notebook was 9 June 2003. 

During the informal investigation by Sames, someone in the survey team stumbled across spectra belonging to Sezen that had been altered with White-Out.  The altered spectra had also appeared in one of Sezen’s publications.  This was the springboard for a more thorough investigation of her NMR data.

It was soon discovered that Sezen never even had her own NMR account at Columbia.  She also had not placed orders for all of the combustion/elemental analyses she reported.  She did collect some NMR spectra: she signed the log book of various instruments and appeared to use the NMR accounts of departed researchers. 

In the analysis of the accounts that Sezen is believed to have used, several series of files were discovered that essentially showed (step-by-step) how she fabricated NMR spectra for some of her compounds.  The process went as follows for her 1H NMR spectra:  she started with a peak corresponding to methylene chloride, then to insert new peaks in her spectrum, she shifted and scaled the methylene chloride peak and added it to the parent spectrum using the instrument’s proprietary software.  Aside from the intermediate files that were found that essentially show the step-by-step process of the fabrications, a second tell-tale sign was that all of the signals had satellite peaks that corresponded to the JCH coupling constant specific to methylene chloride of 177 Hz.  She appears to have done the same with her 31P NMR spectra by cutting-and-pasting a peak corresponding to triphenylphosphine.

Sames provided a draft report of his findings to Columbia in August 2005, and a formal complaint was launched against Sezen in a memorandum on 7 November 2005.  In the meantime, Sames contacted Chaitan Khosla and her postdoctoral appointment was put on hold.  The preliminary inquiry was finished on 16 February 2006, when a final report was submitted to Columbia’s Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.  Sames retracted his first set of papers from JACS on 1 March 2006.

Sezen’s defense was predicated on a strategy of long periods in duck-and-cover mode (avoiding the investigation), interspersed with short bursts of attacks.  In the period following her departure from Columbia until the scandal broke publically, she generally avoided answering e-mails and Columbia did not have a physical address where it could send her documents.  Sezen appeared to hand-deliver a written letter to Columbia in January.

When the retractions were posted in March 2005, Sezen came out of hiding to make public statements to the media in emphatic defense of her work.  She also said she first learned of the retractions after they had been published—a claim that may have some degree of veracity as JACS/Sames altered the wording of the retractions later that month.

Following the public blow-up of the story, Sezen started acknowledging (to Columbia) the fact that an investigation existed.  She acknowledged receipt of the Inquiry Report on 27 March 2006.  On 19 May 2006, she provided comments on the report and (astonishingly) launched a counter-claim that alleged her accusers fraudulently claimed they could not reproduce her work in a campaign to discredit her and steal her results.

After ducking attempts by Columbia to get her to submit to an interview in the summer of 2006, that August, she contacted Science, Nature, and the New York Times with complaints about Columbia’s handling of the investigation.  She also spammed these complaints to scores of professors at the nation’s top chemistry departments.   ChemBark saw—but never reported—one such e-mail sent to a Harvard professor in 2006.

Apparently eager to get to the bottom of the story and put the investigation to rest, Columbia went out of its way to provide Sezen with materials to review regarding the investigation.  It even retained the services of a law firm in Europe to provide a place for her to receive and review thousands of pages of documents.  Eventually, after several on-again/off-again cycles of interacting with the investigation committee—she claimed visa issues prevented her from returning to New York and she repeatedly called off telephone interviews—Sezen submitted to a telephone interview on 6 October 2006.

It is unclear when, exactly, Sezen mounted the defenses listed below, but her story included:

She denied that she had enrolled in a (second) Ph.D. program at the University of Heidelberg, then later recanted this denial.

She denied ever using the NMR accounts of departed researchers at Columbia.  She claimed her NMR account had the user name “bengu”.  The NMR facility manager reported no such account ever existed.

Regarding the missing data for her experiments, she claimed to maintain a supplementary set of notebooks with the details of her procedures.  (Who knows what information she thought worthy of putting in her eleven “real” notebooks?)  Similarly, she had supplementary binders of spectra that were not in Columbia’s possession.

She claimed that a company named “Duha Chemisches Katalyse-Labor” (a.k.a. “Duha”) successfully reproduced her work.  An official at the company named Ralf Decter sent Columbia an electronic message to verify Sezen’s claim.  The problem…the IP address of the computer that sent the message traced to the University of Heidelberg (where Sezen was studying in 2006).  An official at Duha (perhaps also Decter…the name was redacted) also sent a written letter to Columbia.  Columbia contacted the business located at the address on the Duha letterhead, and the person who responded said that he neither knew of Ralf Decter nor a company named “Duha”.  These entities were adjudged by the investigation committee to be fictitious.

