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Quoted: abusive PI and MD/PhD

Discussion in 'Confidential Consult' started by Tildy, May 11, 2008.

  1. Tildy

    Tildy 12 yrs old, feels like 84 Faculty Moderator Emeritus SDN Advisor 7+ Year Member

    Apr 3, 2007
    My master's house
    Posted anonymously for a member:

    I plan on applying to med school soon (MD/PhD). I have a few summer research experiences. I have one lab research experience which lasted about 2 years. The research experience was initially not that bad but soon turned horrible. I started the research through a class, which I received an A in from the PI. Before the research class, I had known the PI for 2 years. I had taken and received A’s in a couple of classes taught by the PI before the research course. I looked up to the PI as a mentor and often went to them for advice over the two years. The PI’s temper would explode every once in a while in the lab (which was a side of them I had not seen before) but I really wanted to do the research, so I tried not to let it get to me. My school started giving out competitive research mentorships. At the end of the research class, the PI suggested that I apply for one and keep working in their lab through it. I applied and was awarded one.

    Not too far into the mentorship, the PI became very verbally and emotionally abusive and made a lot of inappropriate comments towards me, yet I was determined to complete my mentorship. Towards the end of the semester, my physician advised me to take a leave of absence from school because of the immense stress I was under. I took a couple weeks off and went back to school, continuing the mentorship (I only had about 6-7 months left, and really wanted to complete the mentorship). For lack of a better phrase, when I went back to the lab after a few months all hell broke loose. My research PI often liked to yell at me for small things usually referencing stereotypes and using a lot of demoralizing and degrading comments.

    The straw that broke the camels back was when she started yelling at me because I didn’t say much in the lab. I usually was quiet because I felt that me saying anything would only provoke her to explode. When she was done yelling, I apologized and left for the day. Looking back, the cycle was that she would always yell at me, and then the next day she would apologize to me and give me a hug. The last time she yelled at me, a few people must have overheard. Because, anonymous complaints were received by the mentorship director about how I was being treated. I never continued working in the lab after that. However, how am I going to explain not having a letter of recommendation from my lab research PI with whom I worked for 2 years??? I am concerned because I heard MD/PhD programs want letters from all of your research PIs.
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  3. Aquaman29

    Aquaman29 7+ Year Member

    Apr 13, 2008

    This has happened beofore to other students applying to MED school. Talk to your premed advisor ASAP and explan the situation.


    I have condifential info, on a similiar situation from a close friend if you want to PM me about.
  4. jyw003

    jyw003 just moving along.....PharmD, BCPS, BCPP, APP 10+ Year Member

    Oct 10, 2007
    San Francisco
    you should talk to the lab manager about it and see what their feelings about asking them would be. usually PI and lab manager relationships are pretty close...
  5. Tildy

    Tildy 12 yrs old, feels like 84 Faculty Moderator Emeritus SDN Advisor 7+ Year Member

    Apr 3, 2007
    My master's house
    Posted anonymously for another member:

    I can't give much advice but I can definately sympathsize: I was in nearly identical situation for the past 12 months. I started working with my former PI last May - my boyfriend suggested I do research with her because he took her class and thought she was a challenging but overall great teacher. Her research interested me plus I was eager to get into the lab and gain some additional lab experience ( as at that point I've already finished all the labs for my major). This research has turned into complete nightmare: when I started she promised me I'd get 3 units for my work if I worked all summer. After working all summer full time I was told I'd also have to work in the fall. As the fall semester ended she has told me I'd have to work the spring semester too if I wanted to get those 3 units. The problem is I needed those units for graduation so I couldn't walk away. While working with her I learned her true nature: she constantly yelled, belittled and verbally abused people. I have never been soooo SCARED of anyone in my entire life. I cried almost daily while working with her and if I didn't cry I considered it to be a great day.

    In the meanwhile, our research was not going well. We were doing something highly analytical that required proper reagents yet the stuff we worked with was like 5 years all way past the experiation date provided by the biotech company that made it. She continuously blamed me for it, but when additional people were brought into the lab and their data turned nearly identical to mine she shifted her anger in the new direction.

