Dr. David Sabatini, a world-renowned scientist who has been included on the short list for the Nobel Prize thanks to his cancer research, was at the pinnacle of his profession in 2020.
Sabatini’s groundbreaking work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (WIBR) led some to believe he might one day discover a cure for cancer and brought millions of dollars in funding to the Institute. He was the toast of his field, with a rarefied perch at one of the world’s most respected laboratories and research centers.
It all came crashing down when a former girlfriend accused him of sexual harassment and “grooming” after he broke off their relationship. An MIT investigation, which Sabatini says was influenced by the accuser’s attorney, forced him to resign. Throughout the ordeal, Sabatini’s attempts to find work and continue his valuable research have been met with protests and rejection. When students at NYU-Langone learned Sabatini might be hired, for example, a protest was formed, with lab students and instructors walking out claiming that NYU was going to hire a sexual abuser.
“This is, beyond comparison, the worst time in my life,” Sabatini, who received his undergraduate degree from Brown University and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told The Daily Wire. “I was destroyed, and I still am. I still have nightmares every night that are related to this.”
The explosive allegations from Dr. Kristin Knouse, whom Sabatini began having a sexual relationship in 2018, came at the peak of the MeToo movement, when men in Hollywood, politics, and other fields were being “canceled” – sometimes wrongly – for everything from making sexist comments to rape. For it to play out in the staid environment of high-level medical research was somewhat novel.
Evidence suggests that Sabatini never sexually harassed Knouse, and may have been the victim in the relationship. According to Sabatini, the pair originally met in 2012 at MIT and Knouse later asked Sabatini to serve on her thesis committee. In 2018, Knouse, a Duke and Harvard-MIT educated biologist, joined the Whitehead Institute Fellows program, working in her own lab space and would win a National Institutes Of Health (NIH) grant of $250,000 per year. The two started their relationship the same year.
The Ground Rules
According to Sabatini’s defamation lawsuit against Knouse and Dr. Ruth Lehmann, director of the WIBR, Knouse set the “ground rules” early on. Knouse, according to Sabatini, “made it clear that she did not want the relationship to be exclusive, that she had other sexual partners and expected Dr. Sabatini to accept that, and that the relationship needed to be kept confidential.” Sabatini, who was going through a divorce, agreed that the relationship would be casual.
A year later, the relationship had cooled, with Knouse telling Sabatini she was seeing other men throughout the relationship, according to Sabatini.
But when Knouse changed her mind and asked to be Sabatini’s “life partner,” Sabatini claims he declined, saying he was pursuing another relationship and that Knouse spent the rest of the year and early 2020 trying, to no avail, to rekindle the relationship.
Please Stop Texting Me
“I’m left wondering whether you would put in the same amount [of effort] for me and not certain there would be a point when you care enough about a relationship to fight for it and give it the amount of effort I would want and deserve to be happy,” Knouse texted Sabatini in January of 2020, according to a court filing.
Sabatini says he responded by saying that he did not have the “energy or bandwidth to get into this now.”
According to Sabatini’s defamation suit, when the texts from Knouse continued and became more desperate, he did not respond. In one particular text included in Sabatini’s suit, Knouse said his refusal to answer was “evidence to this growing feeling that you don’t care about me the way that I care about you.”
Sabatini says he repeatedly told Knouse the relationship was over and to “please stop” texting him. But even as he thought he had ended the relationship for good, he would later allegedly learn that his former paramour had recast their time together in a sinister light.
In 2020, Knouse allegedly told someone working in Sabatini’s lab she no longer viewed her relationship with Sabatini as consensual and that Sabatini had sexually harassed her and made unwelcome advances.
A WIBR faculty member allegedly told Sabatini that Knouse had said she was jealous of the other woman and wanted to get Sabatini fired by accusing him of “sexually inappropriate behavior,” according to Sabatini’s lawsuit.
Knouse found a willing, if unwitting, partner in WIBR’s director Lehmann, according to the suit. In October 2020, Knouse told Lehman she had been sexually harassed, according to Sabatini’s suit. Lehmann had previously vowed to clean up the “boys’ club” at the WIBR, Sabatini claims, and had “expressed animosity” toward him.
After Knouse’s complaint—the first such grievance against Sabatini in his 24 years at the lab—Lehmann conducted a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) survey of all WIBR employees, according to the suit. The anonymous survey turned up a few complaints about Sabatini’s behavior or the culture of his lab, which Sabatini’s suit dismissed as “generalized” and “based on hearsay and many conclusory or generalized comments.”
Filing a Complaint
Knouse began lawyering up with a high-powered labor attorney around the time the survey was being conducted.
In January 2021, she and two “friends” who had worked in Sabatini’s lab allegedly complained to WIBR management about him, Sabatini says. Knouse spoke with Lehmann on multiple occasions between October 2020 and March 2021 about her allegations, the suit claims.
Emails reviewed by The Daily Wire show Knouse and Lehmann discussed “what will come to light” and how to make sure they didn’t send Sabatini “advance alarm.”
