Did the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) try to dump a professor because she blew the whistle on an Israeli spy in their midst or because she named her cat as a co-writer on a research paper?
Those questions and more might be addressed in court after physics professor Sandra Troian sued Caltech for violating its whistleblower policy and allegedly harassing her the past four years. “I've been humiliated, degraded, isolated, treated like a pariah on campus,” Troian said at a news conference Thursday announcing the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Troian’s problems began in 2010 when she complained to Caltech officials about a postdoctoral research assistant she hired for a project she was working on for the school’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The lawsuit said she told administrators that the researcher, an Israeli named Amir Gat, had sent restricted data to Israel.
Troian, who has worked at Caltech for eight years, said they did nothing. But in 2012, FBI agents approached her about security breaches at JPL and she told them her experience. She said the FBI told her that Gat was the subject of an investigation that might involve espionage and violations of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
Her lawsuit says Gat is in Israel, working for ITT, an Israeli government institution, and has admitted giving top-secret information about a micropulsion device to his doctorate advisor, Daniel Weihs, also at ITT. It alleges he also posted some of the information online.
Troian said Caltech officials were upset that she talked to the FBI and warned her to keep quiet. When she refused, they threatened to fire her, cut off her $1.1 million in funding, accused her of plagiarism, said she faked research and added false things to her personnel file.
Why would Caltech come after her so hard?
She says it’s because they were in the process of negotiating an $8-billion contract to keep running JPL for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and didn’t want to raise any security issues. They got tough when she refused to play ball, Troian said.
Caltech called the suit “meritless” and the spy/whistleblower stuff bull, and said in a statement:
“The plaintiff, who was dissatisfied with the outcome of a recent internal campus investigation into her decision to list her cat as the author of a published abstract and omit recognition of a postdoctoral scholar who performed related research, suffered no retaliation and remains an active faculty member of the institution.”
Troian said using a pet’s name as co-author was a frequently-used inside joke among researchers and she only did it as a placeholder until she found a human co-author.