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Famed cancer biologist allegedly sexually harassed women for decades

Inder Verma, the prominent geneticist and cancer scientist who has made his mark on U.S. research for decades, has sexually harassed women for just as long, according to allegations from eight women.

Verma, 70, led key studies of genes and cancer, pioneered gene therapy techniques, and was editor-in-chief of a major journal and a leader at scientific societies (including AAAS, Science’s publisher). He has spent his career at the storied Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California.

In reports stretching from 1976 to 2016, women allege, variously, that he grabbed their breasts, pinched their buttocks, forcibly kissed them, propositioned them, and repeatedly commented on their physical attributes in professional settings. The allegations come from a Salk lab technician, a postdoctoral researcher, other Salk staffers and faculty, and women outside of the institute, including a potential faculty recruit.

Five women in their 50s and 60s in secure scientific positions agreed to be named in this story. Three younger women requested anonymity, fearing repercussions to their careers. They cited Verma’s power at Salk and the reach of his influence, including his connections to Nobel laureates, National Institutes of Health (NIH) peer-review committees, and journal editorial boards.

On 20 April, Salk’s board of trustees put Verma on administrative leave, 2 days after receiving a list of questions from Science concerning the allegations and the institute’s responses to previous complaints about Verma’s behavior.

Science’s questions about harassment caused Salk to expand an existing investigation of Verma, board Chairman Dan Lewis told Salk employees in an email that Saturday. The institute had launched an internal investigation in February and hired a law firm on 12 March to conduct an external probe, Salk told Science in a separate statement.

For decades, women at Salk have warned female colleagues not to be alone with Verma. “It was on everybody’s mouth that he was a harasser,” says Monica Zoppè, now a molecular and cell biologist at the Institute of Clinical Physiology in Pisa, Italy. As a brand-new postdoc in Verma’s lab in 1992, she had not yet heard the warnings when Verma forcibly grabbed and kissed her, a few weeks after she had arrived from Italy, she alleges.

When you touch in the way that has been described in these examples, under the law, these are called assault.

Ann Olivarius, senior partner at McAllister Olivarius in Saratoga Springs, New York

Salk administrators have received at least two formal complaints and three additional reports about Verma’s behavior since the late 1970s, and they have hired an outside investigator to probe a complaint about him at least once before last week. They also have repeatedly protected him, say women who formally complained and other people with knowledge of the institute’s actions. Zoppè, for example, alleges that after she formally complained about Verma’s behavior, Salk administrators told her not to speak to anyone about the incident.

The allegations reported to Science are not as egregious as some examples of harassment in the scientific world. And many women who worked with Verma at Salk say he treated them with respect. “I found him to be an honorable and very supportive supervisor,” says Jane Visvader, a leading breast cancer researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Parkville, Australia, who was a postdoc in Verma’s lab in the late 1980s. Visvader was one of 15 women Science contacted who said they experienced no harassment when working with or for Verma; another 12 women ignored or declined repeated interview requests. Among Verma’s backers, several praised his mentoring and described his kindness.

Yet some women who allege harassment say that after the incidents, they made career choices that would allow them to dodge Verma’s influence, or at least his presence. “I have been avoiding him for 30 years,” says Pamela Mellon, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She was an assistant professor at Salk in the mid-1980s when, she says, Verma grabbed her breasts during a party at his home.

Outside experts say that if the decades-long pattern of alleged advances is true, “he’s a textbook sexual harasser,” as Ann Olivarius, a senior partner at McAllister Olivarius in Saratoga Springs, New York, puts it. Olivarius, who specializes in sexual harassment cases, reviewed the eight women’s allegations at Science’s request. “When you touch in the way that has been described in these examples,” she says, “under the law, these are called assault.”

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, where cancer biologist Inder Verma has spent his career.

Justin Brown (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Cathy Young, a media fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., also reviewed the allegations. “I have raised questions about some #MeToo accounts in the media that I think are overreactions,” she says. “But once you start making surprise, aggressive advances, especially toward people of lower status, especially if they’re at the same institution—that clearly crosses the line.”

