Lab bullying: talking is still the only solution

If you are passionate about science, you deserve the opportunity to work in academia. Do you think that abusive supervisors deserve to be in science more than you do because they have a permanent position while you are still a trainee? Do you think that respected scientists are the ones who publish well by undermining the psychological health of their lab members?

With little to no institutional solutions to lab bullying, we need to take matters into our own hands.

As scientists, our job is to pose questions and search for answers. I worked with a PI who bullied me and didn’t want to publish my paper. I hit rock bottom, and then I remembered I was a scientist, so I asked myself the question: “How can I allow this person to push me away from research?” I didn’t give up, I spoke out and I reached out to anybody who would listen to me—professors, colleagues, and friends. I found that people high up in the university hierarchy are more willing to investigate a case of bullying than people in your department. Because there is no protection from retaliation, I found that many people were too scared to take my side. Most importantly, I quit the toxic environment.

I learned that talking was the best therapy. Talking about bullying didn’t just help me, but it helped other trainees realize they weren’t alone. Many people emailed me after reading my previous articles on lab bullying (See For Further Reading below). I didn’t realize the problem was so widespread. From “Thank you for writing about lab bullying, nobody wants to name it” to “I cried when I read [your article] because I feel like I am not alone.”

Another trainee shared their painful experience: “I am still in the process of healing my wounded soul and could not get over those bad memories, so I don’t work in my area of interest as a scientist. I was the candidate of a very prestigious international award, but couldn’t apply for that due to the health deterioration that came from the bullying experience.” I even talked to a mother who was worried about her daughter being bullied: “I don’t know how to help my undergrad daughter who’s being bullied in a lab. She is being bullied by two older men in her lab and I don’t know how to advise her.”

Another trainee told me that: “I got a very prestigious postdoctoral fellowship but my supervisor forced me to give it up. He was envious that the project that was funded was my idea and not his”. Hopefully, by keeping this conversation going, others are empowered to speak up and stick with it.

Talking about your abuse is currently the only way to find help inside or outside the academic environment. It definitely helps your mental health: You will find people who support you. It might help you to find a new lab and publish your paper. It might help the university to understand that there is a cancer they need to fix. An abusive supervisor doesn’t just bully you, they bullied people who were in the lab before you and will do it with future lab members. Don’t despair if it looks like nothing is happening now because if you speak out time will be on your side.

For Further Reading:


About the Author:

Margherita Perillo is a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, where she studies germline stem cells in development using primarily the seastar as model system. Previously she was a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College where she studied nuclear positioning at the neuromuscular and myotendinous junctions. She earned her PhD from the Open University of London working at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Napoli, where she studied cell-type evolution. Email:; twitter: @Marghe_Perillo