Similarly, in what was perhaps an attempt to scare Columbia, Sezen claimed in January 2006 she had retained the services of a lawyer named M. Atkas.  M. Atkas wrote a memo to Columbia in February 2006.  Columbia could not contact Mr. Atkas and a search revealed no lawyer by that name (or his business, “Barrington Law Firm”) to exist.

Sezen claimed that purchase requisitions did not exist for many of her combustion analyses because she obtained them in free trials.  Columbia could find no vendors who offered free trials for elemental analyses.

Unsurprisingly, the full investigation by Columbia found Sezen’s defenses not to be credible.  Its final report enumerated many specific instances of plagiarism and fabrication (mainly spectra and elemental analyses) in great detail.  This report formed the basis of a similar report tied to the investigation of Sezen by the Office of Research Integrity.  In November 2010, the ORI cited 21 specific instances of misconduct in suspending Sezen from receiving federal funding for five years.  While Columbia stated last year it was moving to revoke her degree, it is unclear whether this has happened.

 

Up Next… The Sezen Files, Part III: And What of Sames?

The Columbia Report verifies ChemBark’s long-held claims that Professor Dalibor Sames dismissed students from his lab for failure to reproduce Sezen’s fraudulent work.  How has Sames managed to escape the fire?   


93 Responses to “The Sezen Files – Part II: Unraveling the Fabrication”

  1. S Says:

    Thanks for pulling this together, Paul. It’s baffling to consider this level of fraud – what was the motivation and how early did it start? As someone with an interest in the department of note and the dismissed students, I’m really looking forward to reading the next part.

  2. You're Pfizered Says:

    Did she really think that none of this stuff would ever come to light?

    Where was her adviser in terms of looking at the actual data? Christ, my adviser used to want to see my crude NMRs half the time, especially early on. It’s amazing that he cut people loose based on not being able to repeat her stuff. If I were them I’d knock on his door and thank him for making them get new advisers. His credibility has to take a hit as well.

  3. Scientist Says:

    Thank you for putting so much effort in this, it is the only way to deal with fraud
    I am from germany, our minister of defense had to resign recently because his Ph.D thesis contained several passages that were copied form other documents
    The theses of serveal other politicians and CEOs are now under investigation by the internet community
    At first this will be bad for reputation of science in the public, but the scientific communty will be benefiting greatly

  4. Matt Says:

    I’m on pins and needles waiting for part three! It is the most ridiculous/obscene/profane/gut-wrenchng part of this whole story

  5. Bender Says:

    Knock on his door and thank him? I’d punch his damn lights out.

  6. eugene Says:

    I’ve been interested in this ever since the first reports of course. And now that I personally know the “astute labmate” I’m even more interested. In unrelated news, this reminds me that I’ve always wanted to go out with a really crazy girl for a month or two, for the the second time in my life. Please pass on my contact info to Beng…. oh screw it.

  7. See Arr Oh Says:

    I recall a C-H activation talk in our department back in Jan 2005, when some of the Sames work was in vogue. I was walking out of the room with a well-connected Prof, who just shook his head and said “be careful how much of that stuff you believe…I’ve heard otherwise”

    He turned out to be right, but who knew the full extent of it? Wow.

  8. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    I recall rumors of a relationship between Sames and Sezen when the story first broke, but no mention of that here (which would be certainly relevant to the whole thing). Have these rumors been discredited?

  9. Unstable Isotope Says:

    There is nothing about this story that is not terrible. I really feel for all the students that had to deal with this brazen liar.

  10. IwasThereMan Says:

    Thanks for the extreme accuracy and detail of this story. Alot of gossip has (understandably) come out surrounding this unfortunate situation, and it’s nice to see the truth finally come to light. I was in the lab at the time and was there when the “spectra-making” was discovered (though i can’t take credit for the discovery). The NMR facility manager, supposed expert, had a gaping jaw when he realized what she had done with the software, as he was unaware that this was even possible. I’m glad that rumors of Bengu’s “relationship” with Dali are not in the official record, I can attest to this being completely fictitious (initially conceived and spread by Bengu herself, among her many counter-realities). Though some students’ careers were wounded, I’m happy that no one was physically hurt as a result. . . . no one who has ever looked Bengu in the eyes would have been surprised if the situation had escalated to that level.

  11. bad wolf Says:

    “Two graduate students, [redacted] were asked by [redacted-Sames] to leave his group at the beginning of the third year of their graduate study and one graduate student, [redacted] decided to leave the [redacted] after passing the second-year qualifying examination. Each of these students had spent much time unsuccessfully trying to reproduce and extend Dr. Sezen’s work. [redacted] and [redacted-Sames] have differing recollections as to why the students were either asked to leave or voluntarily left his group. The students believe that their lack of success with Dr. Sezen’s chemistry was a major factor, while [redacted-Sames] says that other factors were determinative.

