Issue Date: August 8, 2011
A Puzzle Named Bengü Sezen
Questions about the massive Bengü Sezen scientific fraud case at Columbia University linger in the August heat. But many of them will likely never be answered—especially the question, Why? Columbia in 2005 awarded her a Ph.D. degree in chemistry with distinction; however, it was based in large part on her fraudulent work. Details of the case make clear that Sezen, at the very least, has a sophisticated understanding of chemical principles. The effort she put into faking it and covering her tracks, say many people who have reviewed the case, easily match that required for legitimate doctoral work in science.
Last month, Columbia’s investigative report of Sezen’s fraud surfaced via multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, including one filed by C&EN. The report—and an analysis of the university’s investigation by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) at the Department of Health & Human Services—reveals shocking new details of her focused and sustained effort to fabricate and plagiarize experimental results on a historic scale (C&EN, July 11, page 4). And from those details emerges the complex puzzle of how and why such an extensive fraud could be carried out undetected for multiple years of doctoral education at one of the nation’s leading universities and premier chemistry departments. Beyond confirming that Sezen’s Ph.D. degree in chemistry has been revoked, however, the university refuses to say more about the case.
Sezen left Columbia shortly after receiving her chemistry degree and enrolled at Germany’s Heidelberg University, where she picked up another doctoral degree in molecular biology. But, with mounting questions about her chemistry thesis and published work—eventually to include retraction of research papers she coauthored with her professor, Dalibor Sames, on C–H bond functionalization—Columbia assembled an investigative committee to probe deeper.
In turn, Sezen began an elaborate game of hide-and-seek that intensified over the months-long investigation. At first she was cooperative, if not more than a little spirited in defending her research. Her attitude left many wondering if she really was the highly skilled but misunderstood experimenter she claimed to be. As the evidence of her misconduct began to pile up, however, her attempts to explain away her actions became increasingly implausible. More and more, the report reveals, she eluded the Columbia investigators by not answering e-mails and phone calls, finding excuses to avoid in-person meetings, refusing to review documents sent to Columbia’s legal counsel in Europe for her convenience, and presenting what turned out to be a smokescreen of supporters and representatives who, in fact, did not exist—their communiqués were traced to either Heidelberg University computers or Sezen’s computer.
And then she was gone. Sezen’s whereabouts today are unknown.
Bengü Sezen might never again work in science, even with her second Ph.D., which so far has not been questioned. But certainly, the report casts a shadow on the ethics and teaching practices of Sames, the probative effort of Sezen’s Ph.D. dissertation committee, and the pressure cooker environment for promotion and tenure at Columbia and other prestigious research universities, say many observers who have followed the case. They say the report has generated still more questions about the responsibility of principal investigators to verify the results of students’ work, the possible consequences or sanctions that should be meted out to PIs by their university and/or funding agencies when fraud happens on their watch, and how the job status and vulnerability of graduate students are subject to the whims of a single professor.
Of the many difficult issues raised by the Sezen case, experts say, the dependence of graduate students on one professor stands out. One person’s actions and assessments of their work can determine the trajectory of their scientific careers—or whether they can have a career in science at all.
At least three unnamed subordinates left or were dismissed from the Sames lab, for example, for stepping forward and raising concerns about Sezen’s irreproducible research results.
“Two graduate students, [redacted], were asked by [redacted] 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 examinations. Each of these students had spent much time unsuccessfully trying to reproduce and extend Dr. Sezen’s work,” the Columbia investigators write in their misconduct investigation report. And while they were not able to determine exactly why these students were asked to leave, “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.”
What became of those former Sames lab members is unknown. Columbia has erected a wall of silence around Sezen, her brazen fakery, and the consequences for those who had the misfortune of working with her. Aside from the few spare and prepared statements about her doctoral degree and the status of its misconduct investigation, the university has blotted out any mention of what happened inside the Sames laboratory between 2000 and 2005, when Sezen was a Ph.D. candidate. During this period, however, Sames was granted tenure.
Columbia has expressly forbidden Sames or any of its other employees from speaking publicly about the Sezen case. After receiving the redacted Columbia investigation report and accompanying ORI analysis, C&EN submitted to the university a detailed list of questions about the case, which Columbia, again, declined to answer. ORI also declined further comment.
But other scientists and people who follow science are talking.
“What horrifies me most is how the PI in this case did not verify results, did not pay attention to doubts raised about Sezen’s work,” says Janet D. Stemwedel, associate professor of philosophy at California’s San Jose State University, and a blogger and expert on science ethics. “That’s the real ethical problem here.”
“It’s pretty incredible,” agrees Carrie Wolinetz, an associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities. Of the PI’s responsibility in such a massive case of fraud, she adds, “I would hope that ORI would be taking a serious look at that.”
But even more, Stemwedel says, with the Sezen case, Columbia has a difficult but unique opportunity to be of service to the academic community. She says it would be valuable if the university could find a way to open up dialogue about the Sezen case, how it went undetected, and how possible future cases of scientific fraud might be prevented.
“It would be more reassuring if Columbia were open about it,” she says, especially at a time when it seems that “the educational mission of research universities has fallen to the background.” By maintaining silence, she says, “that is the impression they convey.”
But the detailed investigation report now in wide circulation does provide some insight. After Columbia’s six- to seven-month investigation, ORI conducted its analysis of the results. Last fall, it leveled 21 findings of research misconduct against Sezen (C&EN Online Latest News, Nov. 30, 2010). An ORI notice in the Nov. 29, 2010, Federal Register states that she falsified, fabricated, and plagiarized research data in three papers and her doctoral thesis. More than six papers that Sezen had coauthored with Sames were withdrawn by him in 2006 because her results could not be replicated.