Verma declined to answer a list of questions from Science, but he issued a general denial in a statement released after Salk suspended him last week: “I have never used my position at the Salk Institute to take advantage of others. I have also never engaged in any sort of intimate relationship with anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute. I have never inappropriately touched, nor have I made any sexually charged comments, to anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute. I have never allowed any offensive or sexually charged conversations, jokes, material, etc., to occur at the Salk Institute.”

Citing legal and privacy constraints, Salk declined to answer Science’s questions about certain specific allegations. It would not say how many complaints about sexual harassment by Verma it has received, nor what discipline, if any, it has imposed on him. However, its statement to Science said, “Salk has not condoned—and will not condone—any findings of inappropriate conduct in the workplace, regardless of one’s stature or influence.” It continued: “Salk has had, and has enforced, policies prohibiting sexual harassment for decades. … These policies are reviewed regularly and have been updated numerous times over the years.” The institute also noted that it “requires that employees periodically attend anti-harassment and discrimination training.”

The allegations come as the research institute, founded in 1960 by polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk, defends itself against gender discrimination lawsuits filed last summer by three of its senior female scientists. The scientists allege that they were denied lab space and personnel, career advancement, and funding opportunities because they are women. Two lawsuits accuse Verma by name. In December 2017, he was suspended as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) until issues raised by the lawsuits are resolved.

I have never inappropriately touched, nor have I made any sexually charged comments, to anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute.

Inder Verma, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Verma—the highest-paid scientist at Salk in its 2015 fiscal year, earning $406,000—remained a power there until last week. He chaired and served on faculty promotion and search committees. He exerted influence on internal funding decisions. On 20 April, he was slated to be on a panel at Salk with former Vice President Joe Biden, promoting a Salk cancer research initiative—but he was dropped at the last moment.

“They used to call Salk ‘Inder’s institute,’” recalls a young woman who alleges that she experienced unwanted touching and sexual comments from Verma when she worked at Salk during the past 10 years.

The lab tech

Verma, a native of Sangrur, India, was hired by Salk in 1974, at age 26, after completing a Ph.D. at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of David Baltimore, who was then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

During Verma’s first 4 years at Salk, he published 16 papers, many reporting discoveries about reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that enables retroviruses to insert their genetic material into cells’ DNA. Eight were co-authored with Baltimore, who shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the enzyme. Verma was promoted to associate professor in 1979, one step short of earning tenure in the Salk system.

In May 1976, Leslie Jerominski, now a senior laboratory specialist at the University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics in Salt Lake City, got a job as a technician in Verma’s lab. She was 24.

Within a couple months of hiring her, Jerominski says, Verma asked her to play tennis at nearby UCSD. After their match, Jerominski says, she stood preparing to change in a common break room with a private bathroom at Salk. She alleges that Verma grabbed her, hugged her, tried to kiss her—she turned her head aside—and asked her out to dinner.

“I told him to quit,” she recalls. “I felt scared, angry, and disappointed.”

Jerominski did not report the incident, which was not repeated. “I was very young and I felt really privileged to be working at the Salk Institute. So I kind of let it go.”

But she remained on the alert until she left Salk in October 1977. “I never put myself in a position when I was alone in a room with him ever again. … I hated the fact that I always had to be on guard.”

Another technician in Verma’s lab in that era remembers being warned by other women not to be alone with him. “It was a culture of ‘Be careful,’” she says. “It was understood.”

A female trainee in a different Salk lab at the time recalls, “He had a habit of following women into the darkroom. I made sure when I was going in, he didn’t know.”

The junior cancer biologist

By the mid-1980s, Verma’s lab was a world leader in its field. Verma had assembled a small, talented group of scientists who uncovered the structure of certain retroviruses and revealed how they co-opted oncogenes to cause cancer. The team also led the development of retroviruses as vectors to deliver DNA for gene therapy. In 1984 alone, Verma published nine papers in Cell, Science, and Nature, and was senior author on five of them. In 1985, Salk promoted him to full professor.

