I'm doing my Masters right now and I am a new lab member (I've been there for just 4 months). A undergrad student didn't like it when I told her to follow biosafety rules when handling dangerous chemical reagents. So by e-mail she said she would tell our advisor lies about me and that he will believe in her because she's there for 2 years and he likes her, and I am a newbie.

I took that issue to the advisor, who read the e-mail that she sent and he was 100% supportive of me. However, they used to go the same church and he either pities her or really likes her, I don't know. Then he asked me to forgive her. But I can't, I can't even look her in the face anymore. I think she's evil and mean: she even told me I'm making my own grave and would spread lies about me to him. Now he knows the truth about her, but I think their personal relationship is blinding him. He should fire her! But he wants her there, so...

I don't want to change labs because I really like my PI. How should I deal with this situation?

She and I will have a one-to-one meeting next week, and my advisor told me she will apologize to me in that meeting, but I'm still worried she can sabotage my experiments in the future. We are not in the USA.

UPDATE: I had another conversation with my PI today, and he's dealing with this situation as "teenage fighting" - his words, not mine. He's being complacent about all of this and laughs about my worries and insecurities. He does not think that abusive and threating language from a student to another to be a big deal.

Religion plays a big role here I guess. He does not want to fire her in ANY hypothesis. Same religion; knows her parents and so on...

I really really like him, but I don't know if I do anymore. I think he's not providing a safe mental health environment for me...

He was too perfect to be true...


She lied, lied and lied again and it blew up on her face! Now, ALL* lab members wanted her to go. The PI cut her funding, and she finally left our lab! Now we can live at peace, right? Not so fast...

*She has a friend (just one - and also an undergrad like her) that is still here. And he's full of revenge! Another sociopathic liar. Sabotage is being a big issue here. All mice from a PhD student were found dead inside their cages. We cannot prove anything, but they had a fight two days earlier... Also, controlled drugs are now missing, and my PI is being once again complacent about it. I can denounce him to our correspondent DEA, but it could backfire somehow, I don't know. He still likes me, but I don't think I like him anymore. Actually, nobody in our lab trust him anymore.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 12:48

7 Answers 7


She has been mean to you, not the PI. He clearly signals that he likes you and your work. You say that he also realises she has an immature attitude. I think that you are in a good position here, unless you mess it up.

The superviser clearly sees the situation and - in veiled form - tells you to be the mature part of the interaction. When he tells you to forgive her, that's very clearly what he means. In short, at this stage, you have to show maturity. Clearly, you need to work on that (I quote your response: "Hahaha...." - SE is not the place for such formulations).

You should not worry too much to prove that she lies about you, as the superviser made very clear that he will not pay heed to her stories about you (why otherwise would he have emphasised that you are one of the brightest students he had?). He has sent you a clear message of confidence.

Whether he likes her or not, you do not know, but it seems very clear, even through your report, that he takes pity on her. He will not fire her; it is not your job to make him do so. He also will not remove you, unless you decide to go. He seems a very reasonable person.

As for her using threatening language, you have a number of options: when she does that, you ignore it. Or else, you find a reason for yourself to go away, without responding, to some made-up excuse (for yourself), such as the bathroom. Or else, you respond: "This is not the place for threatening language. Please refrain from such language, it is inappropriate to talk like that to your colleagues." - or something along those lines. In a cool, calm, and collected manner. If she indeed has the maturity of a 12-year old, she may not absorb the words, but she will absorb the tone.

She presses the buttons where she sees an effect in. If you signal to her that you have no business with her, and that you are unaffected by her threats, you will become an uninteresting target.

Forget about winning/losing. You just do not have to play her game, you decide which games you play, and which ones you don't.

Bottom line: stay away from her; relax, the PI trusts you; and follow your maturity level and do not let yourself be dragged down to hers. She is not the one to set the agenda, your PI is, and he unambiguously signalled his trust in you. When he sets the meeting, if she apologises, graciously accept the apology (even if you do not believe in it, take it at face value), but still stay away. Her safety procedures are not your business anymore - you have made your case.

