A doctoral graduate of Tufts University’s veterinary school has filed a $1 million lawsuit against the college, claiming that she faced retaliation after she reported her department for animal abuse and fabricating research.
The federal lawsuit filed by Dr. Kristy Meadows—who says she received a Ph.D. from Tufts in biomedical sciences, with a concentration in neuroscience, in 2017 and in veterinary medicine in 2018—claims retaliation, violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, negligence, violation of privacy, and defamation, among other allegations. The 35-page complaint was filed on Friday.
Meadows, who graduated near the top of her class and received multiple scholarships, was “punished for speaking up” when she reported her adviser, Dr. Elizabeth Byrnes, for allegedly fabricating data, said Meadows’ attorney, David Russcol, in a statement to The Daily Beast on Monday.
“Her graduation was delayed, her research was impeded, her reputation severely damaged, and her career opportunities curtailed,” said Russcol. “Tufts swept her allegations under the rug and allowed this retaliation to occur for years.”
Meadows knew she wanted to be a veterinarian when, at age 24, her young cat was diagnosed with a neurological disease, according to her lawsuit. She enrolled in the master’s program at Tufts University’s Comparative Biomedical Sciences school in 2010 and then in 2013 enrolled in the Ph.D. program. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Meadows “worked hard to get to veterinary school and cared deeply about the quality of her work and the care she provided to the animals she treated,” her complaint claims.
And that hard work purportedly paid off when she received high-profile scholarships, including the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Student Scholarship, which is awarded to “exceptional” students, and the Henry L. Foster Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Scholarship, which is typically granted to students “who excel academically and demonstrate leadership.”
In 2012, Meadows started working in Byrnes’ lab, where she conducted research on animals and studied “the pathway by which the body reacts to stress, which is important for mood disorders like anxiety and depression,” the complaint states. By December 2013, their research—which had been funded by federal grants—had been compiled into an article entitled “Sex- and age-specific differences in relaxin family peptide receptor expression within the hippocampus and amygdala in rats.”
But the following August, Meadows allegedly discovered that there was “fabricated data from an experiment they had not done” in the article. When she approached Byrnes with this discovery, her adviser told her that “it was fine to publish this data, because if they had done the experiment, this data reflected the result they would have gotten,” the lawsuit claims.
The article was selected for the journal Neuroscience and subsequently published in October 2014, where it remained online as of press time.
Neuroscience Associate Editor-in-Chief Jerome Sanes, a Brown University professor, told The Daily Beast on Monday that the journal’s editors “do not investigate and most assuredly do not generally opine upon” allegations like those made in Meadows’ lawsuit.
“I would add, however, that if scientific misconduct is found by the institution, one remedy could be retraction of the paper,” he said.
In order for a paper to be retracted in a case like Meadows’, either the institution—Tufts—or the senior author of the paper would have to request a retraction and then provide evidence that such action is appropriate, said Sanes.
It is not clear if Meadows ever directly reported the alleged misconduct to Neuroscience, as her attorney declined to answer that question. Sanes said he was not aware of such an allegation before he was contacted by The Daily Beast on Monday.
But the lawsuit claims Meadows first reported the alleged misconduct—as well as alleged animal abuse and violations of animal research protocols—to Tufts administrators in December 2015.
After she came forward with the allegations against Byrnes, Meadows claims “she faced severe and ongoing retaliation, including a delay in her progression through her Ph.D. program; interference with her research at the university; and severe damage to her reputation, including false accusations of theft.”
In one of the theft claims, Meadows was accused by Byrnes’ fellow of stealing a “missing” antibody and placing it in a freezer with her name on it. Another professor provided proof that the sample belonged to Meadows, and the “missing” antibody was ultimately found in Byrnes’ lab refrigerator, according to the lawsuit.
Tufts allegedly failed to acknowledge or address the retaliation, which Meadows claims violates both university policies and federal law.
Tufts University spokesman Patrick Collins told The Daily Beast on Monday that the school “does not comment on pending litigation” but noted that it is “committed to research integrity and to providing a safe and supportive learning and work environment for all members of its community—both values which it takes very seriously.”
Meadows’ lawsuit claims that Byrnes has received millions of dollars in grants for her research, including the research with “fabricated and/or falsified data,” implying that the university had “strong incentives to prevent embarrassment and avoid jeopardizing its federal grant revenue by covering up Dr. Meadows’ reports of misconduct.”
Byrnes did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast this week.
In July 2016, a fact-finder assigned by Tufts to review the misconduct allegations found that they “were sufficiently credible and specific that further inquiry was warranted” and “recommended a full investigation of Dr. Byrnes, and of Dr. Meadows,” the lawsuit claims.
A few weeks later, Meadows’ thesis was complete, but she was allegedly informed by the university that consideration of her thesis would be put on hold until the investigation into the allegations she raised about misconduct had concluded.
More than a year later, in September 2017—“after it was clear to her that Tufts was not going to do anything to address the retaliation she faced”—Meadows filed a complaint with the Office of Research Integrity within the United States Department of Health and Human Services over the schools alleged failure to comply with whistleblower protection requirements, according to the lawsuit.
The department, per the lawsuit, has not yet resolved Meadows’ complaint. Neither Meadows’ attorneys nor Tufts said what—if anything—came of the “further inquiry” recommended by the fact-finder.
Byrnes is still listed on the school’s website as an associate professor of biomedical sciences, and ultimately, Meadows received both of her doctoral degrees from Tufts in 2017 and 2018. She graduated fourth in her class from the doctoral veterinary medicine program, according to the lawsuit.
Meadows expected, “based on her record and qualifications” to receive an offer from a residency program after she graduated, the lawsuit states.
But when she applied for three pathology residencies, she received no offers, according to the complaint. The following year, she applied for five pathology residencies and 10 neurology residencies. Again, she was not offered a single residency.
To this day, Meadows has not found a long-term position or any opportunities involving research or academia, her complaint states. Her lawsuit demands a trial by jury and punitive and compensatory damages in excess of $1 million.