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MIT biologist accused of sexual harassment resigns

American biologist David Sabatini, renowned for his contributions to studies of cell signaling and cancer metabolism, resigned from his position as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) amid allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. The 54-year-old scientist submitted his resignation before he could be fired. In March, an MIT committee recommended that Sabatini be dismissed from the institution because he had become sexually involved with a colleague over whom he held a career-influencing role, in violation of university policy.

MIT President Leo Rafael Reif explained in an email sent to staff at the institution that “Professor Sabatini behaved in ways incompatible with the responsibilities of faculty membership” and violated MIT’s internal policy that prohibits consensual sexual or romantic relationships in the workplace.

In August 2021, the biologist was fired from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and forced to leave the laboratory he led at the Whitehead Institute, a biomedical research center in Cambridge that has ties to both the HHMI and MIT. He had been on administrative leave from his position as professor at MIT ever since, until offering his resignation.

The case is still to be resolved in court. In October, Sabatini sued the Whitehead Institute’s director Ruth Lehmann and the colleague who accused him of harassment, whose identity was not revealed, for defamation. He claims that the accusation is a sham and that the colleague wants to “punish an ex-lover.” He states that the personal and financial damage caused by the allegation has impacted his mental health to the point that he was advised not to live alone and to be monitored by friends and family.

Two months later, his accuser filed a counter suit against him, claiming that she was coerced into having sex with him and that the laboratory environment where they both worked was “toxic and sexually charged.” According to the journal Science, Nancy Hopkins, a professor emeritus of biology at MIT who helped push for gender equality at the institution’s faculty in the 1990s, called Sabatini’s resignation a “milestone.” “A young woman had the courage to demand that the rules be enforced. And she was heard.”

In the early 1990s, when he was a PhD student at the Johns Hopkins Medical School and working in the laboratory of neuroscientist Solomon Halbert Snyder, David Sabatini was one of the discoverers of mTOR, a mammalian version of a protein first found in yeast, which plays a central role in cell growth, proliferation, and maintenance. It had been one of his key research topics ever since.