  • 10
    I like your answer, but for the kind of threats OP received, you cannot stay silent: yes, stay composed (and certainly no giggling), but this is serious bs. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 3:31
  • 1
    @gnometorule This, indeed, is the call of the OP. Of course, one can take the threats at face value and fully escalate, in which Tom Au's alternative advice applies. However, first of all, the PI does seem to have a good overview over the situation; on escalation, he will cease to be a likely ally. If it is really immaturity, maximum disconnect may be just the action of choice. The key is not to play the game of the OP's enemy. Of course, caution still applies and the OP will have to use his more detailed knowledge about the details of the case to make up their mind. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 8:11
  • 18
    I would also add that any threats she makes should be documented. If she sends an email, forward it to the PI. If she writes it down, give the PI a photocopy. If it's solely verbal, at least tell the PI as soon as possible. It makes it much easier to prove that she did something if there is evidence that she threatened to do so a week beforehand. As soon as there's evidence she carries out her threats, however minor they were, any further threats will be taken much more seriously. With things that can impact your career - like sabotaging experiments - that's very important. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 9:55
  • 7
    I'm a little concerned by your last sentence. If the safety violations are egregious and the OP works in the same lab, this could represent a real danger. That said, the violations being egregious is a major assumption that isn't clear from the OP's question.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 17:54
  • 5
    Collecting the evidence of those threats is good advice. Forwarding each item to the PI seems excessive, though.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 9:37

Document as much as you can. If possible, you may want to have a neutral but trusted third person in attendance at your meeting with her.

  • 9
    Undervalued answer. It's the golden rule of mobbing — document, document, document. Keep the documentation in a safe location (not your laptop at work!), esp. the eMail you mentioned. No matter how the situation develops, if you have to go higher up, the documentation does make a difference. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 9:54

Assuming US here. If she continues to fail to follow basic lab safety procedures, you may have to report her to the equivalent of your university's Environment Health and Safety department which oversees lab safety at many universities or OSHA. They may even have an anonymous tip line. This woman can probably guess that it was you if you try to make an anonymous report given your history, and you may even be fired by your boss if he really likes her more, wants to be vindictive, and you live in an "at will" employment state and lack an employment contract or union collective bargaining agreement if you are unionized.

I think that these things are unlikely, but your personal and labmates' health and safety should probably come before your job and their reaction to it. Depending on your university regulations and state labor laws, you may not be able to be fired for reporting a violation of safety regulations, but if you are in an at-will state, you can be fired for wearing the wrong color shoes or cutting your hair too short, so a smart employer will avoid saying anything that could be conceived of as dismissing you for reporting a safety violation. Keep notes after meetings of what was discussed and email them back to your PI as a record to confirm that you both agree on what was said and what you agreed to do.

  • 14
    @ÉmileLebacq, unless you are in a very poor country with little infrastructure, there is still likely to be a government agency that deals with lab or work safety. I'd urge you to look into that. While you might be secure in your program, if you lose your lab job, can you still afford to eat and sleep? If not, I'd still be careful. You country might not have very employee friendly labor laws. Be careful!
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 19:46
  • 1
    Unionized grad students? Is that a thing? Also, there are federal laws against firing someone for reporting safety violations in the U.S. Whether a state is at-will or not is irrelevant. I'd assume nearly every state, if not every state, also has state laws against that, but the federal laws apply regardless of state/territory.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 7:12
  • @reirab, Here's some info on unionization of student employees in the US. And, yes, I think you're right about federal laws trumping at-willness, though, I don't know what happens if you report it to a state agency only in each state. If you go to OSHA, I think you're likely to be covered completely, but I'd want my lawyer or OSHA to tell me that first, not some random dude on the internet. Still, a vindictive prof could just wait a year and fire you based on your smell and not mention your report. Hard to prove.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 13:34

See a lawyer. Find out what your rights and responsibilities are in this matter. A good lawyer will tell you what to say and do, what not to say and do, and what actions could provoke the other parties to furnish you with more evidence. A lawyer will also tell you what to record, and how to record it. (I am not a lawyer and I am an American so this post may be more suitable for similarly situated Americans than for you.)