    The Committee is not charged to resolve these differing recollections and opinions, but it believes that the wasted time and effort, coupled with the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had severe negative impacts on the graduate careers of these students.”

  12. luysii Says:

    Sad ! Careers may have died, but no one died, unlike medicine. What has my old friend, and talmudic scholar Sam Danishevsky said about this? (If anything).

  13. Jon Says:

    Thanks for filling in the gaps in the C&EN article. I hope those grad students whose lives were (adversely) impacted find some compensation, or at least consolation.

  14. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    @IWasThereMan,
    This kinda of thing is always murky, but I noticed your comments on Derek’s blog indicate that you are not completely confident in your assertion that there was nothing going on between Sezen and Sames…care to elaborate?

  15. Cartesian Says:

    If this kind of person did always pay for its faults against the career of others, it can cost a lot of time and money to some honest persons, and put some lives in danger.

  16. Unstable Isotope Says:

    Anxiously awaiting part 3!

  17. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Nice work Paul! You could be the new Walter Stewart

  18. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    How has Sames managed to escape the fire?

    That, Detective Spooner, is the right question.

  19. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Iwasthereman: So do you agree that Sames dismissed students mostly because they could not repeat Sezen’s work?

  20. IwasThereMan Says:

    @NotAnAstrobiologist: In short, she’s not his style. Dali is a self-proclaimed ladiesman and was open with me and others about many of his proposed and achieved conquests. He has discussed things as inappropriate as the illeged affair with Bengu would be, so i can only imagine he would have no problem bragging about Bengu if this had happened (I’m referring to before all this fraud stuff came out). I wouldn’t argue that he was above having a relationship with her on ethical grounds. . . just that it wouldn’t seem worth it to him, given the risks. I can recall very granular conversations supporting his lack of interest in girls like Bengu. I’ll leave it at that at the risk of offending anyone.

    @ Special Guest Lecturer: Yes and no :-) First of all, I can completely understand everyone’s pity for these few students. I was quite familiar with two of them, and I’ll say this at the risk of sounding like a jerk: they probably would have left for one reason or another if it hadn’t been for Bengu’s work. The lab, like many labs run by pre-tenure PI’s, was extremely cut-throat at the time, and the two folks i’m familiar with didn’t fit the bill in terms of their work ethic, drive, and enthusiasm. One went to a “low-key” lab run by a veteran PI and did okay, the other left school but i don’t think he’s any worse for the wear. The attrition rate in the first two years at Columbia (and i imagine other chem depts) is significant, and everyone has a story. I’m not trying to downplay what Bengu did, which is reprehensible from a scientific standpoint, but I think these three students lives that she supposedly ruined are a modest negative externality at best. Besides these three, i can think of three or four other folks who were probably slated to spin-off Bengu’s stuff, but they could read the writing on the wall, steered their projects in different directions, and turned out fine (one of them is writing this comment!). I hope this isn’t too ruthless, and to repeat myself, i’m not trying to defend Bengu (or Dali, really), just to say it’s not as bad as it sounds.

  21. IwasThereMan Says:

    @ luysii: I love your characterization of Sambo. I think he grunted a few things under his breath about this, but they were not discernible. He’s a realist, not an idealist. I do believe Breslow was steamed about this though.

  22. Chemjobber Says:

    @IwasThereMan:

    It’s nice to hear that folks seemed to have landed more or less on their feet. (Obviously, it would be nice to hear it from them.) One imagines that it could have ended up a lot worse.

  23. wolfie Says:

    Please read the book. How has John A. Rogers, Schön’s last manager at Bell labs, escaped the fire ?

  24. wolfie Says:

    I suggest, that you may write a book on the whole story.

  25. Paul Says:

    Part III should be posted in the middle of next week; you all needn’t wear out your F5 buttons.

    Also, I have 11 more days to send a letter to DHHS that challenges any of the redactions made in the FOIA document (here). Anyone have a section he thinks should be added to the list?

  26. luysii Says:

    Well, the corruption may start at a very early level. I caught an undergraduate cheating and turned him in, and nothing was done to keep him from going to med school. This, at an Ivy League chemistry department. If he didn’t pass a summer school orgo course he wasn’t going (he’d likely flunked it in the past). God only knows what damage he’s done as a doc (assuming he made it through). For the sordid details see

    https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/son-of-a-responsibility-you-didnt-know-you-had/

    IWasThereMan: Sam was a good guy 50 years ago, and he’s probably a good man now (not sure if he still knows his talmud). Even my shrink friends agree that people don’t change much. It’s certainly been my experience.