Inder Verma at a meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York in 1986, the year after he was promoted to full professor at the Salk Institute. Two women allege he made unwanted physical advances around this time.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

In 1988, the year Verma turned 41, the National Cancer Institute asked him and Jean Wang, then a 36-year-old assistant professor studying cancer biology at UCSD, to help review a program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Verma chaired the site review team. Thrilled to be selected as a reviewer, Wang wore her favorite professional dress from Talbots. It was calf-length and blue, with irregular white dots and a white Peter Pan collar.

The group stayed at an Embassy Suites hotel on the Charles River, she recalls. After an intense, daylong assessment at Dana-Farber, Wang had just returned to her room when the phone rang. It was Verma, she says, asking her to come to his room to discuss an important matter regarding the site visit.

When Verma opened the door, Wang says, she saw champagne chilling on ice beyond him. She alleges that Verma closed the door behind her, sat on a couch in the front room of the suite and asked her to sit on his lap. Stunned and fearful of angering him, she complied. “He started to ask me about my ex-boyfriend, my sex life, who I was going out with,” she says. She parried with pointed questions about his wife and daughter, whom she had met at a party at his home not long before. She told him repeatedly that she would like to leave and after about 5 minutes, she did so.

Back in her room, she took a long shower. “I wanted to wash away the humiliation,” Wang says. She threw the dress in the trash in disgust, knowing she would not wear it again.

When she returned to San Diego, “I didn’t say a word,” Wang says. She blamed herself for going to Verma’s hotel room, and she feared both others’ judgment of her and retaliation by Verma. She was an obscure, nontenured assistant professor. She remembers thinking that if she told others, “He’s going to hurt me. I need grants.”

Wang did, however, begin counseling female UCSD students who proposed to do research at Salk, 2 kilometers away, not to work with Verma. In the mid-1990s, she told her husband, Richard Kolodner, about the incident. (He confirmed that report to Science.) And whenever she ran into Verma at seminars and meetings, “I actively avoided him each time and made sure that I showed my disgust with my body language,” Wang says.

Wang is now a distinguished professor emeritus in the department of medicine at UCSD. Three decades later, she still feels shame and anger about that 5-minute episode. She is speaking up now, she says, because “I just can’t keep it in anymore. The #MeToo movement opened my wound. I had to take this opportunity to tell my story so that I could hopefully close that wound and forgive myself.”

The Salk assistant professor

Verma and his wife (he has been married since 1973) have long been known as congenial, generous hosts. In the 1980s, they often invited Salk colleagues to their spacious home in suburban Solana Beach, California. At one hot, crowded party there in the late 1980s, Pamela Mellon, an assistant professor at Salk who was studying how gene transcription is regulated, stepped into the dark, quiet backyard to cool off. Mellon, then in her mid-30s, was standing with her back to the house admiring the hilly vista when, she says, Verma’s arms suddenly encircled her from behind, pinning her arms to her side as he grabbed her breasts. “I was shocked and struggled to get rid of his arms,” Mellon says. That failed, she says. Next, “I just kicked him in the shin backwards. And he let go.”

Upset, she left the party immediately. She told no one about the incident and dealt with it by avoiding Verma, who was not in her department and had no direct authority over her. But a year or two later, Verma was appointed chairman of the committee deciding whether Mellon should be promoted from assistant to associate professor. Distraught that the man whose advances she had rebuffed would be chairing that committee, she took her situation to the director of human resources. She recalls him telling her that she needed counseling, and refusing to take up the incident with Verma. (That now-retired Salk staffer did not respond to two letters and a phone message requesting an interview.)

Once you start making surprise, aggressive advances, especially toward people of lower status, especially if they’re at the same institution—that clearly crosses the line.

Cathy Young, media fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

Salk wrote in an email last week: “The Institute does not have a record of any report given to Human Resources of this nature during [Mellon’s] employment at Salk.” It added: “When Salk officials have been made aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct by an employee, the Institute has investigated and responded, as appropriate.”