For her doctoral work at Columbia, Sezen claimed to have developed a method for selectively activating C–H bonds, a technique commonly used to functionalize hydrocarbons. Many of the papers she and Sames coauthored on the work were subsequently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).
Questions about Sezen’s work, however, had been raised both inside and outside the Sames lab as early as 2002—just two years after she joined the group. The Columbia investigative committee determined that at least one NMR spectrum she produced that year was fake and, in general, noted a lack of data and descriptive detail for any of her experimental work throughout her five-plus years in the Sames lab.
“Members of the [redacted] reported that they were able to reproduce reactions described by Respondent”—that is, Sezen—“successfully only when Respondent was in the laboratory and was aware that the experiments were being performed,” reads the committee’s report.
The Columbia investigative committee found that Sezen “intentionally fabricated and falsified NMR spectra reported in at least Chapters 1, 5, and 6 of the thesis,” as well as in several JACS papers. Similarly, the investigators reported that Sezen “intentionally fabricated and falsified combustion analysis data” for her thesis and several published research papers. Companies that supposedly provided her with the combustion analysis data never billed Columbia for the work. Sezen later claimed that she found firms who performed the analyses for her for free, but the firms she cited contradicted those claims and had no record of any contact with her.
ORI noted that one of the most brazen pieces of fabricated data the Columbia investigators found was a “composite figure composed of four (4) phosphorus-31 (31P) NMR spectra in which certain peaks had been removed from the spectrum using white-out or a similar product.” Other NMR graphs she plagiarized from colleagues or from default spectra that were included with instrument software, according to the investigation.
Overall, the Columbia investigators found “that a preponderance of the evidence shows that the Research Record maintained by Dr. Sezen does not meet the standards of the scientific research community and does not adequately document the procedures and results reported in her thesis and publications. The Committee could find so little evidence in the Research Record to support Dr. Sezen’s published descriptions of results and procedures that it concludes that substantial numbers of the experiments reported in the thesis and in Dr. Sezen’s six first-author publications were never performed successfully as described.”
From the start, the investigation shows, Sezen exhibited patterns of deception, most dramatically, her use of Columbia’s NMR facility. Although every Columbia graduate student who uses the facility must undergo training and receive a password, the investigators learned that no NMR account had ever been assigned to Sezen. At one point, she told investigators that she did have an NMR account and password, which she provided, but this information was determined to be false.
In fact, Sezen played a shell game with the NMR account names and passwords of other Sames group members, some of whom were no longer in the lab by the time she worked there. The committee found spectra that were in her faked research papers sprinkled throughout the accounts and data files of other group members. They also note that what spectra they did find in her notebooks were not labeled in such a way that they could be matched up with published data in her thesis or research papers.
In one incident of apparent plagiarism, Sezen was confronted with an NMR spectrum that she claimed was obtained from a 400-MHz instrument. The spectrum, however, matched that in another published research paper, except that it was recorded as being obtained from a 300-MHz instrument. The two instruments would have given very different spectra. Sezen had no explanation for this.
But proof of her subterfuge emerged when somebody in the Sames lab set Sezen up. According to the Columbia report: “Because of his suspicions, [redacted] said he decided to attempt to test whether Dr. Sezen was tampering with his reactions. He said that the only person he told about this plan was [redacted]. [Redacted] set up two reactions in his own chemical fume hood. For one, he used imidazole, the starting material required by Dr. Sezen’s procedures, but for the other, he used N-methylimidazole, a derivative of the usual starting material. He reported that, to his surprise, both reactions produced phenylimidazole, the product expected from the usual starting material (imidazole). [Redacted] analyzed the samples using HPLC, GC-MS and NMR techniques.”
On the next day, the report continues, Sezen’s anonymous colleague used the correct starting material and “repeated the reactions in the laboratory of [redacted], ran the experiments during the day rather than overnight, and tried to ensure that he, Dr. [redacted] were continuously present throughout. [Redacted] said that these experiments yielded no trace of product. [Redacted], the apparati used for the experiments conducted in his hood and in [redacted] were identical.
“After [redacted] collected these data,” says the report, “he reported the results to [redacted]. [Redacted] results suggested an alternative explanation for the difficulties others had in reproducing Dr. Sezen’s reactions: the reactions were not ‘sensitive’ as had been thought, but were being manipulated by the addition of product by some individual.”
The tension in the Sames lab over Sezen and her work no doubt crested at this point. People who were in the lab during Sezen’s tenure recall Sames’ focused efforts to produce publishable results and his tendency to favor those group members, like Sezen, who helped him reach his goals. But now the evidence against her was irrefutable, and it must have been a devastating blow. In a few short months, Columbia would launch its initial inquiry of her work and discover the first hard evidence of her misconduct. And from there, her entire scheme began to unravel.
But it’s unclear what, if any, consequences Sames has suffered because of his failure to find out what might be going on with Sezen, especially when red flags about her work were raised so early on. A visit to the Sames group website today includes a photo of Sames and a slideshow of many young, enthusiastic, and smiling lab group members. A description of the Sames group research reads, “We develop new molecular imaging agents for visualization of metabolism and neurotransmission in the brain. We have recently introduced novel agents termed Fluorescent False Neurotransmitters that for the first time enable optical imaging of neurotransmitter release at individual synapses. The molecular design is greatly aided by new synthetic methods developed in our laboratory. We are particularly interested in the catalytic C–H bond functionalization processes.”
So Sames hasn’t totally abandoned the line of inquiry he pursued with Sezen and others, but he is clearly off in new directions. Somewhere on the Internet, though, there remains at least a trace of Sezen—the photos of a young woman with straight brown hair and dark, penetrating eyes looking up from her work in the Sames lab.
The enigma of her devastating fraud is sure to stare out at us for quite some time.
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