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A professor at ETH Zurich bullied students for ten years and the university did nothing about it

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"It ruined my career."

At ETH Zurich, a professor at the Institute for Astronomy has bullied and harassed doctoral and post-doctoral students for over ten years. The NZZ had previously reported on it. Buzzfeed News spoke to two victims who have made significant allegations against the professor and the university. It's about threats, humiliations and prevented careers. When the ETH Zurich cases became known in February, the management reacted - and unceremoniously dissolved the entire institute.

The cosmos was Maryam Shirazi's dream. Already during her school days in Iran she wanted to become a scientist, later studied physics and did a doctorate. Then she will come to the Institute for Astronomy at ETH Zurich in November 2013. And here, at one of the most renowned universities in Europe, her dream breaks - to Gabriela M. (name changed).

"It ruined my career," Shirazi said in a Skype interview with Buzzfeed News. Gabriela M. bullied and harassed her and other scientists. A former doctoral student speaks of "psychological terror". She got personal at meetings, accusing employees of dressing incorrectly or wearing make-up. She schedules meetings so that they last until late at night, expects emails to be answered immediately even at night, or urges employees not to take vacation. This emerges from consistent reports from those affected.

M., an internationally renowned scientist, came to ETH Zurich in 2002 with her husband, the British astronomer Paul F. (name changed). Together they set up the Institute for Astronomy. Apart from the couple, there have been no other professors for a long time.

"You have no chance of winning against me"

“The time there was very hard for me,” says Shirazi. “I got depressed and sick.” Shirazi was employed as a post-doctoral student. At the time, not many knew the data sets and instruments she used to measure space, she says. "I actually had the chance to have a good career."

But the professor forbids Shirazi to have contact with her doctoral supervisor. "Forget Daddy, she said to me. Mommy is here for you now. ”The long-planned participation of Shirazi at a congress in Asia, M. cancels the evening before.

M, so describe it, with whom Buzzfeed News spoke, trying to isolate their employees and students. You shouldn't talk to each other or to colleagues. She wants to control everything. The doctoral students secretly exchange ideas when M. has already gone home or during the lunch break when she does not see them.

M. himself does not want to comment on the allegations. An employee writes Buzzfeed News on request that the ETH Zurich press office is the point of contact. But even there they do not want to comment on specific questions, but refer to a press release from October 25th.

It reads that the university management of the ETH Zurich has decided to "open an independent investigation based on the allegations in the former Institute for Astronomy". The university has been aware of the allegations since February 2017. They are "in clear contradiction to what we expect from our professors," ETH President Lino Guzzella is quoted in it.

According to a spokeswoman, no further information could be given until “the investigation has been completed and the ETH Board has taken note of this matter”.

The case was started in February by a doctoral student who is currently doing research at ETH and therefore does not want to read her name on the Internet. Gabriela M. put her under pressure to sign a declaration in which she should confirm all of her "weaknesses" - and that it is her own fault that things are not going so well with her doctor. If they don't, then “we can no longer work together”. The doctoral student writes in a statement that M. threatened: “You have no chance of winning against me.” A second doctoral student is also urged to sign such a document.

"For me it was the darkest episode in my life"

The doctoral candidate goes to the ombudsman. Together they collect statements from former students and post-doctoral students about their time with Gabriela M. In the statements made by Buzzfeed News, the professor is accused of bullying and abuse of power. The media officer at ETH Zurich wrote: "It is not on record that there have been problems between the professor and her doctoral students before." However, this is offset by statements from former doctoral students and post-doctoral students that are available to Buzzfeed News. These provide credible and independent assurance that they have turned to university bodies such as the ombudsman and the pro-rector with complaints within the past ten years. It is unclear why they did not record the complaints on file.

“I realized that I was psychologically abused by my own superiors,” writes the doctoral student. M. is aggressive, expect that you can always be reached at night and always work. The most worrying thing, according to the doctoral student, is: “We really never talked about physics”. Instead, it was about color schemes of presentations, their posture or their work ethic.

The statements confirm that M. treats women more roughly than men. Another doctoral student writes about her time with M. that she exposed her to male colleagues: "I was told that if I had time for make-up, I could produce more plots." M. accuses her of having sexual relations Having colleagues and asking them intimate things in front of other scientists. In at least three of the statements, doctoral students report that they collapsed in tears after insulting M.

“For me it was the darkest episode in my life and the reason why I decided not to continue working in astronomy, although I was very successful before and during my post-doc at ETH,” writes a third former employee .

The statements are not a campaign of revenge by failed scientists. A post-doctoral student who is now doing research at a renowned university also speaks of "clan structures" in the institute with regard to the couple F. and M.

When it becomes clear that these are not isolated cases, the university reacts. The Institute for Astronomy is quietly dissolved in August. In retrospect, the “personal constellation at the Institute for Astronomy was unfavorable”, according to a statement from October 25th. Gabriela M. and her husband have been on a six-month sabbatical since September. The three doctoral students who were still at the institute were redistributed to other faculties in February.