Next, Mellon turned to Salk professor Tony Hunter, whom she knew from shared interests in whitewater rafting and retrovirology. She implored him to remove Verma from the promotion committee. Without asking her why she was so uncomfortable with Verma in that role, Mellon recalls, Hunter arranged to take Verma’s place as chairman of the committee.

“Tony took me seriously and he fixed it,” Mellon says. (Hunter declined repeated interview requests.)

Mellon was promoted. In 1992, she left Salk for a tenured position at UCSD, where today she studies how the brain controls reproduction.

One woman who worked at Salk at the time, who declined to be named for fear of career repercussions, says she recalls the day Verma told her that Mellon had left Salk.

“He was, like, ‘Mellons has left.’ And I said, ‘Mellons?’ And he said, ‘Pam Mellon, you know, her big breasts look like watermelons?’”

“I was just in shock,” says the woman, who adds that she felt too intimidated to respond with anything but silence.

The postdoctoral student

Monica Zoppè was 31 years old when she became a postdoc in Verma’s lab late in 1992. A newcomer to the United States, she was excited to work in the lab of a pioneer in gene transfer.

A few weeks after her arrival, Verma offered her a ride home. She didn’t have a car and gratefully accepted. “During the trip, he said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going home to do, nobody is there,’” Zoppè recalls. Pleased with the chance to discuss her research with him, she invited him in for a cup of tea.

Zoppè shared the house with two roommates. Neither was home. “As soon as he stepped in the house he tried to kiss me very, very abruptly,” Zoppè says. Shocked and outraged, she shoved him away. Struggling for words in her uncertain English, she said at first, “Let’s go!” Verma’s face lit up, Zoppè recalls. She corrected herself: “You go!” He went.

The next day, Zoppè confronted Verma, she says. In a statement she set down 3 years later when she briefly considered taking legal action against Salk or Verma, she wrote, “He assured me that he had never done anything like this before and he would never do it again. … [He] asked me not to talk to anybody about this ‘incident.’”

Because she had taken Salk’s sexual harassment training, which urged reporting of such incidents, Zoppè says, she complained to human resources at Salk a few days later. (A former Salk employee who declined to be named confirmed the complaint and the subsequent investigation to Science.) Zoppè says Salk offered to move her to a lab at UCSD; she refused, feeling that if anyone should move it should be Verma.

Several days later, she recalls, the human resources director—the same man whom Mellon had approached a few years earlier—called her at home to tell her she should stay home that day, and continue to stay home until she heard back from human resources, because Verma was going to be told of her complaint and would be angry.

Within another few days, Zoppè says, Verma “apologized very coldly for what he did. He assured me he was not mad at me, which was clearly a lie.”

If an experiment didn’t work, I was incompetent. Any time I would say something in a lab meeting, according to Inder I was wrong.

Monica Zoppè, molecular and cell biologist at the Institute of Clinical Physiology in Pisa, Italy

In her statement from the mid-1990s, Zoppè adds that human resources “told me that [Verma] would be requested to undergo psychological counseling … and that, if anybody asked, I should say I know nothing about it.” (As with all specific allegations about its handling of complaints, Salk had no comment on the details of Zoppè’s account.)

According to Zoppè, Verma routinely disparaged her science after she complained. “If an experiment didn’t work, I was incompetent. Any time I would say something in a lab meeting, according to Inder I was wrong.” Another postdoc in Verma’s lab at the time, who declined to be named for fear of professional retaliation, confirmed to Science that after the complaint, Verma “was overly and openly aggressive in criticizing” Zoppè at a lab meeting.

Paolo Remondelli, now a cell biologist at the University of Salerno in Fisciano, Italy, was working in a UCSD lab in the early 1990s and shared a house with Zoppè for 18 months beginning soon after the alleged incident. In an interview with Science, he recalled what he described as Zoppè’s “distress” about her relationship with Verma after she complained about him to Salk.

“It was clearly something that compromised her relationship with him,” Remondelli said. “She didn’t work with calm. She was not quiet. It was damaging. It was compromising her career.”

Zoppè completed her postdoc, she says, because she had strong support from others in Verma’s lab. She left in 1996 for a position in Milan, Italy.

