Christian Ott, a young astrophysics professor at the California Institute of Technology, fell in love with one of his graduate students and then fired her because of his feelings, according to a recent university investigation. Twenty-one months of intimate online chats, obtained by BuzzFeed News, confirm that he confessed his actions to another female graduate student.
The university investigation, which concluded in September, found that Ott violated the school’s harassment policies with both women. Ott, a 38-year-old rising star who had been granted tenure the year before, was placed on nine months of unpaid leave. During that time he is barred from campus, his communication with most of his postdoctoral fellows will be monitored, and, with the exception of a single graduate student, he is not allowed to have contact with any other students. Before returning, he must undergo what a school official calls “rehabilitative” training.
The sanctions were imposed quietly, but after an inquiry from BuzzFeed News about Ott’s case, the university’s president and provost emailed a statement to the entire university on Jan. 4.
“There was unambiguous gender-based harassment of both graduate students by the faculty member,” the statement said. It also noted that the faculty member — who was not named — had appealed the sanctions against him, but the university denied his request.
Ott declined to address most questions about his case, telling BuzzFeed News he was “constrained from commenting on the situation at this time.” But he challenged the idea that he was responsible for anyone’s firing.
“At Caltech graduate students are not ‘fired’ by the decision of a single faculty member,” he wrote in an email this week. “When problems with students arise, multiple faculty get involved and a solution is found that ensures the graduate student is not harmed.”
Now the two women who filed the harassment complaint — the graduate students Io Kleiser, whom he fell in love with, and Sarah Gossan, whom he confessed his feelings to — have shared their stories with BuzzFeed News. They said they were disappointed that instead of terminating Ott’s employment, Caltech chose to take a rehabilitative approach, and will allow Ott to continue to work with students.
“Because Christian still has a place at Caltech, I feel that I don’t,” Kleiser, who left the university in January, told BuzzFeed News. (Kleiser will finish her research at the University of California, Berkeley, but will still receive her doctorate degree from Caltech.) “If they retain Christian and keep a place for him, then they may be inadvertently telling many students that those students do not have a place at Caltech.”
Interviews with a dozen of Ott’s current and former colleagues, as well as more than 1,000 pages of correspondence between Ott and the two complainants that were submitted to the investigators, suggest that Ott struggled not only with romantic feelings for his student, but with forging appropriate professional relationships with some of the people he advised.
Speaking on behalf of the university, Fiona Harrison, chair of the division of physics, mathematics, and astronomy, told BuzzFeed News that the sanctions were appropriately severe. Ott committed “gender-based harassment and discrimination, and we have zero tolerance for that here at Caltech,” she said. “I think our actions actually demonstrate that.”
Ott’s case coincides with high-profile incidents of sexual harassment in university science departments. In October, BuzzFeed News revealed that Berkeley had found that the famous astronomer Geoff Marcy had sexually harassed students. And on Tuesday, during a speech on sexism and science on the House floor, Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California revealed that a 2004 report from the University of Arizona found that the astronomer Tim Slater had violated sexual harassment policies.
“Science students go to college to study astronomy, chemistry, or physics, not their professors’ sex lives,” Speier told BuzzFeed News by email. “Sexual harassment in science is pervasive,” she said, and “the culture needs to change if we want women in this country to reach their full potential as scientists.”
Unlike Berkeley, which did not punish Marcy, Caltech has been applauded by some observers for imposing sanctions against Ott. But others question why, despite warning signs, no action was taken until Gossan came forward last June.
“He’s obviously a talented researcher, but that’s not all that his job entails,” said Joan Schmelz, who until recently led the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. “In his current state, should he be advising students and postdocs? I think no.”
Io Kleiser came to Caltech to work with Ott in 2012, when she was 22, to study supernovae, the rare astronomical explosions that happen in the final stages of a massive star’s life.
Halfway through the year, Kleiser was taking a full load of classes as well as doing research with Ott, who uses supercomputers to model the mysterious explosions. She struggled with the workload. “I was just trying to keep my head above water,” she said.
Ott began messaging her late at night online, where they talked about their shared insecurities about work. Sometimes their chats were casual; he’d recommend that she read Charles Bukowski or listen to Leonard Cohen. But other times, he’d ask her why she wasn’t devoting more time to research, questioning her motivations and time management.
“It saddens me that research is coming last ,” he wrote one night in May, 2013.
“Not only was he being demanding in terms of my time,” Kleiser said, “but he was questioning my commitment to the work, and telling me about how it was making him feel, really from an emotional angle.”
In fall 2013, Kleiser went to the incoming executive officer for astronomy, Sterl Phinney, to tell him that she was struggling to work well with her adviser. Within a few weeks, Kleiser said, Ott asked her to meet.
Over coffees at a Peet’s just off campus, Kleiser recalled, Ott broke the news that he no longer wanted to work with her, meaning she would have to find another adviser to finish her graduate studies. The change totally upended her research plans, but she said she didn’t really understand why he was firing her. He mentioned an email that she had not responded to a few weeks earlier, she recalled, and said he “couldn’t emotionally deal with” her anymore. She had no idea that he had any romantic feelings for her. She just thought she had failed at her job.
Five days later, around 1 a.m., Ott messaged her online. “Of all my students I cared most about you and I failed in the worst way,” Ott typed. “My problem is that I don’t want to be in a power position, but I factually am.”
Around the same time, Ott began chatting online with another of his female graduate students, 23-year-old Sarah Gossan, to confide in her about the situation with Kleiser. One evening, Ott asked Gossan to switch from chat to Skype. “I can’t even write this stuff down,” he typed.
On Skype a few minutes later, according to Gossan, Ott confessed to being in love with Kleiser. “The reason he had fired her was because he was concerned she was using her sexual influence over him to not do any work,” Gossan told BuzzFeed News.