In March 2021, the WIBR began an investigation into the “culture” of Sabatini’s lab, which employed nearly 40 at the time, including doctoral candidates, researchers, post-doctoral fellows, and others. Sabatini contends in his lawsuit that Knouse and her attorney, Ellen Zucker, pressured Lehmann and WIBR to find him responsible for misconduct.
Zucker said she and her client would not comment for the story, and Lehmann also declined due to ongoing litigation, according to a spokesperson for WIBR.
Sabatini says he was told by two members of WIBR’s board of directors that the investigation was prompted by concerns raised in the DEI survey regarding “offensive language” that made lab staffers “feel unwelcomed and excluded.” The employees had said in the survey they feared retaliation if they complained to Sabatini. No mention was made of Knouse’s complaints, Sabatini says in his lawsuit.
After the meeting, Sabatini emailed the board members.
“I did not see this coming as I have always had a zero tolerance policy on such issues and I have many people who can attest to that, including past and current lab members,” he wrote. He speculated that someone from a different lab “may have overheard something, misconstrued it and wrote something on the survey.”
On the same day, Lehmann advised Sabatini in writing of the investigation, promising the process would “be fair to the people in the lab and to you,” he says. It was to be conducted by the law firm of Hinckley Allen.
When the investigation began three days later, it became clear this was about more than just general complaints. Still, Sabatini claims he was rebuffed when he asked about specific complaints being probed.
Sabatini’s legal team claims Hinckley Allen investigators were abusive in their questioning of lab members, citing at least two women who wrote letters to Lehmann saying they were pressured to say negative things about Sabatini.
The women said the investigators appeared unsatisfied when they did not provide answers that fit the narrative of Sabatini as a harasser. Documents show Lehmann acknowledged the letters but did nothing about them, the lawsuit says. Other witnesses allegedly told Sabatini and his attorneys that they believed they were re-interviewed multiple times when their statements didn’t support the allegations against Sabatini.
The investigation dragged on until August 13, 2021, when a final report was issued. WIBR policy at the time stated that Sabatini should have had the opportunity to review and respond to the report, but instead, he says he was given a redacted copy and told to immediately resign or be fired.
The report ultimately found that Sabatini’s relationship with Knouse violated WIBR’s sexual harassment policy, even though it did not address whether the relationship was consensual.
Sabatini’s lawyers argue that acknowledging the relationship was consensual would have exposed problems with Knouse’s credibility and undermined her claims of harassment.
Investigators minimized sexual banter that Knouse initiated with Sabatini, claiming she did so to please him and mimic his behavior, Sabatini’s lawyers claim. But texts and witnesses, including some who spoke to The Daily Wire, said Knouse regularly used crass language in the lab.
“We have plenty of text messages between her and others where it is sort of hypersexual as writing gets, and so this is another example of where she duped the investigators,” Sabatini told The Daily Wire.
In one text included in Sabatini’s lawsuit, Knouse suggested “testicle toss or cornhole” as games to be played at the WIBR. In another, she told a visiting post-doctorate that she needed “more d*** in my life” and sent him photos of wallpaper with images of penises, according to Sabatini’s lawsuit.
In Defense of Sabatini
One former member of Sabatini’s lab, who spoke to The Daily Wire on the condition of anonymity, also rejected the report’s findings of a hostile environment, saying the lab was ultimately a professional environment.
“It was just a place where you did science professionally and could speak informally,” the former member said. “I realize that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but to characterize that as a hostile environment is misleading and entirely inconsistent with a lot of our experiences.”
The investigators also concluded there was a “culture of fear and retaliation” in Sabatini’s lab, though it found no “evidence that Sabatini actually retaliated against or punished any person for speaking out against him or raising concerns outside of the lab.”
“[W]hen asked if Sabatini took advantage of that power, all the trainees (current and former lab members) said no,” investigators conceded in the report. “In their respective interviews, several of the lab members rebutted the notion that Sabatini would ‘blackball’ anyone in his lab and, instead, emphasized Sabatini’s long track record of placing his trainees in prestigious academic programs when they leave his lab.”
Women in Science
In yet another finding contradicted by the report’s own follow-up determinations, the investigators concluded that Sabatini’s preference for “outspoken scientists” and his focus on science “disproportionately disadvantaged female lab members,” apparently relying on the stereotype that women are less extroverted than men. At the same time, “uniform and unanimous” evidence showed “Sabatini focuses on people’s science, not their gender,” it said.
The report acknowledged that the lack of women in labs is “not unique to the Sabatini lab.”
Women who previously worked in Sabatini’s lab and spoke to The Daily Wire on the condition of anonymity confirmed that women were not treated any differently in the lab than men.
One female trainee who worked there for more than five years was adamant that Sabatini behaved properly.
“He was my mentor, and we had a very solid mentor-mentee relationship that focused on science, my career development, and nothing else,” she said. “I never felt uncomfortable in the lab. Sexism is a problem in academia, and one that I’ve experienced subsequently in my career. I realized how lucky I was to have not experienced it while in David’s lab.”
Another female scientist said she enjoyed working in Sabatini’s lab so much that she asked to extend her employment there.
“I was so comfortable that I did not mind staying longer if David had allowed it,” she told The Daily Wire.