The senior Salk colleague

Inder Verma receives a $100,000 prize from The Vilcek Foundation in New York City in 2008. The award honors outstanding contributions to biomedical research by immigrants to the United States.

Matt Carasella/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Verma’s career continued to soar. In 1988, he won an “Outstanding Investigator” award from NIH, which steered $12.8 million to Verma and Salk for cancer research over the next 13 years. In 1990, Verma was awarded a coveted American Cancer Society professorship, which funded his work with hundreds of thousands of dollars until 2012. His laboratory pressed ahead with pioneering work developing gene therapy vectors and made key discoveries about cancer-causing genes such as the breast cancer gene BRCA1. He was visible in public and policy circles, chairing a committee that examined NIH oversight of gene therapy clinical trials and co-chairing the government’s Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

In 1997, the year he turned 50, Verma was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and 2 years later, to the Institute of Medicine, part of NAS that advises the government on key issues in medicine and health. In 2001, he joined the editorial board of PNAS.

One evening in September 2001, Beverly Emerson, then 49, a molecular biologist Salk had hired in 1986 and promoted to full professor in 1999, was working at the photocopier, deep in the Salk library stacks. No one else was around. She didn’t hear Verma approach. Suddenly, she says, he was beside her; he grabbed her and kissed her on the mouth.

“Yes?” he asked.

“No!” she remembers responding, in shock. He backed away and left.

The incident, Emerson says, “left me feeling physically vulnerable because Dr. Verma snuck up on me—and at risk of losing lab resources and professional opportunities at Salk” because of Verma’s power and influence at the institute. (Emerson, 66, is one of the plaintiffs in the current gender discrimination lawsuits. In December 2017, 5 months after the lawsuits were filed, Salk declined to renew her contract, saying that she failed to bring in 50% of her salary from external sources, as required.

Emerson did not report the incident because, she says, “he didn’t do it again.” If he had, she says she would have reported it, not to human resources, but to the institute’s president. “I had the sense that human resources had no real power to discipline or take corrective action over Dr. Verma.”

The recruit

In the first years of this century, Salk’s scientific ranks were sorely lacking in women. In 2003, seven of 52 faculty members were women, and the trend wasn’t improving: Only one of the 11 assistant professors was a woman. The institute did seek to hire women. Between 2000 and 2003, it offered faculty positions to 14 outsiders, five of them women; none of the five accepted a position.

One potential faculty recruit, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, visited Salk during that period. She noted that several female professors pointedly sought privacy during conversations with her by closing their office doors; one insisted on talking with her in the women’s bathroom. One woman, who had published in Nature and Cell, confided that she was not going to get promoted.

“I looked at her résumé and thought, ‘How is that possible?’” the recruit recalls.

She also met with Verma in his office and discussed her research and the institute’s. As he escorted her to her next interview, she says, Verma volunteered that, if she had a husband, Salk would not be able to hire him as well. She replied that she wasn’t married. At that point, she alleges, Verma reached behind her and pinched her buttocks.

“It wasn’t a pat on the butt, it was a pinch,” she says.

She declined Salk’s job offer. “I was very disturbed by my experience there,” she says.

Two people—her faculty mentor and a postdoc at her institution at the time—confirmed in interviews with Science that she told them of that incident soon after it happened.

The junior Salk colleagues

One night during the past decade, a young female Salk research assistant, her boss (a Salk professor), and Verma attended a dinner at a San Diego restaurant with pharmaceutical company executives. The research assistant was the only woman present. As the dinner adjourned, she says, Verma “put his arm around my waist and said, ‘You are always so beautiful. You are like a beautiful starlet.’”

The woman exchanged a glance with her boss, who “had this, like, ‘uh-oh’ look on his face,” she recalls. She quickly disentangled herself and walked away.

Verma continued to make sexual comments about her to others at Salk, that woman says; those comments found their way back to her and made her feel that “attractiveness was apparently what I was there for. Not doing science.”

She went out of her way to avoid Verma. “You knew not to complain to human resources about it. You don’t want to be on Verma’s bad side. I wanted to keep my job.”