Over the next year and a half, Ott continued to message Gossan online, sometimes late at night or while he was inebriated. He talked to her about not being able to let go of his feelings for Kleiser, whom he was still repeatedly reaching out to by chat and email. He also discussed his previous relationships and past emotional involvement with students.
Gossan was often sympathetic to Ott, and opened up to him about her own struggles with anxiety, bulimia, and her boyfriend.
“I am just so happy that I have a female grad student who is actually sane and I can talk to,” Ott wrote to her in January 2014.
“Do you think I am a shady person because I let myself be emotionally involved with my student?” he asked her later that month. “I think I may actually be prone to this sort of thing.”
Almost immediately after these conversations began, Gossan said, she felt emotionally distraught by them, often working on her supernova research at home rather than at the office, and switching her chat settings to “invisible.”
“It’s not good if a person in power is out of their fucking mind,” Ott wrote to her in December 2014, referring to an issue with another student.
“Well we are all out of our minds,” Gossan replied.
“Yeah, but your insanity does not affect other people’s lifes,” he said.
By Gossan’s third year, Ott’s demands on her intensified, she said. “When I said I couldn’t work 80 hours a week, he said I would never make it in academia,” Gossan recalled. “I came to Caltech to do science. He slowly but surely made me feel worthless.”
In April last year, she said, she realized that her deteriorating relationship with Ott was harming her work and emotional well-being. After a dispute in which Ott said she had “not published anything substantial” enough to speak at a conference commemorating Einstein, Gossan reached her breaking point. Two days later, she switched advisers, and about a month after that, she filed a complaint with Caltech’s Title IX office, which handles issues of gender equity.
By that time Kleiser had gotten a new adviser too. But she was still upset about her unexplained firing — she felt like an outcast, she said, uncertain of her place at Caltech or as a scientist. “I went into a several-month-long state of depression where I couldn’t even sit down at my computer and work,” she said. “It made me feel sick.”
Kleiser said she didn’t find out about Ott’s feelings for her until June 4, when Caltech’s Title IX coordinator called her into her office and presented her with a stack of 86 poems Ott had posted about her on his Tumblr page. (The poems, which BuzzFeed News has reviewed, are no longer online.) The coordinator told Kleiser she could join Gossan’s official complaint.
The two graduate students knew each other, and that night they met for a drink. Kleiser emailed the Title IX office from the bar. “Add my name. Talked to sarah. I am so mad,” she wrote. “I will do whatever it takes.”
In a letter sent to Kleiser in September, the university acknowledged that her firing “was prompted by [Ott’s] romantic or sexual feelings for you,” and that his behavior “significantly and adversely affected your educational opportunities at Caltech.” A letter sent to Gossan concluded that Ott’s interactions with her “placed an inappropriate and undue burden on you that adversely affected your emotional and physical well-being.”
In addition to Kleiser and Gossan, seven other students have left Ott’s research group since 2012. All of them spoke with BuzzFeed News. Four said they were fired, abruptly. Many said that Ott’s erratic behavior created a hostile and demanding work environment where bullying was the norm.
Casey Handmer was a grad student in Ott’s group until June 2013, when he was fired partly because Ott didn’t want him to keep his bicycle locked up inside. “Either you accept my rules or you go look for another advisor,” Ott wrote him by email. “Your call!”
“As his student, did I have an obligation to manage his moods and pussyfoot my way around the extent to which a grown man is unable to control himself?” Handmer told BuzzFeed News. “I hadn’t come to Caltech to join some weird cult where you have to do whatever the leader says.”
Five other students, including Gossan, quit his group on their own for a variety of reasons, some of which were unrelated to his behavior. Since Ott joined Caltech’s faculty in 2009, just two of his graduate students have completed their degrees.
“At this point it’s not isolated incidents, it’s a statistic,” a former student who testified in the Ott case told BuzzFeed News. Though she never felt personally harassed, she said she left the research group in part because she found the atmosphere toxic, with Ott often berating and belittling his students.
“It’s normal to have an ebb and flow, for students to quietly migrate somewhere else, but having nine students [leave] and two graduate is very strange,” Chiara Mingarelli, an astrophysics postdoc at Caltech who works in a different research group and testified in the investigation, told BuzzFeed News. “If this was a normal company, there would be no question about his dismissal.”
The case underscores a common problem in academia: Professors, promoted for their research, may be unequipped to advise students.
“We don’t talk enough about how to talk about, and live within, honorable professional boundaries in the role of professor,” C. K. Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, told BuzzFeed News. (Gunsalus was not involved with Ott’s case.) “There isn’t always as much formal preparation for the teaching and advising role as is needed for people.”
Harrison, the division chair, told BuzzFeed News that Caltech considers the success rate for graduating students when a professor is up for tenure, though she would not speak to how it was weighed in Ott’s case.
Caltech is planning to offer more mentorship training for junior faculty, Harrison added, and is considering how to get confidential feedback from students about how professors advise them. ”We are drawing every lesson we can from what happened.”
In the first week of January, Kleiser moved to Berkeley to continue her graduate work on supernovae. Caltech did not tell her or Gossan that it would be sending out a university-wide statement about their former adviser and the complaint they played such a big role in.
“I did not know it would go out, but I am dealing with it fine,” Kleiser wrote in an email. “I just moved out of my apartment an hour ago and am driving up to Berkeley tomorrow, so I am thinking about other stuff. :)”
Gossan, however, is not feeling as settled. She will stay at Caltech to finish her degree, which she expects to get next year. Ott will be allowed back on campus July 1.
This story has been updated to clarify that though Io Kleiser has left Caltech and will finish her research at the University of California, Berkeley, she will still receive her doctorate degree from Caltech.
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