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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Scientist Fights U-Texas to Keep Her Ph.D.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) - The University of Texas at Austin is trying to revoke a graduate's doctoral degree for alleged scientific misconduct without authority to do so and through an unfair process, the scientist claims in court.

The plaintiff, identified only as S.O., sued top officials at UT-Austin on Feb. 4 in Travis County Court. However, in a 2014 lawsuit involving her degree, S.O. sued under her name, Suvi Orr.

Orr says she was a graduate student in organic chemistry from 2003 to 2008 and worked under the supervision of graduate adviser Professor Stephen Martin, who is not a party to the complaint.

The focus of her dissertation was the synthesis and analysis of organic molecules, particularly lundurine B, an alkaloid. She designed a 19-step process in her attempt to create lundurine B.

Orr says that as new compounds were created, she had to "fully characterize" each one and ascertain whether its identity matched the theory. She conducted four different tests on each compound and analyzed the data.

The four tests were hydrogen nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectrometry, carbon nuclear magnetic resonance, and infrared. Each test is subject to the interpretation of the person analyzing them, Orr says.

A more reliable test that could confirm a molecule's identity is a small molecule X-ray. But Prof. Martin considered the hydrogen nuclear magnetic resonance test and other three tests sufficient to identify the molecules, Orr says. She says her adviser recommended using X-ray testing if the molecule could be crystallized, but that she was given little guidance on how to crystallize molecules.

The results for compounds P, Q and R were inconclusive and Orr was unable to proceed to the later steps to make S, T, U and V. She had to make conclusions at that point and used Prof. Martin's expertise and input, according to the complaint.

Orr concluded in her dissertation that her route for creating lundurine B probably would not work, and she proposed alternative options for any follow-up research.

After discussion, Martin agreed with her conclusions, Orr says. Without his endorsement, she could not have gone before the dissertation committee. She was awarded her degree in 2008.

After she graduated, Orr says, she was unaware that Martin wanted to continue her abandoned research of lundurine B, or that in 2009 another postdoctoral student began working on it.

It was not until Orr attended Martin's birthday party in 2011 that she learned he was continuing her research into lundurine B and wanted to publish her route for synthesizing the molecule, she says in the 43-page lawsuit.

Orr says she initially declined Martin's request to participate in publishing the work because she considered it incomplete and unsuccessful. But she "reluctantly agreed to permit a journal article on the condition that the post-doc repeat the experimental work and reported his own results," according to the complaint.

In the subsequent paper, Martin was the leading author, and Orr and the post-doc were the co-authors, along with a second post-doc, Orr says.

(However, the 2015 retraction of the 2011 paper, both published by Organic Letters, lists Suvi T.M. Orr as the first author, and Stephen F. Martin fourth.)


Orr says in her lawsuit that the post-doc reached the same or similar conclusions as she did for compounds P, Q and R, but did not fully characterize the compounds using her method, as she expected.

"Unbeknownst to S.O., the post-doc instead made markings, scanned, and submitted experimental data containing S.O.'s file names and some incorrect (and inaccurate) pages as part of the journal article," according to the complaint. (Parentheses in complaint.)

Orr says Martin retracted the paper without consulting with her and the post-doc.

In 2012, S.O. says, Martin brought a complaint against her after another graduate student reviewed her published work and the data of the post-doc. The reviewer believed that "what was submitted to the journal article was somehow erroneous or otherwise inaccurate."

Orr denies allegations of scientific misconduct, and says Martin was wrong to focus on the three compounds P, Q, and R out of the thousands of tests and calculations she performed.

She says analysis of the molecules was difficult due to contamination by side products and solvents and that test results show a noisy background. Also, she says, she was not required to create any specific substance to earn her degree.

"At worst, S.O.'s alleged misinterpretations demonstrate the inexperience of a graduate student who was still learning her craft. The alleged misinterpretations are nothing but part of a scientific process. In scientific process, there are only theories, not facts. A theory can of course be proven wrong. In this case, it is still up to debate what the actual identities of compounds P, Q and R are," she says in the complaint.

