Inder Verma, one of the country’s most respected and powerful cancer research scientists, now faces allegations that for the past 40 years he has serially sexually harassed and groped women with whom he worked at the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in San Diego, as well as women not affiliated with Salk, according to an investigative report by Science Magazine published last week.
The 70-year-old Verma, who is a native of India, started as a researcher at the Salk Institute in 1974. According to Science, the allegations against him by eight different women date back to 1976. Several days before the 138-year-old scientific journal published its report on the allegations against Verma, the Salk Institute suspended him and said that it would launch its own internal investigation into the sexual harassment accusations.
“Earlier this week, the (Science Magazine) reporter presented the Institute with information about her story that included claims the Institute was not previously aware of,” said Dan Lewis, who chairs the Salk Board of Trustees. “We take these allegations very seriously and have expanded the scope of the investigation….Effective immediately, Dr. Verma has been placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the investigation. He will not be performing scientific or administrative roles on behalf of the Institute during this period.”
Science reported that over the 40-year period, according to accounts by the five women who were quoted by the magazine, Verma “grabbed their breasts, pinched their buttocks, forcibly kissed them, propositioned them, and repeatedly commented on their physical attributes in professional settings.”
But the magazine’s report is not the first time the Salk Institute has heard complaints about Verma’s allegedly inappropriate behavior. Last year, three senior female scientists at Salk sued the research institute, charging gender discrimination — saying that an “old boy’s club” within the Salk institute deliberately smothered their chances for career advancement simply because they are women.
In one of the lawsuits, biologist Vicki Lundblad named Verma specifically as a leading figure at the institute who has been “dismissive” of female scientists, standing in the way of their ability to raise funds for their research.
Shortly after the lawsuits were filed last year, the president of the Salk Institute — Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn — suddenly announced her retirement after just two years in the position.
As a result of the lawsuits, Verma was forced to step down from his elite position as editor-in-chief of the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, according to a report by The San Diego Union Tribune.
Verma flatly denied the current sexual harassment allegations against him. The women quoted in the Science article, however, recounted specific incidents of his conduct in detail.
In one incident, Leslie Jerominski who in 1976, at the age of 24, had recently been hired as a lab technician at Salk, said that Verma “grabbed her, hugged her (and) tried to kiss her,” after they played tennis together at the nearby University of San Diego. Though she says she did not report the incident at the time because she was “very young and I felt really privileged to be working at the Salk Institute,” she made certain that she was never alone in a room with Verma again. She left the Salk Institute the following year.
In another incident reported by Science, cancer biologist Jean Wang alleged that in 1987 — when she was 35-years-old and Verma was 40 — during a research trip to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Verma summoned her to his hotel room to “discuss an important matter” only to have him ask her to sit on his lap and then grill her with questions “about my ex-boyfriend, my sex life, who I was going out with.”
The most recent incident reported by Science allegedly took place in 2016, when a “young woman working at Salk” upon being introduced to Verma and extending her hand for a handshake, found herself “pulled into a half-hug.” Verma then placed his hand on her cheek and told her, “I should probably not say this, but you are so pretty,” according to the Science account.
The administration at Salk had received two formal complaints as well as three other reports regarding Verma since the late 1970s, Science journalist Meredith Wadman reported. Verma has been married since 1973.