Prominent neuroscientist Tom Jessell, pictured in 2008 after winning the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, was ousted earlier this month by Columbia University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for unspecified behavioral violations.

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times/Redux

Behavioral ‘violations’ cost prominent neuroscientist positions at Columbia, HHMI

Prominent Columbia University neuroscientist Tom Jessell, 66, has been fired for “serious [behavioral] violations” and the university is closing his lab, the New York City institution said in a statement yesterday. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which effectively employed Jessell, a leader in understanding neural development, also terminated him as an investigator last week because he “violated HHMI policy,” according to a statement from the institute.

Neither institution will reveal Jessell’s transgressions or say what policies he violated. Columbia said only:

Columbia has ended the administrative positions of Dr. Thomas Jessell and will be winding down the Jessell lab at [Columbia University Medical Center]. These decisions follow an investigation that revealed serious violations of University policies and values governing the behavior of faculty members in an academic environment. The University will fulfill its responsibility to close the lab in a manner that both preserves valuable research and helps those involved to continue to pursue their careers. Dr. Jessell has been out of the lab since the investigation began.

The university would not specify when the investigation began or who conducted it and HHMI would not say whether it conducted its own investigation or relied on Columbia’s findings.

A university official said that the lab, whose website in January listed 10 staff, two graduate students, and 10 postdoctoral students, will wind down over the coming 15 months.

HHMI has supported Jessell’s research since 1985, the same year that he moved from Harvard University to Columbia. The institute terminated him on 2 March. Kathryn Brown, chief of communications at HHMI, said that the termination was “unrelated to review of his science.”

HHMI investigators are formally employees of HHMI although they remain physically at their home institutions. Jessell is also a Claire Tow professor in the departments of Neuroscience and Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics at Columbia, and was co-director of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia’s neuroscience institute, created in 2016. Today, his co-directors Eric Kandel and Richard Axel, are the only ones featured on the institute’s website.

Columbia has not stripped Jessell of his tenured professorship in neuroscience; removing a tenured professor at the university requires a series of steps involving the faculty affairs committee. These are outlined here.

Jessell did not respond within several hours to an email requesting comment. He met with his lab staff and students to break the news to them earlier this week.

A leading expert in neural movement control, Jessell, a U.K. native who completed his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, conducted pioneering studies that identified mechanisms involved in the neural development and organization of the spinal cord. He shared the $1 million Kavli Prize in Neuroscience in 2008, the first year that the prestigious awards were made. The foundation noted the far-reaching, foundational nature of his work: “The principles of circuit construction that have emerged from Jessell’s studies in the spinal cord are now known to apply throughout the brain, and in particular they have helped to explain, in molecular terms, how different parts of the cerebral cortex acquire their specialised character.”

Jessell’s trainees include prominent neuroscientist and president of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who did not respond to a request for comment.