Monday, February 4, 2013

More on #AnnieDookhan: a claimed doctorate at Harvard?!?!

Annie Dookhan (who is today heading for her 6th arraignment on obstruction of justice charges) gets the inevitable profile in the Boston Globe. Few of us could survive such scrutiny, but she fares worse than most, with stories of lots of fabulating in her past: salary, her parents' jobs, her titles ("an on-call supervisor for chemical and biological terrorism") and ,best of all, her education:
One MassBiologics employee said Dookhan even claimed to be working toward a doctorate at Harvard. Michael Gennaco, a quality control analyst at the time, said she announced during her second year that she had completed her dissertation. 
“People were excited about that, saying what a genius she was, and someone put up a banner congratulating her,” said Gennaco. “Annie let it be known that she was the best. She was superproductive and supercompetitive and she took on a lot of responsibilities. She was going to run the lab. Well, we all got fooled, didn’t we?”
Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus?*

(Do people in Boston not realize that you probably can't get a Harvard doctorate in your off-hours? How the heck did people not figure out that she liked to fib? I like to think that I have a decent bs detector; maybe it has to do with growing up in the Internet age, where most claims are somewhat checkable. I guess the issue is going from "Hey, Annie can't be trusted" and "Annie can't be trusted, and I'm going to go to a supervisor about her." Thank God I've never been in such a situation...)

*My simulation of a Derek Lowe post. 

19 comments:

  1. Great piece. What strikes me as most tragic is that this woman seems to have had real potential and determination before she started her job; the glowing praise from her high school and college professors and peers indicate that her hard work and achievements during those years were genuine. Sadly she seems to have grown too ambitious, realized that even her determination was not good enough for what she wanted to achieve, and turned over to the dark side. What I find sad is that she might well have turned into an accomplished scientist had she stuck to the honest diligence that she had demonstrated earlier and not craved quick rewards. Another potentially promising life wasted.

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    1. I disagree. Being a liar and a cheat is not a character flaw one develops later in life.

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    2. I don't think people are born doing wrong - they learn it sometime, which means at some point they aren't being dishonest, and then they are. People might not be honest but might not be able to get away with being dishonest so they don't act on their impulses, or perhaps they cheat and find that it's easier and so continue, but they probably aren't all born to wrong.

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    3. What!? People are born inherently bad by today's moral standards. Small kids lie to their parents before they can speak and cheat all the time, plus get into fights and bully others. You have to beat it out of them / use the hell out of modern parenting methods on them so that they grow up not splicing Western blots 30 years from now. That's why we had the Ten Commandments and Hammurabi's Code of Laws for the primitives. If you don't behave, you get stoned or get your hand chopped off. And look, it only took a few thousand years for us to develop moralizing and relativism. Pretty good time too if you ask me. Lied about who's guilty? Well, how about we cut of your head or crucify you? Now that's some good societal upbringing factors right there.

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    4. somedude: I think the article presents little to no evidence that she was a liar or cheat in high school. Or if she was, she did an awfully good job at hiding it. To me this is a clear case of a person whose ambitions quickly outgrew her intellectual ability; it's after this happened that she started to game the system.

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  2. Part-time PhD huh? I guess they figured Corey's just really easing up in his old age.

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    1. MAkes sense. I recall more than a few grad students who did their PhDs working part time. They were in the lab full-time, mind you.....

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    2. My program didn't allow grad students under stipend to have alternate jobs providing income. A silly rule when the stipend is barely livable in some areas of the country, but a can of worms for another day. I knew of a few people in grad school who left the lab when all the benchwork was done, only to take the next month to ~year writing the thesis. It would seem plausible, then, that she could have been taking her time finishing her thesis while she worked full time. Working in the lab concurrently with her full time job? Not bloody likely.

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    3. My program didn't allow grad students under stipend to have alternate jobs providing income. A silly rule when the stipend is barely livable in some areas of the country, but a can of worms for another day.