There are some very serious issues here, most of which work in your favor.Bottom line, they can fire you from the lab, but only at the risk of liabilities that most rational people would not choose to incur.

  1. Slander. If the undergraduate slanders you, and you lose your job, you can sue the party for lost wages, as well as punitive damages. This may be true even if the slander was not what cost you your job, only that it "possibly" did.

  2. Safety. A safety violation is a serious matter. If you can document this woman's violation of safety, you have a very strong case. That fact that she threatened you about this compounds the offense, making it a multiple of a simple" safety violation. That's because it is "willful," not an oversight.

  3. Employment. Termination "without cause" is acceptable in many parts of the United States, and the rest of the world. But "wrongful termination" is not. If you are terminated, there will be a strong presumption that it was "wrongful."

One more thing, the higher this goes, the better for you. A lab instructor may fire you (and try to cover up his misdeeds). A department would not take these issues so lightly, and the university less so. And if you need to get this out of the university and to your country's health and safety or labor department, so much the better for you.

So "lawyer up" and prepare for a fight that you should be able to win. An American army captain once told his troops, "Don't fire the first shot. But if they want a war, let it begin right here." He was talking about the American Revolution, which his side won.

Maybe this thing will "go away." Maybe it won't. But in the latter case, you should position yourself to get the maximum compensation possible if they hurt you first.

I refer you to Captain Emacs' excellent post that gives you rather opposite advice, so that you have a "pro" and "con" to choose from, based on your situation, which you know better than either of us.

  • 8
    This advice applies to US only. Other countries' compensation rules are much less generous and when the career is ruined, it is ruined. You are talking about "war", but the PI seems to be a pretty reasonable person and knowing what is going on, so going for maximum confrontation does not seem wise here. The key is the PI, not her. Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 22:02
  • 2
    @CaptainEmacs: If things are that bad in the OP's country, the lawyer will be the first to say so. So there's no downside to seeing the lawyer. The OP says that the PI can fire him from the lab (and force him to find another one) but not the "program." That puts a floor under the downside. I am writing as someone who was "bitten" by a boss who seemed reasonable but was chasing the woman..
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 22:07
  • The question is whether the OP wants to leave the lab because of some undergraduate ("I really like my PI"). There is nothing in the post indicating the PI wants to fire the OP (except for the OP's fear). Fear is a bad advisor. The example with China or especially Poland is often brought up, but they are on the extreme side of the spectrum. Berlin 1948 and Cuba 1961 come to mind about not going to a - possibly devastating - war by a judicious choice of counterstrategies. Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 22:12
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs: You were gracious enough to acknowledge my points, so note that I acknowledged yours in a new last sentence.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 22:27
  • 4
    @CaptainEmacs: Someone who knows someone else is violating safety rules and threatening people who dare to mention it, yet doesn't want to fire them is either NOT a "pretty reasonable person" or is the recipient of such threats himself.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 17:03

Note: You will deal with a LOT more evil and mean people in your life. So, that will not impact my comments.

Second Chance:
Talk to the PI, about giving the student a second chance, and get confirmation from the PI that if they do it again - and jeopardize anyone's safety, including their own - throw them out. Ask the PI what to do if you are concerned with safety.

Likely, give them a chance. Give the student another warning "the last warning".

If you want to pursue it before the second chance:
You will likely anger the PI. But. What is #1? Safety.
When asking someone to "follow biosafety rules when handling dangerous chemical reagents", it is a matter of safety. Having someone jeopardize their own safety or the safety of others is not acceptable.

If this were something like asking a student to "shutdown windows before turning off the lab PC", and they don't, then ignore it, and get on with life.

"follow biosafety rules when handling dangerous chemical reagents" is likely an OSHA policy (if you are in the US), university policy, law, and is not something that can be disregarded.

