Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Now there's something to explain on a CV...

I've followed the story of Professor Paul Frampton with some level of amusement. He was the tenured professor of physics who was convinced that a bikini model was contacting him through a dating service, and wished him to pick up a package in Buenos Aires and deliver it to her in Belgium.

Of course, it was a trap, the model was not actually involved and the professor is now in an Argentinian prison for drug smuggling. The New York Times wrote a story about him a while back; it's quite amusing, in a sad way. And now, an unfortunate coda to the story in the comments* (in the "Reader's Picks" section):
I know one of this guy's graduate students. Because Frampton was unavailable to supervise the completion of his dissertation and oral examinations, his ability to complete his Ph.D. has been delayed. UNC tried to find someone else to supervise him but apparently, not only was there no one else at UNC who do what Frampton did, but there were very few professors elsewhere who do what he did. (UNC finally found someone at another university to help him.) I don't know, but assume, that Frampton also had other graduate students whom he left in the lurch. 
Frampton may have deserved his prison sentence, but his stupidity hurt others as well. - Isis, New York, NY. 
 No clue if it's a true story, but it's certainly believeable. What an unfortunate mess for the affected graduate student. Best wishes to them.

[These sorts of things happen to graduate students: advisers move institutions, quit their positions or even die. Having not been through this sort of thing, one imagines that, most of the time, departments really do their best to make sure that the affected graduate students and postdocs are being taken care of. What is unique about the Frampton case is that the situation is bizarrely self-inflicted. What a stupid mess.]

*hat tip to Daniel Lametti for noticing/tweeting this. 


  1. Yes, I've wondered a lot about Frampton's students. It must be awful to be left in the lurch like that. At least if they're moving you get to make a choice (usually). I also wonder what it was like to work with that guy. He sounds....interesting.

  2. The Aqueous LayerMarch 19, 2013 at 4:21 PM

    We've all been there, being asked to be a drug mule for a fictional super model. Good times.

    I liked the part where his friend figured it out and tried to warn him:

    While in Bolivia, Frampton corresponded with an old friend, John Dixon, a physicist and lawyer who lives in Ontario. When Frampton explained what he was up to, Dixon became alarmed. His warnings to Frampton were unequivocal, Dixon told me not long ago, still clearly upset: “I said: ‘Well, inside that suitcase sewn into the lining will be cocaine. You’re in big trouble.’ Paul said, ‘I’ll be careful, I’ll make sure there isn’t cocaine in there and if there is, I’ll ask them to remove it.’ I thought they were probably going to kidnap him and torture him to get his money. I didn’t know he didn’t have money. I said, ‘Well, you’re going to be killed, Paul, so whom should I contact when you disappear?’

  3. I wonder if any research supervisor has ever created an academic equivalent of a will - detailing what is to happen to their research group if they suddenly die or are no longer able to continue running their lab. Some questions would be important: what happens to grad students? Lab equipment? Funding? I'm sure the department/faculty/university would try to accommodate the students as best as they can, but the supervisor may know that a particular researcher is best placed to take over a particular student's project, either at that university or somewhere else. Maybe they feel that one of the postdocs could take over one student's research, with an existing faculty member as a "ghost" supervisor.

    These would be things that would be good to have in written form, just in case.

    1. The question would be, which professor has the time to write such a document, and continuously revise it? How often would you need to revise it in an academic setting? Every 6 months?

      I don't see it happening, especially since the number of professors that die while still advising large numbers of students is pretty small. Most of those egomaniacs think they are going to live forever...

    2. I don't think it would be time-consuming at all. Someone at the university could prepare a template for professors, they fill in the blanks and sign it, and update it once a year - it would take a few minutes.

    3. Let's say you're Phil Baran and have a group of over 25 people, with constant turnover. I don't think this task would be as straight-forward and quick so that a boiler-plate document could handle it.

      Again, since it is such a low probability, I don't see many professors bothering.

    4. I think when a group member graduates/leaves the professor should submit a copy of their recommendation letter to the university so that it's on file, and can be requested (much like transcripts), if at some point in the future something happens to the advisor. I know several people who have been left without a reference due to their graduate advisor passing away, it leaves them in an interesting position to say the least. Obviously you'd still be better off with a current, tailored letter from your advisor if they were around to provide it, but if not you have one that could be sent out.

    5. I'm in a similar situation where a close friend and collaborator (PI with a moderate size lab) passed away five years ago. Fortunately, he kept a well organized system of letters that he had written for his students and post-docs (fellowships, post-doc applications,etc.). Since his death, I've been sending those letters out, with a cover letter by me, explaining the situation. While lacking the perspective having seen a student mature through post-doc up to applying for a faculty position, these letters give an excellent snapshot of student at the time they were written, and have been quite helpful in placing his former students.

      This experience has motivated me to keep a similarly organized system.

  4. There's also no set protocol for when your advisor is in jail for child pornography.


    I wonder if his letters of recommendation are written on prison letterhead.

  5. The Aqueous LayerMarch 20, 2013 at 2:41 PM

    After reading the story again, I'm not convinced that he wasn't in on this, especially towards the end. For a brilliant man, he basically crucified himself with his own text-messaging 'jokes'. Anyone who has watched The First 48 knows the first things the authorities look at are phone and text records.

  6. My research was delayed 3.5 years. Why? Because the safety officials decided they had to review all work done with the certain class of pathogens I studied. My straight-forward project became 7 years of "are we there yet?" I made hybridomas and custom antibodies for other labs during that time. The entire time we were continuously told it would just be another month or 2 until we opened again.

    But it gets worse...just recently the university decided they don't want ANY research with that class of pathogen and shut down the entire program. So, hey, hope the reviewers looking at my paper don't want additional experiments.

    PI is fine because he's got tenure...but things were difficult with committee members and a funding agency demanding I produce results when I didn't have a lab in which to do...anything.

    Several friends of mine were in a lab where the PI had a complete mental breakdown and left academia. Both were out of town on long-term field projects and no one told them until they came back and found the lab occupied by someone else. They both ended up being "adopted" by other faculty so that they could graduate. For one of them, this happened just before her defense and it was a nightmare for her.

    Several other friends were in a lab where the PI very recently committed suicide. One was awaiting final comments on his dissertation, which is due to be submitted this week. The other had submitted his manuscript for a paper the day before. For the former, the department head "adopted" him so that he could graduate. For the latter, another author is helping with the paper and additional committee members are "adopting" him.

    Another friend had a committee where the chair died, then the new chair left the university, then the new chair left academia, then he was without a chair for something like a year or two. He TA'd the entire time so no one noticed...until his classes "expired" after 10 years. Longest MS ever. He certainly shared blame in this as he did allow things to drag on for a very long time, but still. This sha-poopy happens more frequently than I've ever heard anyone in the department admit.

  7. "Several other friends were in a lab where the PI very recently committed suicide. One was awaiting final comments on his dissertation, which is due to be submitted this week. The other had submitted his manuscript for a paper the day before."

    .. So that's why he commited suicide... (Ducks for cover...)