      Same with mine...

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    4. I may have written my quip poorly. What I meant was that I know quite a few students who really only put in part-time effort to get a PhD, i.e. spent most of their time in the lab having coffee, etc. One guy was "in the lab" from 9a to 10p every day. Maybe worked a real 20 hour week. Took him 7 years to graduate, but there ya go.

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  3. Who would Dookhan have worked for at Harvard? I didn't think it had an analytical chemistry program of note, or a major engineering program. GMW would be the closest to analytical chem, and I don't know if he takes grad students anymore. Even if he did, and even though he wasn't a driver, I don't think part-time would cut unless she was really good at lying - she could fake enough results, perhaps, but I don't think she could sneak them by him, and since projects usually have multiple students/postdocs, she'd also have to get the lies through others who would have to repeat her work. I didn't think Plastic Fantastic was possible (with Prof. Rogers), so maybe it could happen, but it seems like a low probability event. If she could get the kind of results to succeed without cheating as a part-time grad student, she wouldn't be in this position. Who else at Harvard would be a possibility? Could she have been claiming a humanities degree? (Doesn't make sense, either in time frame or in content, but...)

    I think people were too impressed by the BNU effect to actually ask what she could be doing at Harvard and how.

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    1. It wasn't meant to fool you; the lie was made for people working at the forensics office and it did the trick. Probably saying 'Harvard PhD' there had some advantages over the alternatives that we can only guess at, and would have been less obvious than other claims. You were not the target audience for that lie. It's all about the customer.

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    2. It shouldn't be fooling anyone, though. In many cases, getting a degree from a BNU is a legitimate achievement, but the achievement shouldn't blind anyone to what your capabilities actually are, much less the mechanics of what you're actually claiming to have done (since those mechanics represent what you really did and know).

      She chose her claim to wow her audience and to get them not to think about the substance of her claim. Putting so much faith in a big name (and in the person who uses it as credit to get what they want) is asking for trouble.

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  4. CJ: Dookhan's attributes tops that of another fake chemist we all have known during the recent past, Prof. Bengu Sezen, who was equally preposterous on her claim to getting her Ph.D from Prof. Dalibor Sames group at Columbia University! The difference was that the Dookhan's lies contributed to many lively hood being destroyed.

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    1. Uh... that one happened actually. She did get the PhD from Sames and I'm sure he had a drink or two at the defense party as well. And... oh wait. Ah! I see what you did there! Clever, clever.

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  5. Most systems don't really seem to be able to handle someone who will blatantly lie. It goes show how much trust is built into most workplaces.

    Seriously, she was supposedly 3x more productive than any other person in her lab AND was supposedly pursuing a Ph.D. in her off hours? That's some credulous people I think. I'd bet if you scratch beneath the surface you'd find a lot of people who were always suspicious of her but probably ignored their gut feelings.

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  6. To be honest, this story also makes me question the intellect of her co-workers (yes, the ones who congratulated her after she told them about her Harvard Ph.D.). Those guys may be honest, but would we trust drug testing to such credulous people?

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    1. Good point, but for the most part, I think we have a bias towards believing coworkers, as opposed to not believing them.

      ...and honestly, that's probably a good thing, at least on the surface.

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  7. Chemjobber, thanks for posting this. I work at a municipal lab that does analysis of water and wastewater samples for regulatory compliance. The lab is accredited by the state of Pennsylvania. State regulations require that environmental labs have an ethics policy, give each employee training in ethics within 2 months of employment and at least every 14 months after that, and that there is “a proactive program for prevention and detection of improper, unethical, or illegal actions.”

    PA lab accreditation: http://files.dep.state.pa.us/RegionalResources/Labs/LabsPortalFiles/2010-0610%20Chapter%20252.pdf

    I think management was “asleep at the switch”. If a person is consistently doing 5 times the average number of analyses, there’s either fraud or everyone else should be doing what the high performer is doing.

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