Mentor suit against NIMH leaves no clear winner

May 13, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

To hear her attorneys and other supporters tell it, Dr. Margaret Jensvold had a great triumph and possibly even put a crack in the glass ceiling, that metaphorical barrier said to impede the careers of women and minorities in America.

But it is evident her victory in federal court early last month was costly to her. And it was won not without possible damage to the age-old, informal method of teaching known as mentoring.

"I really think my career as an academic researcher is over," said Dr. Jensvold, who graduated in 1984 from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "No prospective employer will be ready to employ me if they think the NIH [National Institutes of Health] is not willing to give me grants."

To be an academic researcher in psychiatry is what Dr. Jensvold always wanted. Toward that goal, as she put it, "I went to all the right schools, did all the right research, won all the right awards and it didn't help."

Her career strategy unraveled between 1987 and 1989, after she won a prestigious fellowship to the National Institutes of Mental Health in Bethesda, and went to work there under the supervision of Dr. David Rubinow, chief of the Biological Psychiatry Branch.

She was 30 years old at the time. She had just completed a three-year residency in general psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. She had been named by the Association for Academic Psychiatry as one among the six most promising psychiatric residents in the country.

But at NIMH, she alleged, Dr. Rubinow failed to provide her the "core benefits" of her fellowship: He failed to mentor her. He failed to guide her research, kept her in the dark about important meetings and conferences, did not watch out for her professional interests, and favored her male colleagues, Dr. Jensvold said.

She took Dr. Rubinow and the NIMH to court. On April 1, she won a $1 symbolic award.

The federal judge who heard her case, Deborah Chasanow, will now decide if she is eligible for back pay and possible reinstatement.

The outcome of the case has served the larger purposes of organizations working for the advancement of women and other minorities, not only in the National Institutes of Health, where they are said to be systematically denied, but throughout the professions in general. The National Organization for Women supported her, and the NAACP.

'Significant finding'

"The finding on mentoring is very significant and will serve as a precedent in many other cases," said Lynne Bernabei, Dr. Jensvold's attorney, who specializes in discrimination suits.

Billie Mackey, the head of Self Help for Equal Rights (SHER), a women's activist organization at NIH, said Dr. Jensvold's win would stimulate "other cases based on mentoring."

To Gary Peller, a law professor at Georgetown University with expertise in race and gender discrimination, the Jensvold case was "very significant" because it moved the struggle for women's rights to a second stage. "The first wave of attack was just to get women into the work place," he said.

"This represents one of the first cases to begin addressing those more subtle ways power is exercised in the work place."

But what did Dr. Jensvold get?

Compensation of $1, a personal legal bill running into the thousands, and the prospect that her career will be played out in private psychiatric practice, not the university or institutional research setting she had hoped for.

The National Institutes of Health -- which has subsumed the NIMH since Dr. Jensvold was there -- is not likely to let bygones be bygones, most people familiar with it agree. It is not likely, as Dr. Jensvold would hope, to forgive and forget and "not interfere in my attempt to get grants in the future."

(The NIH funds about 85 percent of all medical research in this country. It is crucial to anyone doing this work.)

Margaret Jensvold has large hazel eyes and wears outsized glasses. Her hair is short and her hands active and delicate. She has a way of speaking that alternates from the tentative to rambling.

Science has been the preoccupation of her life, a vocation stimulated by her aerospace engineer father and her great aunt Jeannette Piccard, a scientist. Dr. Jensvold was a biochemistry major at UCLA, then went on to Hopkins and Pittsburgh.

She enjoyed the benefits of mentors in both places before her disastrous encounter in Bethesda.

Even so, she seems to have little taste for self-pity, and talks with equanimity about the fact that her professional goals have probably been moved beyond her reach.

Allegations denied

Dr. Rubinow has repeatedly denied the allegations made by Dr. Jensvold. He says he gave her every chance to succeed and insists she made up many of her accusations.

He has some fervent supporters. One is Dr. Marie Tobin, an Irish-born psychiatrist who worked under Dr. Rubinow in 1991, also as an NIMH fellow. She described him as "the best mentor I've ever had." Dr. Rubinow won the NIH's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992 for outstanding mentoring of young doctors.

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