Top neuroscientist leaves Mexican university as former trainees allege sexual harassment
Earlier this month, Mexico’s leading university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), announced that renowned neuroscientist Ranulfo Romo Trujillo would leave his position after being disciplined for an unspecified offense.
According to a 4 March press release from UNAM, Romo Trujillo voluntarily asked to be separated from his job at UNAM’s University City campus in Mexico City. Sources close to the case say he had been temporarily suspended because a female worker made a formal complaint of sexual harassment against him following an incident in January. But current and former UNAM students and staff say that reports of inappropriate behavior by Romo Trujillo had circulated for years before his departure.
Romo Trujillo, who works at UNAM’s Institute of Cellular Physiology (IFC), did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He is arguably the most famous neuroscientist in Mexico, studying perception, working memory, and decision-making. He has more than 150 publications, including in top journals such as Science and Nature; is on the editorial board of Neuron and other journals; and is one of 11 Mexican members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
IFC physiologist Marcia Hiriart Urdanivia acknowledged in an email to Science that, while director of IFC from 2009 to 2017, she received multiple accounts of sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct by Romo Trujillo. Hiriart Urdanivia says she warned Romo Trujillo that “his career was endangered by such actions.” But the women involved did not choose to file official complaints, she says. As a result, “I had no authority to do anything else.”
Six former trainees at UNAM told Science that they witnessed or experienced misconduct or harassment by Romo Trujillo, including inappropriate and sexually suggestive comments, grabbing women without their consent while he was drunk at the institute, and making unwanted physical advances. The alleged victims and witnesses say they did not file formal complaints because they feared reprisal or thought that his status would protect him from disciplinary action. They asked to remain unnamed.
One woman was a graduate student at IFC in 2006 when, she says, Romo Trujillo harassed her at a graduation party in the institute’s cafeteria. According to her, he was drunk when he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from the party to take her to his lab to show her the monkeys he works with. “I got really scared,” she says. “It was obvious that I did not want to go with him.” Many at the party saw the incident, but only one person, a fellow student, helped her get away from Romo Trujillo, she says.
Five former IFC students and staff say Romo fostered an atmosphere of machismo in his lab, where drinking and smoking were common and tolerated by officials, although both are officially prohibited on university facilities. Students and staff say Romo Trujillo’s lab now has no female students or technicians. More than 20 members of the IFC community told Science Romo Trujillo’s behavior was well-known, including to those in authority at the institute. “Everybody knows,” one says.
Some students say they tried to warn new female students about Romo Trujillo. Others took preventive actions. “When I arrived at the lab, especially on the weekends, and I saw he was there, I used to lock myself up in the lab if I was alone,” says one woman, who has been a student there since 2014.
One woman who claims to have been sexually harassed by Romo Trujillo says she did report incidents to Hiriart Urdanivia. But she did not feel she got enough guidance to file a complaint. “It’s very difficult for a student without experience or knowledge to file an official complaint as an individual person,” she said.
Hiriart Urdanivia rejects this account and insists she did support students. “If any of the women who spoke to me about Dr. Romo’s inappropriate behaviors had wanted to file a formal complaint, they would have had my full support as director,” she wrote in an email to Science. “I did what I could to make people feel safe.”
As rumors of the most recent incident and sanction spread in early February, more than 40 members of IFC, including students and staff, signed a letter urging director Félix Recillas-Targa to clarify the gravity of the incident and Romo Trujillo’s sanction, saying this would help protect students and staff going forward. Recillas-Targa did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The January complaint about Romo Trujillo sparked outrage on social media. On 22 February, Mexico’s elite National College—an honorary academy of scholars—announced in now-deleted social media posts that Romo Trujillo would speak at their Mexico City headquarters on 3 March. Comments poured into Facebook and Twitter criticizing the National College for allowing Romo Trujillo to give a talk after the allegations. On 27 February, an anonymous Facebook post claimed that Romo Trujillo’s sanction was an 8-day suspension, which the poster argued was far too lenient. The post, which claimed to be from an IFC student, went viral. The National College abruptly closed on the day of Romo Trujillo’s scheduled talk because of “urgent maintenance work,” according to a spokesperson.
Romo Trujillo’s departure comes at a time when universities throughout Latin America are only beginning to fight sexual harassment in science. UNAM implemented a gender violence protocol in 2016, and according to officials, 1195 formal complaints have been filed since then. But advocates for women say its responses have often been weak. Starting in September 2019, protests demanding more action from authorities have shut down more than 20 UNAM schools.
On 12 February, UNAM said in a press release that it would change its general statute to view sexual harassment as a serious offense. That action formally recognizes that “violence against women is not allowed nor will it be tolerated,” says a UNAM spokesperson. On 6 March, the National Council of Science and Technology, Mexico’s main granting agency, similar to the United States’s National Science Foundation, announced it would investigate unspecified allegations against Romo Trujillo and another UNAM scholar.
On 9 March, the National College announced that Romo Trujillo had asked to suspend his membership while he deals with the allegations.
Some scholars lament Romo Trujillo’s departure. One day after UNAM’s announcement about him, at least 12 researchers at IFC emailed each other with the subject line “Grief,” according to messages obtained by Science. Neuroscientist and IFC researcher Miguel Pérez de la Mora wrote that it was a shame that “because of an unfortunate mischief of life,” IFC would lose “an admired colleague, a man of integrity.” In a later email to Science, he wrote: “As a scientist [Romo Trujillo] only publishes what he finds and for this reason I consider him a man of integrity. … Life puts temptations or traps on everyone, that, if not sufficiently weighed, can lead to regret.”
Tamara Luti Rosenbaum Emir, a biophysicist and researcher at IFC, joined others in mourning and sent her deep support and gratitude to Romo Trujillo, whom she described as an “irreplaceable example of work, strength, and quality.”
But some current students think the discipline and departure of such a prominent researcher will serve as a turning point. “We are tired of this patriarchal system in which the success of a man matters more than the dignity of a woman,” says a current Ph.D. student. She hopes that in the near future, UNAM will “truly have zero tolerance for sexual harassment.”