In the tragic Huntsville shootings reported in Nature News Feature (Life after Death. http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100512/full/465150a.html. Nature 465, 150-155; 2010), Amy Bishop, an Assistant Professor in the University of Alabama’s biology department, methodically shot her colleagues during a departmental meeting, killing three and seriously injury three others.
Long after the shots rang out during that fateful departmental meeting, the ordeal still continues to haunt the victim’s families as well as students and trainees in the now shattered department. While colleagues pitch in to bring the department back to life, one could not help but ask why this horrible crime was committed. Why would an assistant professor do the unthinkable?
According to psychological studies by Ann Marie Lenhardt in Casius College in Buffalo, the majority of shootings in workplaces and on campuses are often the result of society’s relentless pressure to succeed in order to gain acceptance and respect. Failure on the other hand could lead to a sense of rejection. In 71% of the cases, rejection in the form of isolation, disconnect with society, persecution, and bullying are primary triggers for despair and rage. As the rage accumulates to a boiling point, the killer would lash out in shooting rampages.
In the Huntsville tragedy, Amy Bishop fits the same psychological mould to be a workplace killer. Bishop had a history of low productivity and poor mentorship skills in her lab, which resulted in two failed tenure applications. Moreover, the prosecution reveals the shocking fact that Bishop had already a history of violence. These two facts suggest that Bishop may already be a ticking time bomb that was inadvertently triggered when her tenure application was rejected. The result was a shooting tragedy.
How could this tragedy be avoided? In an academic research career where scientists are competing fiercely for grants and tenure, and where rejection is common, it is not surprising that individuals with psychological predisposition towards violence could eventually lash out by killing others. While justice can be done after the fact, it may not be sufficient to deter similar shootings. Rather, I think that hiring committees should take safety precautions by carefully doing background checks of their tenure track position candidates.
Lastly, the scientific community should come together in an effort to prevent these shootings through an educational means. Students and trainees who are building their careers should be trained not only to do competent research, but to also face failure with greater resilience.
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