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Poisoned lab fish lead to lawsuit

After a lab colleague poisoned Magdalena Koziol's zebra fish, her supervisor further sabotaged her career, driving her away from Yale, Koziol claims in a lawsuit against the university.

Yale acknowledges the fish attacks, for which it fired the perpetrator in 2012. But it calls Koziol's other claims "factually distorted and legally baseless" and says it will "mount a vigorous defense."

Koziol arrived at Yale in 2011 with a PhD from Cambridge University in England, a grant from the Human Frontier Science Program, and a contract to do postdoctoral research in the laboratory of Antonio Giraldez, an associate professor of genetics at the School of Medicine, she says.

Just a month into the job, the genetically altered zebra fish—in which Koziol was studying "how the earliest stages of life are created on a molecular level"—began to die, says the suit, filed February 7 in Connecticut Superior Court. After checking and rechecking her lab procedures, she began to suspect sabotage.

So she set up a secret experiment: dividing the fish into two groups, she labeled one set with her initials, as usual. She didn't label the other group. The "MK" fish died; the anonymous ones lived.

Koziol reported the events to Giraldez, who arranged to install a hidden camera. The video showed another postdoctoral fellow, Polloneal "Jym" Ocbina, poisoning the fish, according to the suit, which names Ocbina and Giraldez as defendants, as well as the university. It says Yale confronted Ocbina with the evidence, he confessed, and Yale immediately fired him.

The next morning, Giraldez called a lab meeting and explained what had happened. He "did not allow [Koziol] and other members of his laboratory group to talk about the incident," the suit says—going so far as to threaten Koziol "with ‘legal consequences’ and ‘prosecution’ if she were to talk about the incident."

What's more, Giraldez refused to give Koziol documentation that her fish had been poisoned, and began treating her "in a harsh, critical and abusive manner," the suit contends. When she complained, he allegedly criticized her further "for lack of results" and began to isolate her in the workplace, leaving her name off an article to which she contributed, and even threatening to fire her.

In an e-mail, Koziol says Giraldez forbade her and her labmates "to talk about ANYTHING regarding the sabotage." He forbade her to "inform my funding agency that I was the victim of sabotage," she writes, adding: "I have to give regular updates about my progress of the project," and she lost nine months due to the poisoned fish.

Ocbina’s sabotage and Giraldez’s subsequent treatment of Koziol "effectively rendered the remaining two years on her fellowship useless and a waste given the nature [of] her research project," the suit says.

Eventually Koziol hired a lawyer and filed an internal grievance. Giraldez notified her that he would not renew her fellowship in the spring of 2013, the suit says. Feeling besieged, she left two months early and returned to the University of Cambridge, where she's again working for her mentor, Nobel laureate John Gurdon.

The suit contends that Koziol never received a report from her grievance committee, which found no wrongdoing, and that the grievance took ten months to resolve, rather than the 120 days called for in the faculty handbook.

In a statement, Yale calls Koziol's account "factually distorted" but does not identify the distortions.

"When evidence emerged that Dr. Koziol's work was being sabotaged, Professor Giraldez and Yale Security took the matter very seriously, and, when the culprit was identified, he was terminated from his position immediately," the statement says. "Professor Giraldez also immediately informed the other members of his lab and the National Institutes of Health. In keeping with the law of the State of Connecticut, which protects the confidentiality of certain employment information, Professor Giraldez asked the members of the lab not to discuss the termination.

"Dr. Koziol was not satisfied with Yale's response, and she chose to bring an internal grievance and to make a complaint to the HHS Office of Research Integrity," the statement continues. "Neither the internal grievance panel nor the Office of Research Integrity found any culpability on the part of Professor Giraldez or the University."

Asked what law prohibits Koziol from discussing the sabotage of her work, and whether it's true that Yale never gave her a copy of the grievance panel's report or findings, a university spokesman declines to comment.

Koziol's lawyer, Daniel Kryzanksi of Stratford, Connecticut, acknowledges that Koziol never filed a criminal complaint against Ocbina. "She was counting on Yale and Dr. Giraldez to rectify the situation," he says by e-mail. Kryzanski says Yale made a settlement offer last month, but Koziol rejected it.

Ocbina's lawyer, Daniel Erskine of New Haven, declines to comment except to say that Koziol must prove her allegations in court.

Meanwhile, Koziol has a Nobel prize winner in her corner. Her mentor, John Gurdon, told Science magazine that he's "very happy to have her back, because her work was excellent." 

Science says Gurdon wrote to the organization that funded Koziol's Yale postdoctoral fellowship, "urging the program to withhold support for Yale if the university can't properly explain what happened." And he tells the magazine: Yale "wrote her a letter promising her circumstances in which she could conduct her research. And they quite clearly did not provide even remotely adequate circumstances."


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under research misconduct, Magdalena Koziol, Antonio Giraldez, School of Medicine
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