The University of Adelaide is conducting a probe into the “culture” of its world-class ancient DNA laboratory after complaints were made by students about the nature of their work environment.
- The Australian Centre for Ancient DNA is part of the University of Adelaide
- New Zealand paleo-ecologist Dr Nic Rawlence will be making a submission to the university
- The university said it would conduct the investigation to determine if any change was needed
The university confirmed it was undertaking a “culture check” at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), which is based at the university’s campus on North Terrace.
ABC News understands the probe is being conducted by an external consultant and will involve seeking submissions and interviewing past and present staff and students.
New Zealand paleo-ecologist Dr Nic Rawlence — who is currently the director of the University of Otago’s paleogenetic laboratory in the Zoology Department — said it was “not a good working environment”.
He worked at ACAD for seven years from 2006 and was attracted to the laboratory after seeing a member of the team give a lecture in New Zealand and saw they were doing “a lot of really cool research”.
He said he successfully obtained an Australian Postgraduate Award and moved to Adelaide.
However, he described the culture at ACAD as “cut-throat”, “competitive” and “everyone was in it for themselves”.
“It’s not necessarily the extreme things … it’s the things that wear you down and add to the stress,” he said.
The ACAD has a range of research areas including human evolution and genetic studies of animals. (ABC News: Gary Rivett)
Dr Rawlence said so much happened on a daily basis that “one thing blurs into another”.
“We had people leave left, right and centre when I was there — we put in official complaints … we talked to the higher-ups,” he said.
“And we were constantly told from up the chain, ‘yeah, we know all about it, but nothing is going to happen’.
Dr Rawlence said he lost a lot of confidence during his time at ACAD and struggled to write and speak publicly.
“We all developed health problems, I developed really debilitating stomach problems that would floor me anything from a week to a month,” he said.
“That was all put down by the doctors to stress.”
He said many put it down to working in a successful lab.
“A lot of us knew what was happening was wrong and we complained — but at the same time we thought, ‘well, this is what it’s like in high-achieving labs’,” Dr Rawlence said.
“The only way we survived was that we had good friends in the lab and a surrogate family that would offer support outside of the lab.”
Changes could be made at the lab after the culture check
He said he would make a submission about his experience at ACAD.
A University of Adelaide spokeswoman said a culture check would provide “an informed and accurate picture of the culture within the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA”.
She said it would investigate whether all staff, students and affiliates were engaged in a “positive and collegial environment” and provide information to assist consideration of what, if any, changes might be made.
“The university does not propose making further public comment at this time to preserve the integrity of the process,” she said.
According to the University of Adelaide website, ACAD provided international standard facilities for ancient DNA research in Australia, and across the Southern Hemisphere.
“Research areas include responses to environmental change, evolutionary biology, and population genetic studies of animals, plants, pathogens, and human evolution,” it states.