  27. Hap Says:

    Wolfie: I didn’t think Rogers was at Bell long enough to take a hit for Schon – he was a postdoc when I was a grad student, and then he left for Lucent with his wife but wasn’t there long before Lucent decided that doing research wasn’t their bag). I though Schon had compiled a pretty long fabrication list before then. I also don’t know if he ran anyone for Schon’s fabrications.

    On the other hand, Sames was there for all of Sezen’s fabrications, and he did run people for the inability to reproduce them. If you enact a price from others for not cooperating with the falsehoods of another, you have some complicity in the them, no?

  28. David E Says:

    Thank you for the excellent account of this unbelievable story.

  29. pTsOH Says:

    You really couldn’t make this up. The postdoc who discovered this should get some sort of public service to chemistry award… Maybe a new Chemmy or whatever you call it here. Of course, they should share it with the three students who whose careers ended in “bahramdipity.” I at least hope Sames bought him or her a new car for saving his career.

  30. Major Major Says:

    @ pTsOH

    It’s interesting to consider who saved Sames’ career. Was it the post-doc who helped to straighten things out? Or was it actually Sezen for generating (concocting?) the data that got Sames tenure in the first place?

  31. eugene Says:

    If you’re a postdoc working for Sames at around the time all these retractions happen, you would be pretty upset. Imagine, you are in a hot group and expecting to get a few jackasses or andjewandtes, or maybe a chemical misscommunication if things don’t work out, and then move on to a tenure track position. Then all of a sudden, these retractions happen and any Sames alum gets this huge black mark on them. Probably the postdoc who got out in time and got a faculty position right before all the stuff blew up is thinking they are very lucky. Not so much, the postdoc who discovered the fraud.

  32. Crystallinity Says:

    Bengu is definitely evil… but does her actions really warrant this much attention this many years from the events? A juicy story, sure, and I’m sure it was terrible at the time for all involved, but that was how many years ago now? FIVE? You don’t have anything better to do than to spend time on details of a case that is basically over? Don’t you think that the innocent parties in the group might not want to have their PI repeatedly slammed in the media for years and years after the event?

    It’s a terrible thing to have happened in the chemical community and it has definitely made everyone more aware of this kind of thing happening, but I really don’t see the point of spending so much energy on it. I know some of the people that have been afraid of the consequences of all this media attention, and they say that Sames has since become insanely diligent with inspecting data and more supportive in the event of dismaying results and wish that people would stop caring so much about old news. It also seems from his group website that his graduates and post-docs aren’t having trouble moving on and being successful. From what I understand, he’s become a better PI overall. Isn’t that a good outcome of the situation for the group?

  33. Crystallinity Says:

    Correction – the STUDENTS wish that people would stop caring so much about old news.

  34. soon-to-be-ex-chemist Says:

    You guys do realize that although this “shook” the world of academic chemistry, nobody but a handful of people really give a damn. Outside of chemistry and academia in general, this would be a mild case of bullshiting a few people that really didn’t have a vested interest anway. Much bigger fish to fry and to be shocked to learn details of their actions rather than crafty ol’ Bengu

  35. Hap Says:

    1) Well, if it had been dealt with five years ago (like, when Columbia’s policy’s said it was supposed to have been), then it would be old news, but it wasn’t, and hence it isn’t.

    2) Sometimes, people manage to do bad things (DUI manslaughter) and yet make something better for themselves and others afterwards, and that can mitigate the price that they pay for those acts, but they still pay for them, because they still did wrong. The penalty can’t cure the damage (when you kill someone, even if you didn’t mean to, they’re still gone whatever happens to the person who killed them), but it there both to inhibit others from committing the same crime and to inhibit others from vigilante justice. If the lesson is that profs get a free pass while their students pay the price, well, what do you think is going to happen?

  36. Paul Says:

    @Crystallinity: Nice blog you’ve got. Do you work in the Sames Lab?

    The reason that this discussion is taking place now instead of five years ago is because the details just came to light. It is a story of great interest to the chemical community and it deserves to be analyzed thoroughly.

    @soon-to-be-ex-chemist: This is a blog about chemistry written for chemists. Seems like a reasonable venue to discuss this case. Given the increased levels of traffic on this site over the past week, I think several orders of magnitude more than a “handful of people” might “really give a damn”.

  37. soon-to-be-ex-chemist Says:

    @Paul:

    No doubt, the venue for this story is perfect, which makes it all the more frustrating –

    If only intelligent and eloquent chemists, such as yourself, exerted this kind of effort to help uncover, report, and discuss ideas to prevent fraud and calamities that are actually relevant, I have no doubt the world (aka the >99.99% of people who don’t read JACS) would be a much more stimulating, wholesome, and enriching place.

    Peace.

  38. Amorphous Solid Says:

    @Crystallinity: Nice try, Bengu.

