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Alan Cooper

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Australian university suspends ancient DNA expert Alan Cooper as part of workplace investigation

The University of Adelaide in Australia has suspended evolutionary molecular biologist Alan Cooper, director of the university’s Centre for Ancient DNA, as the result of an investigation into allegations of bullying at the lab.

“The University recently commissioned an independent culture check, in relation to the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD),” a university spokesperson wrote in a statement to Science. “Following on from the information provided, the University has decided to take further action. The Director of ACAD has been suspended from duties pending the outcome of further processes. Those processes will be conducted confidentially, and the University will not make further comment while they are under way.”

In recent weeks, allegations that Cooper bullied and harassed his lab members have surfaced, as noted by a blog, ABC News Australia and social media. For example, former graduate student and postdoctoral researcher Nic Rawlence, now director of the paleogenetics lab at the University of Otago in New Zealand, alleges that Cooper bullied and harassed him and other trainees while Rawlence worked in Cooper’s lab from 2006 to 2013. “Everyone dreaded lab meetings. You were going to get picked on, yelled at, and shamed‘None of you can write,’ [Cooper] would say, in front of university higher-ups and outside visitors," Rawlence told Science. "If you were not picked on, you felt so sorry for whoever was. It was a textbook example of bullying.” Rawlence says he submitted a written account of this behavior to the firm conducting the “culture check.” 

Cooper did not respond to requests for comment.

Cooper moved to Adelaide in 2005 from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. He heads one of the world's leading ancient DNA labs, which probes a wide range of evolutionary topics, including the peopling of Australia, microbial and mammalian evolution, and climate change.

The university says an acting director will supervise the lab’s research.


Update, 20 August, 5:40 a.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from Nic Rawlence.