Several months after he was “forced” to resign from the WIBR and fired from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which provided his funding at the WIBR, Sabatini filed a defamation lawsuit against Knouse, Lehmann, and the WIBR, along with other civil claims.
In response, Knouse filed a counterclaim of sexual harassment and retaliation. Her suit claims, among other things, that she “decided that she had to joined [sic] others to speak candidly when asked to participate in Whitehead’s investigation,” yet emails from months before the investigation indicate that Knouse had played a key role in launching the investigation.
“The vast majority of the documents and communications [in the investigation] come from her or from one of her students,” Sabatini told The Daily Wire. “And we now have text messages where she’s texting people before the DEI survey saying that she’s going to ‘Weinstein’ me,” he added, referencing the numerous allegations of sexual assault against former media mogul Harvey Weinstein.
In her countersuit, Knouse also claimed that Sabatini invited “her to social events at his lab where alcohol flowed freely.” It was an apparent reference to whiskey tastings Sabatini held for members and friends of the lab. Knouse claimed the events made her uncomfortable, but she felt she could not decline to attend them.
Yet she publicly posted about her love for whiskey and hosted similar events at her own lab and emailed Sabatini and others in response invitations, sources say, stating that she took part in similar events and providing suggestions for good locations and brands for the gatherings.
Knouse’s countersuit portrays herself as both a naïve young scientist and a savvy woman able to secure her own lab with millions of dollars in funding. She claims that Sabatini “groomed” her while she was a graduate student, and she repeatedly uses the term to describe relationships and conversations between adults.
In one example, Knouse describes an incident where she claimed Sabatini was “grooming” an undergraduate working in his lab, first describing how other members of the lab allegedly told her Sabatini preferred attractive women. But the investigation later determined that Sabatini had not harassed the woman.
Applying to NYU
Earlier this year, as the lawsuit continued to work its way through the courts, Sabatini was considered for a position at New York University (NYU)-Langone. Several Sabatini lab alumni told The Daily Wire that NYU sought reference letters from former members of the lab, who produced a document describing their time working under Sabatini. The letter, written by six former lab workers (three men and three women) and signed by 45 current and former lab members, backed Sabatini.
“Both alumni of the lab and current members were dismayed by the accusations, rumors, speculation and assumptions about David and the Sabatini Lab,” read the letter, which was obtained by The Daily Wire. They wrote that they “wish to make clear that our collective experiences with David and his lab do not align with how he has been depicted in this matter.”
“With this letter we wish to affirm that we never experienced or observed an abusive lab culture or a sexualized lab environment, and we did not witness sexual harassment,” the letter stated.
In a twist, the employees who signed the letter, including 15 women, sought anonymity because they feared retaliation for defending Sabatini.
NYU-Langone publicly stood by its decision to consider Sabatini for employment after the potential hiring was leaked to Science.org, noting on Twitter that it would review “all of the evidence, including information that has not previously been presented publicly and has not been reported in the coverage.” The school maintained this position, even as students and faculty protested the potential hiring, aided by supportive media outlets.
In an 85-minute Zoom meeting in late April, Vice Dean for Science Dafna Bar-Sagi defended the school’s thorough examination of the evidence.
“I hope that our faculty, males and female, are going to be proud that we are taking a position that may not be very popular now based on media. But we are taking the higher moral ground,” Bar-Sagi said, according to Science.org. The school took issue with the flawed investigation that led to his leaving the WIBR.
Acquiescing to The Mob
When some students and faculty demanded NYU reject Sabatini, with some on Twitter going as far as to brand him a “rapist” and an “abuser,” his supporters from MIT posted their letter defending him on Twitter. The post was removed by Twitter less than an hour after it was published, sources say.
In a statement released May 2, Sabatini announced he was withdrawing his name from consideration due to the “false, distorted, and preposterous allegations” swirling around the media.
“I understand the enormous pressure this has placed on NYU Langone Health and do not want to distract from its important mission,” Sabatini said in his statement. “I have therefore decided to withdraw my name from consideration for a faculty position.”
NYU released their own statement.
“After careful and thorough consideration that included the perspectives of many stakeholders, both Dr. David Sabatini and NYU Grossman School of Medicine have reached the conclusion that it will not be possible for him to become a member of our faculty,” the school said in a statement.
His Life’s Work
David Sabatini’s inability to continue his research could set back cancer treatments for years.
“David has been one of the leading biomedical research scientists in the United States. His research on the structure, activation, and signaling properties of the mTOR signaling complexes and its regulation by amino acids has been widely recognized by his election to the National Academy of Sciences and the receipt of many international prizes. His research has led to therapies for cancers and several other diseases,” Harvey Lodish, a top biologist at MIT and a founding member of the WIBR, told The Daily Wire in an email.
One of Sabatini’s former employees, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that what happened to Sabatini was “tragic.”
“It’s tragic to many of us from David’s lab to see him drummed out of science like this,” the source told The Daily Wire. “His work touches countless lives – from patients all the way to the scientists that he trained and inspires. And yet here we are, deciding by tweets and protests whether he gets to continue his life’s work or not without any fairness or due process. It is deeply troubling.”