  39. Chemjobber Says:

    @soon-to-be-ex-chemist:

    What relevant calamities do you suggest we cover? If there’s fraud to be brought to light, let’s have it, offline if necessary.

    Also, if Paul/C&EN doesn’t cover it, who will?

  40. hairpin Says:

    Sames was a terrible leader. Now, what of the people he trained? It’s been said that they got good positions, but is it good for chemistry to have people who got their doctorates through a buffoon to be leaders?

  41. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Soon-to-be-ex-chemist,

    As an academic chemist, I think this is a story both extremely relevant and compelling. Though the fraud occurred several years ago, the culture of academic chemistry has not changed much since then. This situation could happen again today in the wrong combination of circumstances, so we should talk about it and learn from it.

    The point is not to personally attack Dalibor Sames, as I think he is a very good chemist. But he certainly mismanaged this situation, and it is important lesson for the community to understand how and why. I hope to never encounter a student like Sezen in my own career, but it can be very tempting for students to only show the “good” data that supports the most exciting conclusions. The buck stops with the adviser in terms of quality control of a lab’s output.

    There is a whole other part of this story that is also fascinating about careerism in academia. I am quite certain the pressure-packed time of Sames trying to earn tenure in a top department played a big role in how he responded to early inquiries about Sezen’s work. From Columbia’s perspective, they thought they were promoting a rising star of organic chemistry and now have something less than that. Do they have buyers’ remorse? What should they do to help him recover and continue to run a leading research program? Is the tenure system and process by which it is awarded one of the problems?

    From the perspective of the field of organic methodology development, we have an epidemic of inflated yields and stereoselectivities. What standards of reporting should be in place? Assuming that expanding the Organic Synthesis checking model would place too large a burden on the system, should a PI at least have to certify that two different researchers could independently observe similar results?

    I don’t have definitive answers to any of these questions, but you have your head in the sand if you think we should not be talking about it.

  42. Paris Is Burning Says:

    Was she crazy before joining the group, or was it the Neanderthal-like nature of the team that birthed this behavior? According to a former post-doc who interviewed with C&E News, she was pretty sharp. What was the catalyst that caused Bengu to spike reactions? Where was the driving force for uncovering new knowledge rather than putting out another fake JACS paper? And why wasn’t an explanation given to the chemistry community when all this was found out? Why did this take years? I think this will be a wound that never heals. There’s surely more we haven’t heard. So far the story has been about the cunning female, but what about the domineering male leader, who has already been described as a shallow male womanizer by one of his cohorts (see comments above)?

  43. Cartesian Says:

    For no misunderstanding, in my comment above it was : If this kind of person did always pay for its faults against the career of others, it should be a good thing, because it can cost a lot of time and money to some honest persons, and put some lives in danger.

  44. Hap Says:

    The fraud started early enough that it probably would have been a consequence of previously existent tendencies. In addition, the nature of synthetic groups and their relations (or lack thereof) with women would have been at least somewhat known in 2000, so it shouldn’t have come as a shock to Sezen how they related – in any case, I don’t know that fraud is the response one would (or could) expect.

    The most charitable possibility is that she got the results early, told Sames, realized the results were wrong, and was afraid to take them back for fear of permanently damaging her chances for status in the group (where sexism might play a role). I don’t know if that’s consistent with the findings of the report, though, and it still requires engaging in concious fraud with no clear endgame (that doesn’t destroy her career).

  45. Paris Is Burning Says:

    Maybe there was a deathwish induced by the hostile/sexist environment. By some accounts, porn was a normal use of computers in that group. I don’t know if sexist policies were a part of this, but given the NSF’s interest in promoting females and minorities in science, probably there should be a separate investigation into understanding if a disproportionate number of females/minorities left the group or were forced to leave.

  46. Hap Says:

    That still seems like a bizarre response to me.

  47. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Sometimes individuals go off the rails. That is a far simpler explanation given what is known about the situation and the extent of the fraud.

  48. Chemjobber Says:

    While I’m fully prepared to believe that the environment might have been sexist or hostile, that doesn’t excuse faking results and doping reactions.

    (BTW, I should try “The porn made me do it” as an excuse sometime.)

  49. Hap Says:

    I don’t think porn was accepted in lab even fifteen years ago, at least where I was. In one of the other groups (relatively hardcore organic), one of the grad students was printing out some for home perusal on the lab computers, but he forgot one of the last sheets of it. One of the women in the group was early to lab and went to get something off the lab printer and…well…. I don’t think there were major permanent consequences, but there was a search for the perpetrator, and when he was found I’m sure he got a stern talking-to about acceptable use of the lab computers.

  50. Wade Says:

    I think the reason this story still generates such a stir among chemists is that it’s so rare. It’s a crazy news story.

    It’s a great sign to me that this is still news. That means it’s really unusual. Which in turn means chemistry is doing pretty well.

