Academic career unravels Misconduct: Young scientist leaves Hopkins after he is found to have misrepresented findings in an effort to win a federal grant.

July 24, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Biochemist Michael W. Washabaugh may yet decode secrets of how human diet affects health, but the young scholar's academic reputation has been crushed. Never again will he pursue his theories at the Johns Hopkins University or, in all likelihood, at any other major research university.

Graduate students whom he had trained accused the former Hopkins associate professor of supporting his theories by exaggerating the strength of evidence he gathered on a federally financed project.

During a methodical, six-week inquiry last fall, an investigative panel of Hopkins' School of Hygiene and Public Health picked apart Washabaugh's explanations and said he had repeatedly misrepresented data. Based on the Hopkins report, the National Institutes of Health in May found him guilty of three counts of scientific misconduct on work supported by a grant worth a million dollars and the application for more government money.

He left the East Baltimore Hopkins campus more than a month ago.

In an age when research universities have come under attack for the perception that they are unable or unwilling to police themselves, Hopkins' strict handling of the Washabaugh case appears to offer a vivid contrast. A federal study released earlier this month found that four in five research institutions fail to follow government guidelines in handling allegations of research misconduct.

Yet some of his colleagues, while not defending his errors, say Washabaugh was treated too severely, suggesting he was sacrificed to protect the university's good name.

Washabaugh, who has retreated to the highly paid but lower-profile world of corporate research, did not respond to a reporter's repeated requests to discuss the events leading to his departure from the university and from Baltimore.

But interviews with colleagues and the account of his actions by the Hopkins panel show how this promising associate professor's career was cut short as he sought success in the pressure-cooker culture of academic research.

An academic star

A dynamic and enormously self-assured researcher, Mike Washabaugh had been an academic Wunderkind. In 1980, he graduated from the University of Michigan with highest honors in chemistry and retained the athleticism that he told students had led him to try, unsuccessfully, to win a place on the school's football team.

Washabaugh received his doctorate at Hopkins in 1986 and became a post-doctorate fellow at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Two years later, at age 30, he was brought back to Baltimore as a Hopkins faculty member.

He was still a relative youngster when he joined the biochemistry department. When getting a ride home late at night from someone who worked with him in the lab, he tended to speak either of his wife or children -- a boy and a girl. Otherwise, Washabaugh focused on his research.

In 1995, Washabaugh intended to make good on the promise he had shown.

He wrote on a faculty home page posted on the World Wide Web that he was seeking a concise chemical explanation for how thiamine, or vitamin B1, transports nutrients like carbohydrates to allow them to be absorbed into the body. That process fights off malnutrition and ailments such as beriberi.

Washabaugh dedicated himself to that search, writing or co-writing at least four journal articles published last year. He drove the researchers at his eighth-floor laboratory hard as they worked under the four-year grant awarded in 1993. He was pushing hard, too, to win another grant from the NIH, for which he had applied in February 1995.

"The purpose of having data is producing," said Mark Allen Gold, who worked under Washabaugh for several years before receiving his doctorate in 1994 and who still considers his former mentor to be a star researcher.

"The mark of production is grant applications and journal articles," Gold said. "Mike worked the system as well as anybody -- he played the game. Mike just understood how to run that particular business."

Hopkins' school of public health sets the standard in federal grants. The largest such institution in the world, Hopkins receives 27 percent of all U.S. research funds awarded to the nation's 27 schools of public health, according to Hopkins.

But that success in attracting government support -- echoed throughout the university in other fields such as astronomy, applied physics and medicine -- leaves Hopkins vulnerable to federal whim. Seventy-eight percent of the public health school's million budget in fiscal 1996 came from U.S. agencies. When research professors fail to win grants, they put their own jobs at risk.

For untenured faculty members like Washabaugh, the pressure is acute.

Washabaugh's chances for the second grant started to unravel in the summer of 1995.

Coming undone

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