Prominent Antarctic Geologist Accused of Sexually Harassing Colleagues: 'Today I'm Going to Make You Cry'

Image via AP.
Image via AP.

As the work week winds to a close, I think we can confidently conclude that the last few days have been a special blend of bullshit. Where can a person even go anymore to seek respite from untimely death, retrograde policy, mass shootings and of course, long-time systemic fuckery by men in power? Not Antarctica!


According to an excruciating piece by Meredith Wadman in Science, Boston University is currently investigating noted Antarctic geologist David Marchant for allegedly sexually harassing at least two former graduate students over the course of several research expeditions in the span of 20 years. The details are appalling:

The first complainant, Jane Willenbring, now an associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, alleges that Marchant repeatedly shoved her down a steep slope, pelted her with rocks while she was urinating in the field, called her a “slut” and a “whore,” and urged her to have sex with his brother, who was also on the trip.

The second complainant, Deborah Doe (a pseudonym), who was in Antarctica for two austral summers during this era, reports that Marchant called her a “c—t” and a “bitch” repeatedly. She alleges that he promised to block her access to research funding should she earn a Ph.D. She abandoned her career dreams and left academe.


Not the sort of thing we’re used to reading about in noted academic journals, but a necessary reminder that this type of behavior persists wherever there are men with authority, even at the bottom of the god damn world.

The story is careful to give plenty of space to Marchant’s many colleagues and mentees who insist upon his flawless character, and Marchant himself has denied wrongdoing in documents related to the investigation.

But in the unforgiving isolation of the field, Willenbring said she experienced a very different reality than the one painted by Marchant’s acolytes. Her first Antarctic expedition on his team took place in December of 1999, when she was a 22-year-old master’s student. Alone with Marchant, his brother Jeffrey (who was working as an assistant), and another graduate student, Adam Lewis, Willenbring recalls the blood-chilling ordeal that became her daily life while trapped with him:

Willenbring alleges that Marchant, her thesis adviser, then 37, greeted her daily with the words: “Today I’m going to make you cry.” He slept in his own tent and Lewis in the cook tent, leaving Willenbring to share a tent with Jeffrey Marchant, she writes. According to Willenbring, Marchant told her repeatedly that his brother had a “porn-sized” penis, and said she should have sex with him and feel lucky for the opportunity.

One week, Willenbring alleges, David Marchant “decided that he would throw rocks at me every time I urinated in the field.” She cut her water consumption so she could last the 12-hour days far from camp without urinating, then drank liters at night. She says she developed a urinary tract infection and urinary incontinence, which has since recurred. When blood appeared in her urine, she alleges, Marchant prohibited her from going back to McMurdo for treatment.

“Most days,” Willenbring writes, “I would listen to long discussions about how I was a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore.’” When she disagreed, she alleges, “he would call me a liar and say, ‘There’s no place in science for liars, is there Jane? Is there Jane?’” repeating the phrase for up to 20 minutes.


Willenbring’s account is corroborated by Lewis, who said that his failure to act upon witnessing Marchant’s behavior was “one of the only real regrets I have in my whole life.” Willenbring herself only filed her complaint last year—once she’d received tenure—for fear of reprisal. In her complaint, she wrote that “I believe that I would not be where I am today if I had said something” at the time.

Marchant is currently enjoying a post as a department chair at BU. Asked for comment by Science, he replied: “Boston University’s investigation into these allegations is ongoing. I have cooperated fully in that investigation. I do not wish to compromise the integrity of that investigation by making any comments before the investigation has been completed.”


In an online survey conducted in 2014, 71 percent of 512 female respondents said they had been sexually harassed during field work, with 84 percent working as trainees.



71 percent of 512 female respondents said they had been sexually harassed during field work

Definitely checks out. I’m in earth sciences, and once in an informal meeting with three other female grad students when the topic came up, two had been assaulted in their bunks while on research ships, and one had “merely” been verbally harassed enough that she dreaded field research and would always try to wear the ugliest clothes to avoid attention (which we all know only goes so far). And that’s leaving out another student who wasn’t at the meeting, who was groped by her advisor in the field.

I can’t imagine what I’d do if this happened to me during field work in Antarctica. What seems like an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity turns into a nightmare. The person in charge is the one harassing you. Escape is a world away. Like my friend who had to spend another 20 days on the boat with her assaulter because they were in the middle of the ocean, where are you going to go? You’re in the middle of nowhere.

Congrats to Dr. Willenbring on earning tenure at Scripps, which if you’re unfamiliar with the field is one of the top, top institutions for ocean and earth science. I imagine she was probably correct that she wouldn’t have had as much success if she’d spoken out sooner, which is horrible. Meanwhile, Ms. Doe—and who knows how many others—were discouraged away from the field. That’s what the other women in my conversation that one time also discussed: They can’t imagine staying in academia if this is how it’s going to be. And they wonder why there’s such high attrition rates for women in academia.