CW: This article discusses sexual harassment. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-campus resources.
A former Georgetown University student is suing the university, alleging she was retaliated against after she reported that a professor sexually harassed her for two years.
The lawsuit, filed July 31 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by lawyers representing Candace van der Stelt, says that Dr. Peter Turkeltaub, a neuroscientist and a professor for the departments of neurobiology and rehabilitation medicine, sexually harassed Van der Stelt between 2020 and 2022 while she worked in his on-campus lab. The allegations include sexual jokes and innuendo and improper touching, such as long hugs and an attempt to stroke her inner thigh.
The complaint also alleges that Georgetown and its Biomedical Graduate Education (BGE) program — which are named as co-defendants in the lawsuit — permitted other faculty members to retaliate against Van der Stelt because she filed complaints with the university, preventing her from continuing her studies at Georgetown and forcing her to transfer to another program at the University of Pittsburgh.
“It was so hard to be a student and to focus on that and it was starting to affect me physically. When the retaliation happened, it really affected me physically, it just amplified, multiplied the mental health and then turned it into physical health symptoms,” Van der Stelt said in an interview with The Hoya.
Georgetown’s spokesperson said the university doesn’t comment on ongoing legal matters. Some of Turkeltaub’s colleagues and students have defended him, saying they believe the allegation against him to be untrue or that instances in the lawsuit are mischaracterized. A lawyer for Turkeltaub, Ann Olivarius, also said the allegations against her client are false.
“We only take cases that we have investigated thoroughly before we agree to take them on,” Olivarius wrote to The Hoya. “In this matter, we were honored to accept the invitation to represent Professor Peter Turkeltaub because of his proven integrity and trustworthy behaviour.”
“Our lawyers do not believe it is possible for Professor Turkeltaub, given how he is wired, how he has lived his feminism, and how he has defined his life, to have sexually harassed a once graduate student in his department,” Olivarius added.
Olivarius, known for representing victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault, has taken on cases against the Catholic Church and Ivy League institutions such as Yale University.
Although the alleged harassment is said to have begun in 2020, the first instance of inappropriate behavior allegedly took place in 2019, according to the lawsuit.
Van der Stelt, who had been working in Turkeltaub’s lab for about one year in 2019, informed Turkeltaub that she was planning to pursue a Ph.D. and would need to leave his lab, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that Turkeltaub became teary-eyed and told her he did not want her to leave the lab, making Van der Stelt uncomfortable.
Van der Stelt said that while this initial interaction made her uneasy at the time, it did not raise concerns about Turkeltaub.
“It made me feel that I was wanted, that my expertise was valued,” Van der Stelt said. “That one thing obviously didn’t raise a big massive red flag because I continued to work there.”
Van der Stelt said the behavior later escalated in fall 2020, beginning a two-year period of harassment alleged in the lawsuit.
During this time, when many members of the lab were working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Van der Stelt said Turkeltaub created a group chat between members of the lab to keep people connected. Van der Stelt said one group chat that was created was between herself, Turkeltaub and another member of the lab, Sachi Paul, who joined the lab in the summer of 2020.
The lawsuit alleges that in this group chat, Turkeltaub subjected Van der Stelt to multiple jokes that were sexual in nature, including an ongoing joke related to syphilis. According to the lawsuit, Turkeltaub repeatedly joked that he had contracted the disease, sometimes suggesting that he had contracted the disease from Van der Stelt’s mother.
The lawsuit alleges Turkeltaub also sent other inappropriate messages that were sexual in nature.
Van der Stelt said she was initially unaware the texts related to syphilis were meant to be jokes.
“I don’t actually remember the start of the joke, or where that came from, or why that came up, but it was something that he started and then persistently continued to bring up,” Van der Stelt said.
Van der Stelt says she was made fun of when she didn’t understand that the texts were meant to be jokes.
“It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable because I hadn’t assumed that my boss was making a sexual joke,” Van der Stelt said. “And then when I hadn’t gotten the joke, I was made fun of.”
Paul said she read the lawsuit and disagrees with the characterization of the texts.
“In my opinion, quotes and texts throughout the document are super out of context, one-sided, and I think a number of them are pretty unfounded,” Paul said in an interview with The Hoya.
