No Researcher Should Be Bullied Into Working in an Unsafe Environment, Like I Was

by Former UW Researcher

I am a Research Scientist who left the University of Washington because I was subjected to unfair and dangerous treatment in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. If I had been part of a union, I would have had more power to address the problems in my lab rather than having to either accept them or disrupt my life and career by leaving. My experience is all too common in academic research, and will continue to corrode the profession unless more researchers organize unions.

As a Research Scientist / Engineer at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine in a biomedical laboratory, I wasn’t considered an essential worker when the pandemic hit. But I did keep the lab running: I maintained the care of animals in the lab, interfaced with people who do veterinary work, and performed regular cleaning. My work was important, but I had serious concerns about how to continue my work in-person while staying safe.

Officially the policy of UW and the state of Washington was to lock down and encourage people to stay home for the health and safety of the entire community. Moreover, UW administration communicated that labs like mine were not supposed to start any new projects. I therefore spoke with my supervisor about my concerns about working in person. His response was alarming. He had no plans to slow down, and tried to shame me for raising my concerns, telling me if I was “too scared” to come in, my lab mates would have to pick up my slack. In fact, he pressured me to take on additional work, stating that I should try and publish my first academic paper, in spite of the pandemic. He went on to say that if I didn’t work because I felt unsafe, he shouldn’t have to pay me. As a junior person in the lab, I had little power to challenge his direction, and, as a woman of color, I wondered if others were subject to the same treatment.

I was at a crossroads. My superior was asking me to choose between a big career step or protecting myself and others. If I challenged my boss, it would sour our relationship and jeopardize my career. If I didn’t, I would have to come to work in fear and risk contracting the virus and increasing the burden on the very health care system I was trying to support with my research.

So, I made a really hard choice to follow the advice of health professionals and my gut: I quit my job to protect my physical health and emotional well-being. I also wanted to protect my fellow lab mates who were essential employees, the janitors, and even people on the bus during my commute. And I had my family to think about, including my immunocompromised father who recently had a stroke.

As I’ve reflected on my two years in the lab, I’ve realized that my supervisor’s behavior toward me was not specific to the pandemic. In fact, I see now that I’d gotten used to a persistent level of harassment and bullying, like when my PI pressured me to work intense hours, threatening to fire me if I didn’t come into the lab on UW sanctioned days off such as 2020’s “snowpocalypse” and even holidays. He was someone who tended to pick favorites and who engaged in gaslighting behavior by talking about feeling abandoned by people who moved on to other opportunities. At the time I tried to overlook this behavior because I was succeeding: I took tons of initiative in the lab, and was really successful. It was disheartening how quickly all of this changed — and to learn of how common my experience was, and how many other lab workers are subject to this kind of manipulation at the hands of their supervisors.

Being forced to leave the lab during Covid has resulted in a very real negative career impact. I had worked long-term on a project, contributing significant experimental data and analyses deserving of appropriate credit as a third author. Instead, I was relegated to the acknowledgements section — far less noticeable to prospective employers and the broader academic community. I was denied this professional accomplishment because I had prioritized my health and safety.

UW Academic Student Employees, including graduate student researchers, have negotiated health and safety standards in their union contract, which I could have used as immediate recourse to resolve this disagreement. ASEs and UW Postdocs also have the strongest lab-based discrimination and harassment protections in the US under their contracts. They have a whole network of peer trained advocates ready to help people like me speak up when supervisors pressure them to make bad choices. If I had rights like these, I would have felt empowered to speak up. I may still have had my job, I might have gotten credit for my work, and I definitely could do more to hold my boss accountable.

Ultimately, I decided I needed to find a career track where I could be part of a union, and that’s what I did. Now, because of my union, I feel much more confident asserting my rights to health, safety and non-discrimination. I feel a lot safer, and I feel like my health and safety matters and I am supported in my career. That’s what every researcher deserves.

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