With this approach, the university management has avoided the case from becoming public. So far there have been no consequences under labor law. When Gabriela M. is back at the institute in the spring, there should be coaching for her. Former students are skeptical whether it will get any better.

"If I heard her coming down the hall, I hid in the bathroom."

Christian Müller (name changed) was at the institute for more than four years. For him, M. is the product of a scientific enterprise in which one fights for one's career regardless of losses. "When you're in the system like them, you don't notice that there is a person behind it," he says in an interview with Buzzfeed News. "That one breaks."

In his last six months as a doctoral student, he only tried to avoid her. "When I heard her coming down the hall, I would hide in the bathroom, hoping she'd be gone by the time I got out," he says.

In the middle of the night I got emails from M. - if he doesn't answer within 30 minutes, she will send another email afterwards. Subject: "?"

It was "psychological terror", says Müller. He was not the only one who had anxiety and sleepless nights. But if things weren't so bad, they tried to endure it somehow. "Everyone was afraid for their own survival."

As a doctoral or post-doctoral student, you only get fixed-term contracts. Many fear for their job if they express themselves critically about Gabriela M. For Maryam Shirazi, her visa was attached to her employment contract. "Without the job, I would have had to leave the country immediately," she says. That's why she never complained about her boss.

Only when she does not want to issue her a proper job reference does she hire a lawyer. In the end, Gabriela M. writes a job reference, but that is so bad that it harms Shirazi rather than helps. Today she works for a bank and is still receiving psychological treatment. "After astronomy was over, I didn't find a new goal in my life."

About a third of all doctoral students supervised by Gabriela M. fail with their doctoral thesis. Significantly more than the ETH average. Many of those who make it work in other fields today. Christian Müller has also switched from science to the private sector.

The ombudsman had been aware of problems at the institute since 2005

A group of researchers drafting a letter of support for M. on October 23, claims that there are at least a handful of students whose careers have been positive. In addition, the problems raised are "extensive and very relevant in academic circles". To blame a single professor for this is "highly unjust" and "misogynist," says the letter that Buzzfeed News has received.

“The successful students mentioned all had an external second supervisor,” says Müller. His second supervisor, however, was Paul F., Gabriela M.'s husband. "If you had a problem with her, you couldn't go to him and complain," says Müller.

"If you want to be successful, you can't take a vacation"

Müller tries to defend himself anyway, goes to the ombudsman and the pro-rector together with other doctoral and post-doctoral students. There he is told that they will try to find a solution, for example a new second supervisor. But all suggestions come down to the fact that Gabriela M. will be included in the conversation at some point. “We were so scared of that,” says Müller. "We always wanted her not to notice anything."

Another doctoral student, who claims to have contacted the ombudsman as early as 2005, received the following reply: "We know about the problem, but we cannot do anything."

Müller dragged himself through to the end. Because he works so much, he has several weeks of vacation left at the end of his time. But he cannot take time off. Those who want to be successful cannot take a vacation, was the credo of his boss. M. tells him that his data is not worth getting a PhD for. Nevertheless, he has to document everything in detail for the handover, which takes until the last day.

Even today his self-confidence is tarnished from the years at the institute. Maybe she was right after all, that he was stupid, he then thinks. A failure. For the first time in many years, he has received positive feedback at the company he is now working for.

He does not attribute bad intentions to Gabriela M. “She said sometimes that we are her children. On the outside she also defended us, but on the inside she put us down. ”Trust me, she always said. "I am your friend".


08.11.2017, 14:38

The ETH Zurich received Buzzfeed News on November 2nd. given the opportunity to comment on the events and to explain when the accusations against Gabriela M. were known to the university. This question was not answered directly by the university. Instead, reference was made to a general press release dated October 25th. Buzzfeed News has therefore based its previous version of this text on statements from former doctoral and post-doctoral students. The media officer at ETH Zurich contacted Buzzfeed News by email the day after the publication and pointed out that ETH Zurich "reacted immediately when it found out about the allegations in February 2017." The corresponding place in the text was then adjusted.

The press office also stated that it was not on record that there had been problems between the professor and her doctoral students before February 2017. This contrasts with statements from former doctoral and post-doctoral students, which are available to Buzzfeed News, and who credibly and independently assure that they have turned to university bodies such as the ombudsman and the pro-rector with complaints within the past ten years. It is unclear why they did not make a note on the file about the complaints. The corresponding place in the text has been adjusted.


08.11.2017, 16:55

In response to the reporting, 690 international astronomy scientists have now written a letter to those affected, including leading researchers from the USA and Great Britain. They write there: "We believe in the research spirit of young scientists [...] Bullying has no place in astronomy."


09.11.2017, 20:58

The pseudonym of the male doctoral student concerned was subsequently changed to Christian Müller in order to avoid confusion with people employed at the institute.