Go to the Dean and/or safety person. There is likely some safety officer (not like police, but like chemical/biological safety).

Confrontation with the student:
Any confrontation with the student must be done in public with neutral witnesses, and preferably video and audit if permissible. The email is a threat to slander you. That is likely against school conduct policy.

Decision time:
Now, it is up to you whether there really is enough to pursue, or if there is a small enough time that you can just let it go, and get on with your life.

If you don't let it go, then it is possible that even by winning, you will lose. You may have to deal with this for more semesters, and face other retaliation by the student or the PI.

  • Also, installing multiple high resolution web cameras in the lab would be a good option.
    – Nikey Mike
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 20:07
  • 20
    @Mikey It probably goes without saying, but installing cameras without getting the supervisors' permission and telling everyone in the lab they're being recorded would be very unwise (and possibly illegal, depending on the location).
    – ff524
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 20:12
  • @ ff524 Indeed.
    – Nikey Mike
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 20:14
  • 2
    One university I was at had HD surveillance cameras in the labs where safety was paramount. If you want cameras, it is best to work with the campus police/public safety, Environmental Safety, and/or other groups like that. Surreptitious video recording may be illegal or grounds for expulsion.
    – MikeP
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 0:36
  • 1
    @MikeyMike In some EU countries what you suggested (if done without consent from everyone recorded) has a minimum of 5 years in jail up to a max of 10 years.
    – user
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 7:20

I think the best approach is to follow Captain Emacs's advice but also make clear to the advisor that you will not compromise on safety of the people in the lab and will be morally obligated to report the safety violation should it be continued (as per Bill Barth's answer). At the same time make it clear that you do not wish to get the other student into unnecessary trouble so you just want safety protocols to be followed from now on.

In short, aim to fix and forgive.


Unfortunately the World is full of stupid, ignorant, selfish, hateful, jealous, etc. etc. etc. people and you have to find a way to deal with that. There is no way you can get rid of all the nasty people so that you can live and work in peace with only perfect people. What works better is to outsmart these usually quite stupid people. If she wants to tell lies about you, then you can tell a lot of lies about yourself to her that can easily be verified to not be correct. E.g. you can tell that you failed most of your exams. That's not true, your supervisor can easily verify that it is not true, but she can't. So, she'll fall in a trap set by you the moment she discloses such things to your supervisor.

  • 5
    What kind of "trap" is this? Say you "trapped" her into telling things she believes to be true (not lies) to your supervisor, this accomplishes what, exactly?
    – ff524
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 7:21
  • 4
    Well, you just shoot yourself in the foot by this. Telling lies is never a good idea, even worse if it is making you look bad. That can backfire so heavily. Have you ever tried this yourself, with good effect? If not, I can only recommend to not follow your own advice and do not try this at home unless you know precisely what you are doing (which I doubt if you didn't experience it yourself). Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 7:54
  • 1
    @ff524 it discredits the person who is gossiping about such things if the supervisor knows the truth. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 21:50
  • 3
    @CountIblis I am not talking about "courtly lies" or political lies. It's fun to watch strategy games using deception as is an intrigue by Shakespeare or Game of Thrones. But here, we have real life: I am talking about escalation of toxicity. Perhaps you are able to handle lies skilfully, without them damaging you (and possibly everyone around you). However, I have seen whole institutions (I am not exaggerating!) brought down by a mutually escalating buildup of machinations. I believe one should not be a tool of such a process. Lying is an important tool as is deceiving as is backstabbing. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 23:44
  • 3
    ... and it is just as toxic. If you do not mind being part to a toxic buildup (and it's not an excuse that the other member of the group is - if you are helping to escalate, you play their game), you are no less responsible, probably more, because you consciously chose this route. It has nothing to do with political correctness, and everything with being a professional. And even if you dismiss these statements as too goody-goody - there is one more pragmatic aspect: the OP seems inexperienced and you suggest to use a highly volatile double-edged weapon. Dangerous advice, handle with care. Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 0:00

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