    The other piece of this that keeps us enthralled is the very nature of the PI – Ph.D student relationship. All the power is on one side…that PI sitting behind the desk can do anything to your career that he or she wants. That’s terrifying, especially to those of us who were going through grad school in the immediate wake of the Jason Altom suicide in the Corey group. There’s a lot of natural strain in that relationship, and sometimes people crack and do insane things. We all labored under that model, and fortunately the vast majority of us got through one way or another. We can say “There but for the grace of God go I.”

    I now tell any undergraduates who are thinking of grad school to keep their options open. Even the best students. “Dropping out” of grad school is not necessarily a bad decision.

  51. Confused Says:

    The premeditated nature of the fraud seems to be evidence enough of careful forethought that went into this deception. Spending that much time in the NMR facility faking data, using other accounts that (incorrectly presumed) couldn’t be traced back to her, and messing with other students’/post docs’ reactions? That doesn’t sound like someone who was up against the wall. That sounds like someone trying to cut some throats.

    Additionally, the nature of Sezen’s response to the whole incident is just baffling. Making up German companies? Claiming fraud on the part of her accusers? Further lying about the existence of other notebooks for the missing procedures? If Sezen were just trying to appease Sames, I’d assume that after getting caught she would have just spilled the beans, and talked about the pressure she was under.

    Instead once she hit rock bottom, she whipped out the shovel and started digging. That’s pretty telling of near pathological lying, right there.

  52. CR Says:

    The buck stops with Sames, period. The graduate student is 100% at fault and should be stripped of the Ph.D. However, Sames also should suffer the same consequences. He HAD to know there was something wrong after the first publication – hell everyone that tried that reaction after the first publication knew it didn’t work. I remember in the early 00’s trying to replicate the reaction as a newly hired medicinal chemist and it not working. We discussed it in detail and several other chemists tried and all failed. There is no way someone didn’t say something to Sames, whether informally at a meeting, or trying to get the experimental details via email. Yes, Sezen was a hall of fame fraudster; but even people at the time knew Roger Clemens was doping (they just chose to ignore it – ala Sames).

    The fact that he still has his job at Columbia is utterly amazing.

  53. Chemjobber Says:

    The miracles of tenure. Someone should start a blog documenting all the things that you can do and not get fired as a professor. (Of course, then you need to have an occasional counter-intuitive post about all the things that WILL get you fired.)

  54. Facepalm Says:

    If porn is readily accepted in Sames’ lab, I need to apply for grad school there!

  55. Wade Says:

    @Confused:
    Heh, yes, I guess I should have been more clear in my post, which was a little stream of consciousness. I agree with all your points.

    I think that Sezen panicked (or just used incredibly poor judgment) as a result of being put into the grad school system, where there is SO much pressure to generate results. Or maybe even before, as an undergrad doing research…maybe she faked some data as an undergrad and it worked out really well. Maybe it was even in a teaching lab the first time, and not in research. Anyway, she gets to grad school, sees the high-stress environment there, especially the PI – student dynamic, and decides faking is easier than doing the work, before she even joins a group. Most of us would look at that and say “that’s crazy!” It’s not worth the risk in science, because eventually someone comes along behind you and can’t reproduce your results.

    The question, I suppose, is whether she was a pathological liar before all this started.

    Some people will try to lie their way out of anything. Maybe they lie their way into things, too, like the Ivies. We had a cheating incident when I was a TA in grad school (Ivy League, no less) where an undergrad changed her exam in 17 separate places and then turned it in for a regrade. Seventeen! We confronted her and she denied it. It was impossible not to notice SEVENTEEN changes on a paper. Graders don’t miss that many things. It’s crazy! But still she denied it. Then, we pulled out the photocopy we had made of her exam before we gave it back to her–we had decided to photocopy her test in particular because we suspected her of a similar incident on a previous test. We showed her the 17 places. Only then did she crumple. The pathological liar thinks that he or she can get away with absolutely anything by sticking to and embellishing the lie.

    Anyway….the piece that really got me started thinking about PI – Ph.D. student relationships was the bit about those other students who were fired. Sames had all the power over them. They couldn’t get stuff to work (we’ve all been there) and then they got fired. That reminded me of the Jason Altom case, which then led me back to Sezen’s insane response to her environment.

    How’s that for a ramble?

  56. CR Says:

    Tenure or not…Fraud is fraud. Columbia should be doing everything possible to oust him.

  57. pTsOH Says:

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0040-4039(00)01374-5

    Interesting… an earlier report of C-H activation from B. Sezen.

  58. Gregor Says:

    Fraud hasn’t stopped JJ laClair from publishing! That freak still publishes in Angewandte regularly and even jacs! His crime is the same as Sezen and he still goes to GRC conferences like nothing happened!