"The reality is that S.O. could have easily excluded the testing results from her dissertation, and it would not have had any effect on her work or her degree. She could have also proposed different identities for these three molecules. But with the input and consent of Prof. Martin, she reported these results in her dissertation."

After Martin filed the complaint against her, the university began a 15-month investigation that was "riddled with unfairness and partiality," Orr says.

"For instance, the identity of the complainant (Prof. Martin) was kept from S.O. until she saw the investigating committee's first report in 2012. S.O. objected to Prof. Martin's involvement because she was concerned that he could not be a fair and impartial participant of the investigation. As her former graduate adviser, the former supervisor of her graduate research and the leading author on the journal article, Prof. Martin clearly had and continues to have a conflict of interest and the motivation to clear his own name and cast the blame on S.O.," the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)

Orr says the university's disciplinary proceedings are "fundamentally flawed" and violate constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. She says the investigative committee relied heavily on Martin's testimony, but she was not given access to any witnesses for cross-examination or to the evidence against her.

In addition, she says, Martin made allegations against her for conduct occurring years after she graduated, and that university rules apply only to her conduct as a student.

She says the committee used evidence against her from the 2011 journal article, but not from her dissertation.

She says it denied her access to the research files of the post-doc responsible for submitting data to the publication and continues to do so today, though the research was funded by grants from the National Institute of Health, which requires research data to be accessible to the public.

The investigative committee concluded in a split vote that Orr committed scientific misconduct, though one member concluded that it was not intentional, according to the complaint.

After the investigative committee issued a report, her dissertation was remanded to her former dissertation committee.

Orr says she was given no opportunity to defend herself before the dissertation committee, which decided to revoke her Ph.D. Defendant Registrar Vincent Shelby Stanfield was told to implement the revocation, the complaint states.

Nonetheless, Orr says, the results and research from her dissertation were used in the dissertation of another of Martin's graduate students in 2012.

The revocation of her degree led her to sue the university in 2014, seeking a restraining order. They reached a Rule 11 agreement under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and the university agreed to restore her degree pending further discussion and resolution of the lawsuit, she says.

Then the university "unilaterally decided it would initiate a new disciplinary proceeding against S.O." and set a hearing for Jan. 29 this year, then reset it to March 4.

In an email of Jan. 8, the university told her she was charged with violating sections of its Institutional Rules on Student Services and Activities 2013-14: "You are charged with violating the aforementioned sections when you allegedly falsified data and modified Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectra. The allegations involve underreporting and misreporting NMR signals for three compounds, designated 3.210, 3.237, and 3.238, in your doctoral dissertation."

Orr objected that the university was applying rules from 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16 to her hearing. She says that only the 2003 Institutional Rules and Regulations, in effect when she was enrolled, could be enforced against her, based on case law.

The ruling in University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston v. Babb held that the university catalog in effect when the student was first enrolled constituted a binding contract and should apply, according to the complaint.

Orr also objects to defendant Clinical Professor Jeana Lungwitz's role in the proceedings, due to a conflict of interest. Orr says her own attorney, David Sergi, had conferred with Kevin Lungwitz (Jeana Lungwitz's husband) about her case, and that Kevin Lungwitz declined to assist in Orr's representation.

The university told Courthouse News it does not comment on active lawsuits and that it is prohibited by federal privacy laws from discussing information about individual students.

S.O. seeks multiple declaratory judgments: that university officials are acting without authority to revoke her degree; that she has a constitutionally protected property and liberty interest in her Ph.D.; that the 2003 University Catalog in effect when she was a graduate student constitutes a binding contract; that the 2003 University Catalog as written for disciplinary proceedings is unconstitutional and denies due process and equal protection; and that Prof. Lungwitz may not participate in any proceedings against her.

She also wants a temporary restraining order preventing the university from conducting its hearing on the misconduct allegations.

She is represented by David K. Sergi in San Marcos, Texas.

Defendants include UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves, the UT Board of Regents, and UT Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly.

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