Another young woman working at Salk in 2016 reports that after a meeting, she extended her hand to Verma to shake. He took it and pulled her into a half-hug, she says. She alleges that he then put his hand on her cheek and said, “I should probably not say this, but you are so pretty.” He went on to compare her to his daughter, she says.

The young woman says she told Elizabeth Blackburn, then Salk’s president, about the incident, and that Blackburn reported it to human resources. (Blackburn, who resigned in December 2017, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the incident.)

Human resources brought in Ken Rose, principal of The Rose Group, a San Diego law firm—the same firm it hired in March to investigate Verma—to investigate.

Rose determined that no sexual harassment had occurred, the woman says. She adds that he concluded by telling her, “‘You need to go tell him you thought it was inappropriate.’ … But I never confronted him, mostly because I didn’t want to be alone with him and I was afraid of retaliation.” Rose declined to comment.

From then on, she warned new female employees not to be alone with Verma.

I have been avoiding him for 30 years.

Pamela Mellon, neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego

During Science's 4-month investigation, some women who worked with Verma over the years offered a counternarrative to his portrayal as a sexual harasser, and they praised his actions as a mentor.

In Verma’s lab, “women were treated equal to men,” says Virginie Bottero, a Verma postdoc from 2002 to 2006 who is now a lecturer at Lake Forest College in Illinois. “I was never subjected to harassment of any sort. I did not witness any harassment and I did not hear about anyone who could have been a target.” She called the lab “a fantastic place to work and grow scientifically.”

Dinorah Friedmann-Morvinski, an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel who was a Verma postdoc from 2005 to 2015, wrote in an email, “When my husband lost his job and Inder heard about it, he not only raised my salary but also helped [connect] my husband with relevant people he knew in his field.” She added, “During my maternity leave, he assigned a technician to help me with my ongoing experiments and she kept helping me when I returned full time to the lab.”

When Verma was elevated to become editor-in-chief of PNAS 7 years ago, Ralph Cicerone, then NAS president, lauded Verma as “the ideal person” for the job. “Dr. Inder Verma is known worldwide for his scientific creativity and for his conscientiousness and fair-mindedness,” Cicerone said. Other leading science organizations also have sought him out, including AAAS, where Verma served on the board of directors from 2011 to 2015.

Last October, at a gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, California, the American Cancer Society honored Verma as a “Giant of Science.” In November 2017, he opined on the virtues of preprint servers in PNAS. In March—with NAS President Marcia McNutt, The New England Journal of Medicine Editor Jeffrey Drazen, Science’s Executive Editor Monica Bradford, and others—he co-authored a PNAS article urging changes to standardize journals’ authorship policies.

Research under Verma also continued, until last week. He was a co-author on three new scientific papers in the first quarter of this year. In February, he and his team at Salk won a $1.2 million award from the W. M. Keck Foundation to develop living mammalian tissues that are transparent to light microscopy.

Salk said in a statement on 25 April that Hunter will oversee all ongoing research programs in the Verma lab “during Dr. Verma’s leave” and that “the Institute expects all research to continue as normal during this period.” It added that Salk has contacted the foundations and funding agencies that support Verma’s work “to assure them the research they are sponsoring will continue without disruption.”

Can outstanding science redeem harassment? “It’s the old ‘great man’ theory of the universe: ‘Look what he has done in science,’” says Olivarius, the sexual harassment lawyer. “Instead, look at how many careers he has hurt.”

Jennifer Freyd, a research psychologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, notes that Verma’s alleged harassment occurred at an institution where women also contend that they have been shut out of power. “Sexual harassment really reinforces the male power structure and keeps women in their place and terrified. But also, any kind of gender inequity gives more permission to sexually harass. So they are mutually reinforcing. They do go together.”

This story was supported by the Science Fund for Investigative Reporting.

*Correction, 22 May, 5:30 p.m.: After this story was published, Jean Wang continued to search for a contemporaneous record, which Science had requested, of the incident she recounted. She located such a record, which confirmed her account but set the incident in 1988, rather than 1987, as she had originally told Science. This story has been updated to reflect this.