    Shame on Wiley and GRC organizers!!!! What’s wrong with our community?

  59. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    True, I can’t believe Angewandte is willing to send his papers out for review.

  60. Bunsen Honeydew Says:

    I agree. LaClair is clearly a fraud and should be excommunicated and exiled as such. That being said, I don’t think anyone puts ANY stock in what he publishes. If they do, it is most certainly at their own peril.

  61. Chemjobber Says:

    I’ve noticed JJLC’s papers typically have him as one of many authors — that’s probably a key there.

  62. wolfie Says:

    Hap : you may be at least partially right. Maybe, I should have said : how did Betram Batlogg escape the fire ?

    In any case, both of them, Rogers and Batlogg, are esteemed professors at esteemed institutions now.

    Good that i am no longer a chemist.

  63. wolfie Says:

    And, Paul, you forget that real life is not playing in thermodynamic equilibrium, as most of your comments try to suggest. Life is a more or less balanced and continous flow of matter and energies (see, e.g., Prigogine, et al.), and is as such far away from any equilibrium or truth. Otherwise, we’d be dead.

  64. Paul Says:

    I am astounded by the number of Google searches that bring users here looking for a photograph of Dr. Bengu Sezen. Since no alternative appears accessible, here is the photo that graced the Columbia Chemistry Department’s Web site as late as 2006 (when it was removed in the heat of the scandal):

  65. wolfie Says:

    I would like to reserve the rights for the first blog mention of this photograph for me, please.

    And, in the heat of the discussion, I want to add a Latin proverb (assuming you Harvard and Stanford guys still understand the language)

    Errare humanum est.

  66. Paul Says:

    @Wolfie: To err is human; to fabricate six papers is not.

  67. HFM Says:

    @Paris: That’s a lot to blame on a sexist environment. As a female who’s had her share of arrogant, sexist colleagues, I can tell you I’d rather go roll around in the glass waste box than self-destruct in a way that lets those bastards win.

    Now, if she’d had a bit of fun with their reactions…that’s not so mature, but I could understand that. Ditto if she’d slugged somebody. But this?

    And I’m with several of the commenters above: given the choice between doing eleven notebooks full of work and falsifying eleven notebooks, I’d choose the former. Even if I was magically sure that I was right and would never get caught. I think it might even be less work. (But then, they pay me to fill out paperwork; the science I would do for free.)

  68. Gordon Says:

    It’s worth reading closely Sames’ recent work on fluorescent neurotransmitter substrates, JACS 2010, 132, 8828-30. The design principles are laid out nicely, the synthesis is done – and then the compounds are applied to biological systems. They have images that just do not bear the conclusion made.

    The paper should never have gone into print. No clue if the correspondence authors were clueless or if there was active deception, but it should never have gone into print. Not after the Sezen affair.

  69. Hap Says:

    People are good and evil in different measures, and as the quote asserts, fallible in all of them. Sezen’s fraud wasn’t an error of being human, though. She didn’t try to do right and fail – she tried to do wrong and mostly succeeded. She chose to do as she did, and had plenty of time to renounce it if she had chosen. (Before Sames ejected those three students, for example, might have been a good time for a conscience to have reared its head.) But she didn’t.

    Human and not human probably aren’t the correct labels for good and bad actions, since we do everything.

  70. Hap Says:

    Wolfie – I got Plastic Fantastic from the library (OK, my wife got it), and it indicates Rogers’s connection to Schon (he managed him for a while, touted at least some of his work, and was part of the investigation when others brought up problems with his work). So I was wrong about the lack of connection between Rogers and Schon (though how much blame should be apportioned I don’t know). Sorry.

  71. Bengü Sezen – A “Master of Fraud” at Columbia University « The k2p blog Says:

    […] The Sezen Files – Part II: Unraveling the Fabrication […]

  72. Raw Data in Organic Chemistry Papers/Open Science « Intermolecular Says:

    […] and say something of its purity. Such reproductions are not ironclad guarantees that a compound has actually been synthesised, nor that it was the reported process that actually gave rise to that sample. Nonetheless, […]

  73. trox Says:

    can still find the pictures on the wayback machine:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20041209075449/http://www.columbia.edu/cu/chemistry/groups/sames/members.html

    http://web.archive.org/web/20090413152237/http://www.zmbh.uni-heidelberg.de/schiebel/members.shtml

  74. pTsOH Says:

    nice wayback-fu trox! A small amount of further exploration with wayback establishes with near certainty the identity of the three students who were kicked out because they couldn’t reproduce the work

  75. Robert Evans Says:

    Well, if that wayback is true, it looks like the 3 likeliest candidates did go on to finish in other labs.

