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Tania Singer is a 48-year-old neuroscientist who has spent her career looking at the physical, social, even economic benefits of making people more empathetic. Through compassion training, she hopes to “support the development of a more caring and sustainable society,” Singer wrote in her 2013 book.

But this month, Science Magazine published an article that detailed a hostile work environment in Singer’s lab in Leipzig, Germany. Eight current and former colleagues accused Singer of bullying and intimidation. They said Singer’s bad behavior dates back several years.

“Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears,” one colleague told Science Magazine. That person, like all but one, spoke to the magazine under the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.

Colleagues said Singer was a creative researcher, gifted at finding funding and making the contacts necessary to greenlight projects, they told the magazine. But working with her day in and day out took a toll, they said, alleging threats and emotional abuse. She would insult their work and their abilities, they said.

The complaints painted a picture of a work environment so dire that the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and Singer agreed that she would take a year-long sabbatical to “cool down” the situation.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Singer confirmed “stress and strain” between her and colleagues but denied the worst accusations. Through it all, she said, her research has been above reproach.

In a statement, the Max Planck Institute said it learned of complaints against Singer in early 2017 and subsequently had “a great number of discussions with employees.”

Alleged reproach toward pregnant women

Some said Singer’s harshest words were directed at women who became pregnant — and notified her that they would have to take time off to care for their newborns.

“People were terrified. They were really, really afraid of telling her about their pregnancies,” one former colleague told Science Magazine. “For her, having a baby was basically you being irresponsible and letting down the team.”

Bethany Kok, a former lab member, said Singer had an angry outburst a day after Kok informed her that she was pregnant with twins.

“She started screaming at me how she wasn’t running a charity, how I was a slacker and that I was going to work twice as hard for the time I would be gone,” Kok told Science Magazine.

A few weeks later, Kok said, she miscarried one of the twins and missed a lab meeting for an urgent medical appointment. “I got an email from Tania telling me that she wasn’t paying me to go to the doctor, that clearly I wasn’t using good judgment, and I was no longer allowed to go to the doctor during work hours.”

Kok told the magazine that she no longer has the email.

Singer declined a phone interview, saying she was traveling, but in a lengthy statement to The Washington Post, she said the accusations were the result of “a subgroup of former scientists . . . with strong group dynamics aiming at damaging my reputation.”

She insisted that the group she was responsible for had never violated scientific rules or discriminated against anyone, especially pregnant women. Her group was working on a “unique large-scale longitudinal training study,” she said, and the “workload and pressure increasing lead to stress and strain that in turn sometimes caused inadequate communication with my staff in problem situations.”

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