    In the spring I enrolled into the additional class, the class was set up in such a way that a bunch of undergrads got together and shared their research work with each other. The final for that class was a participation in the research project showcase which was like a competition/conference where all the grad/undergrad students from our school could present their research work.

    My PI went nuts when she heard about me enrolling in this competition. She knew I HAD to participate in it because it was a final for my class yet she WENT BEHIND MY BACK and contacted the organizer to pull me out of the competition which meant I would fail my class.

    I didn't find this out untill the day of the contest. A few days prior My PI essentially told me I was unworthy to represent her/our lab and she wanted nothing to do with me but I didn't think she would go as far as to withdraw me w/out my knowledge. Somehow I begged the organizer to let me back in - that day I not only won a money reward for my research but also got a job offer from one of the judges who was a VP of a local biotech company.

    I have not seen my PI since and I never want to see her again, that woman tormented me like no one ever has. I've felt butterflies in my stomach for the past few days because I am soooo happy I never have to work with her again.

  6. Salient

    Salient 7+ Year Member

    Jun 17, 2008
    Not research related, but I used to work for someone like that. Very verbally and emotionally abusive. You just have to tuck your emotions away in a corner and not take anything they say or do personally. Understand that it's just who they are, and make sure you don't turn out the same way when you're in charge of a research project one day.

    I can't exactly give you any advice from experience as to how to handle the situation, but the first two replies to this thread sounded pretty reasonable.
  7. Nanon

    Nanon An urban myth. 10+ Year Member

    Feb 15, 2000
    I'm not sure if this is the best way to handle it, but here are a few things you might do:

    1. Go over her head. She's a PI doing bench research, which makes me think that she's probably not the head of her department. The ask her boss what you should do. I'm going to bet that the boss has already heard lots of complaints about her behavior. Said boss might not validate you then and there, but they may be able to resolve this issue by writing you an LOR or a letter of explanation.

    2. Do nothing. Don't explain it. LOR's are basically references. I have gaps in my reference history for many reasons - the business went bust, contact information changed, managers changed, etc. It's rare that I'm actually asked directly for a reason why I have a gap, but that's because I have enough other references to assure people that I'm legit. Have you worked at other labs? If so, I wouldn't worry that much.

    Good luck. I know someone who went through almost exactly the same thing. Just be glad this part of your life is behind you!

  8. dragonfly99

    dragonfly99 5+ Year Member

    May 15, 2008
    Definitely don't get a LOR from her. Just get other ones.
    If you get asked about it during interviews, would just be honest (but graphic) about the fact that she yells and screams at people, etc. Also would mention the part about her telling you you'd get 3 credits for working over the summer, then forcing you to work in the fall and spring also to get the 3 credits. Usually one gets 1-2 credits/semester for doing research, but if full time in the summer I think that a couple (or even 3) credits for the summer would have been reasonable.

    You are making too much of this (in terms of being stressed about it). People understand there are malignant people in the world. If your academic and personal record is otherwise good, you'll do fine.
  9. odamae


    Jul 29, 2008
    My recommendation would be to go to the mentorship director in confidence and explain your concerns. Ask this individual for a LOR and ask that they put the situation in perspective. You are right that you need a letter covering this critical period of time leading up to your application to MD/PhD programs.

    If you feel comfortable doing so, you may wish to go to this PI and "feel them out" in terms of what their impression is of you and if you think they may give you a fair, honest and supportive LOR. They most assuredly were in your position at one point in their career needing a letter to get into a competitive program. So they know a letter is vital to cover this timeframe and may be expecting you to approach them. This person may actually surprise you- it has been my experience that intructors/mentors/interviewers who were the toughest on me turned out to write the most favorable LOR. People who were always lauditory to my face did not always write the best LOR. Go figure. Also, I think out of courtesy you should at least ask this PI for a letter of support- whether you ultimately use it is up to you. I am also assuming there is a premed advisor at your school acting as a clearing house for LORs and you can dictate which are sent out.

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