    Two received intermediate MAs at Columbia. Two went on to receive Ph.D.s in chemistry (one at another school, one at Columbia), one a doctorate in another discipline at Columbia.

  76. bad wolf Says:

    Very good, in fact better wayback-fu than C&E News writer William G Schulz. Who is a “real journalist.”

  77. wolfie Says:

    Schultz !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  78. Chemjobber Says:

    It is worth considering that perhaps Schulz knows the identities of the 3, but has refrained (similar to Paul) from naming them.

  79. Ralph Says:

    Concerning JACS 2010, 132, 8828-30, the fluorescence photos are ridiculous, I could have taken better photos 30 years ago with a minimal setup including a cheap film camera. If JACS can’t do a better job of vetting photomicrographs, they should refrain from publishing biology papers.

  80. Robert Evans Says:

    Mea culpa, I typed too soon. So far I can only find evidence that the person who left Columbia (after receiving an MA) received an MS from another school. I can’t find evidence of a Ph.D.

  81. bad wolf Says:

    @CJ–yes, i am sure you are correct about naming the names. i meant as far as finding the photo of BS, and was snidely referring to the article’s steadfast refusal to give Paul any credit.

    i generally assumed the names were out there if you looked. but while we’ve mostly focused on their fates, i see there are some rumbles that all this talk is now potentially tarnishing the current (also innocent) students. dilemma.

  82. Robert Evans Says:

    Chemjobber: “It is worth considering that perhaps Schulz knows the identities of the 3, but has refrained (similar to Paul) from naming them.”

    ————————
    A Puzzle Named Bengü Sezen
    William G. Schulz

    “What became of those former Sames lab members is unknown.”
    ————————

    Yes, there is some weasel room in what Schulz wrote, but not much. It would have been more honest to have made a different sort of statement.

  83. Columbia University maintains a wall of silence around the Sezen – Sames case « The k2p blog Says:

    […] The Sezen Files: Part1, Part2 and Part3 Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Green Laptops: […]

  84. nadja Says:

    There are a couple of things that I would like to know. First, how many times did she run the reactions without getting the desired result, i.e. is this woman an honestly sick person, some sort of pathological liar who arrived at Columbia with the sole purpose of fabricating her results, or was she driven to a lie that grew out of proportion because of the pressure from the PI for the results that he desired? And second she was there for 5 years, the PI did not EVER notice that he was not billed for analyses and/or NMR usage? (Anybody who was a grad student knows how PIs obsess about these sort of charges, especially non-tenure faculty that are not exactly rolling in money just yet).

  85. industrialkemist Says:

    Sames was too busy styling his hair and admiring himself in the mirror to pay attention to the goings-on in his lab. My company gave him an unrestricted grant in 2005. He should pay it back. F-in A-hole.

  86. hans Says:

    Professor Sames had more then professional interest in Dr. Sezen’s success, he was mentoring her several ways. She soon will be disclosing confidential info that will be embarassing to the mentor and Columbia.

    SHe will be vindicated..

  87. My Advice to Breslow | ChemBark Says:

    […] Dalibor Sames’ reputation has suffered in the wake of the Bengu Sezen scandal. Sezen was exposed and punished to what is probably the fullest extent possible. Her reputation is absolute garbage. […]

  88. Türkiye Akademisinin Arka Sokaklarından Tez Manzaraları - Aşağıdan! Says:

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  89. Türkiye Akademisinin Arka Sokaklarından Tez Manzaraları | Subjektif Says:

    […] The Sezen Files – Part II: Unraveling the Fabrication (“Sezen Dosyaları – Kısım II: Uydurmayı Gizlemek“) (Paul Bracher) […]

  90. Earn Your B.S. from B.S. in B.S. | ChemBark Says:

    […] what I can only hope is a sign that the job market for scientists is improving, it appears that serial data fabricator Bengu Sezen has been hired by the Gebze Instiute of Technology (in her native Turkey) as an […]

  91. Chemistry graduate school and mental well-being | Just Another Electron Pusher Says:

    […] The stress of grad school can affect one’s mood, leading to bouts of depression and low self-esteem. The pressure to be productive and innovative in one’s research project can also be an element among many which may help encourage (or at least fail to discourage) some aberrant mental behavior. […]

  92. ChemBark » Blog Archive Says:

    […] readers of this blog will recall how fake elemental analyses were pivotal to Bengu Sezen’s campaign of fraud in the work she published out of Dalibor Sames’ lab at Columbia from 2002 to […]

  93. Insert data here … Did researcher instruct co-author to make up results for chemistry paper? | Retraction Watch Says:

    […] readers of this blog will recall how fake elemental analyses were pivotal to Bengu Sezen’s campaign of fraud in the work she published from 2002 to 2005 out of Dalibor Sames’ lab at […]


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