ROCHESTER, Minn. — After months of speculation, Mayo Clinic has confirmed that a top researcher accused of bullying is no longer an employee. However, his lab staff continue to work on multimillion-dollar grants assigned to him.
Award-winning Mayo Clinic scientist Dr. Jan van Deursen has been at the center of controversy for most of 2020, with current and former staffers from his lab accusing him of bullying behavior.
Van Deursen worked at Mayo Clinic for more than 20 years and had served in many leadership roles, including the chairman of biochemistry and molecular biology. He was awarded many honors at Mayo Clinic, such as Distinguished Investigator, Investigator of the Year and Distinguished Lecturer.
In a profession known for demanding and volatile leaders, people who worked in van Deursen’s lab say he stands out as a workplace bully.
“Jan is 100% an extreme example. Even with the lack of professionalism in academia, Jan was unique,” Robin Ricke said. “Anything could set him off.”
Ricke, a former postdoctoral fellow, worked with van Deursen at Mayo Clinic from 2007 to 2014.
A current staff member in the lab and another former staff member, both of whom wish to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, agree with Ricke's description of how van Deursen’s “petulant toddler” behavior created a “pressure cooker” environment that caused many researchers to dread going into the lab.
Van Deursen’s temper and his treatment of his staff were not secrets at Mayo Clinic. Ricke and others say several complaints were made to Mayo Clinic administration over the years. They describe him as the “most notorious” principal investigator during his time at Mayo Clinic.
A letter was sent to graduate students in February, stating that reports “about the behavior of a long-standing researcher” had been investigated. It was determined that the researcher’s behavior “violated several Mayo Clinic policies, including our policies regarding Mutual Respect, Harassment, and Unacceptable Conduct.” The letter added that a recommendation was made to terminate the researcher, but he chose to “retire” instead.
While no names were mentioned in the letter, people familiar with the lab say the description fits van Deursen.
A person working in the lab said that van Deursen was “banned” from physically entering his own lab early this year, and Mayo Clinic had started the process of closing the lab.
However, his lab team of 10 to 15 researchers has continued van Deursen’s National Institutes of Health-funded work involving cancer treatments and anti-aging processes. Staff members were required to report to him regularly via email, which one researcher described as “a slap in the face.”
“Even though he’s not physically there, they are still making us work with the person that psychologically and verbally abused us for years,” said one Mayo Clinic employee who declined to be identified. “It’s obvious to me that if you are allowing this man to keep controlling our careers … That he’s clearly going to retaliate, and Mayo Clinic, once again, is doing nothing about it.”
The story of what was happening in van Deursen’s lab was picked up by a German science news blog in June and July. The blog fanned the embers of the ongoing drama into flames.
Mayo Clinic declined to comment or even confirm van Deursen’s employment status, though officials did state that the administration was “in the process of responsibly concluding the research activities associated with Dr. van Deursen’s laboratory.” The doctor did not respond to requests for interviews.
The situation changed last week with van Deursen’s departure from Mayo Clinic.
Van Duersen filed “cease and desist” documents in Germany, threatening journalist Leonid Schneider, the author of the For Better Science blog. The documents state that after more than 20 years at Mayo Clinic, van Deursen abruptly “retired” on July 24.
When asked about the researcher's status, Mayo Clinic’s Bob Nellis responded Sunday, July 26, with this statement: “We can tell you that Dr. van Deursen no longer is employed at Mayo Clinic. Beyond that we have no further comments.”
A source inside the lab says it is still open and researchers are still working on van Deursen’s five NIH grants. One grant was just awarded in January. His wife is also still working in the lab.
The lab staff members believe that van Deursen may be preparing to move his research to another institution, possibly a university in Texas.
Insiders say it was van Deursen’s treatment of a graduate student who was a new mother that led to him being banned from his lab and his eventual departure.
In the days before giving birth, people in the lab say van Deursen attempted to have the student sign a document saying she would not take the entire maternity leave time allowed to her. She declined. After she returned from maternity leave, van Deursen became angry about her missing one of their daily meetings.
He and the student met with a graduate school representative. Early in the meeting, van Deursen reportedly complained that the student did not work during her maternity leave. The school representative responded that he couldn’t hold that against the student, because she shouldn't have worked during her leave.
From that moment, people familiar with the meeting say van Deursen started “very aggressively” screaming. The tirade went on for at least an hour.
Following that public display, people close to the situation say someone other than the new mother reported his behavior to Mayo Clinic’s human resources department.
“They started asking other people about his behavior. I think they realized he was screaming and yelling at everybody,” according to a person inside the lab.
‘It became a nightmare’
Another person who worked in the lab for more than four years agreed, asking to protect their identity to prevent reprisals. They say van Deursen was charming ... at first.
After a few months of working together, his former staffer says it was like van Deursen “flipped a switch.”
“It became a nightmare. He started insulting me ... being verbally abusive,” they recalled. “It was hard to say what would set him off. He was a powder keg … Every day, I’d have this horrible dread … It continued for years.”
The three people who worked with him all said they stayed because they had invested time in their experiments and van Deursen could hurt their chances of being published or working in another lab.
They say van Deursen worked long hours and could be found in the lab almost every day. Working seven days a week was not unusual. As the principal investigator, he tried to keep people from taking vacations or any other time off away from the lab.
However, it wasn’t van Deursen’s relentless drive that made people dread meetings with him. Long hours are common in science, as is having a demanding leader, but van Duersen’s frequent tirades and unexpected bursts of rage made working with him different than the atmosphere in other labs.
“It was constant. That was his personality. That was who he is,” said one former staffer. “I’m glad I got out of there when I did. I succeeded in spite of him.”