Paul said none of the texts in the group chat, including the ones that were sexual in nature, made her personally feel uncomfortable and said that all three members of the group chat participated in the jokes, both inside and outside of the lab.
“A number of these jokes were very much just recurring inside jokes that everybody laughed at,” Paul added.
Paul is also mentioned in the lawsuit during an alleged incident where her bra was accidently revealed while on a video conference call, to which Turkeltaub made inappropriate comments in the group chat between the three. Turkeltaub wrote “I feel so lucky to be alive today” and “a higher power intervened to make it happen” in reference to Paul’s bra being exposed.
Paul said this did not make her uncomfortable and that she had asked Turkeltaub to joke about the incident when it happened.
Screenshots of the group message obtained by The Hoya show Van der Stelt, Paul and Turkeltaub all engaging in jokes sexual in nature, including jokes about syphilis.
Another screenshot obtained by The Hoya shows calendar events created by Van der Stelt on Turkeltaub’s Google Calendar for him to be tested for syphilis.
Van der Stelt said she felt pressure to participate in these jokes for fear of being labeled a “killjoy” or being made fun of for not having a sense of humor, something she says she was teased about on multiple occasions.
“It was kind of like walking a tightrope, I guess, of trying to honor my feeling of being uncomfortable, but also not becoming the butt of the joke,” Van der Stelt said.
A spokesperson for Van der Stelt’s lawyers declined to comment on the Google Calendar invites, saying they would not comment on anything not related to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleged physical interactions between Turkeltaub and Van der Stelt that she said made her uncomfortable, including frequent hugging that Van der Stelt said she felt she could not turn down.
“Instead of it being an occasional hug that you might share with a coworker, it became where he would actually come to the lab everyday to get a hug from us. And even hug us multiple times a day,” Van der Stelt said.
According to the lawsuit, Van der Stelt indicated to Turkeltaub that she was uncomfortable with these hugs, including on one occasion when Turkeltaub allegedly kissed the top of her head while he hugged her.
Some members of the lab who spoke to The Hoya said they did not believe any hugging that took place in the lab was inappropriate.
According to the lawsuit, two individuals in the lab, who are unnamed, told Turkeltaub that the long and extended hugs they witnessed in the lab made them uncomfortable. In response to their complaints, the lawsuit says Turkeltaub ignored and dismissed complaints and on one occasion called one lab employee who is unnamed in the lawsuit a “scrooge.”
Van der Stelt said she felt pressure to participate in these hugs.
“If you turn it down, you look like you’re the hostile one,” Van der Stelt said.
One instance of uncomfortable hugging is alleged to have occurred at a party hosted by Turkeltaub on or around June 4, 2022, at his home, when he hugged Van der Stelt in front of other guests at the party.
According to the lawsuit, Van der Stelt had previously told Turkeltaub that his alleged behavior was making her uncomfortable.
“At this point I was terrified,” Van der Stelt said.
“I had, just a few days beforehand, had a frank conversation about how uncomfortable and how poorly I was doing. And when I came to this party, he gave me a big hug right in front of everyone so that if I had rejected it, everyone would see something was wrong,” Van der Stelt added.
According to the lawsuit, Rachel Galginaitis, the center manager of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, witnessed this interaction and noticed Van der Stelt appeared to be uncomfortable. Van der Stelt disclosed some of the alleged harassment to Galginaitis when Galginaitis approached her about the incident, according to the lawsuit.
Galginaitis declined The Hoya’s request for comment.
Additionally, the lawsuit alleges other instances of Turkeltaub coming into close contact with Van der Stelt, including an instance where he allegedly touched her lower back and instances at lab meetings where he would sit in close proximity to Van der Stelt on couches in the lab suite.
The lawsuit also alleges when Van der Stelt would attempt to move away from Turkeltaub, he would move closer to her, ultimately prompting Van der Stelt to ask another colleague to sit next to her during meetings and to stop wearing skirts or dresses to prevent him from touching her bare legs.
Other allegations stated in the lawsuit are said to have happened while Van der Stelt and Turkeltaub were in private, such as times where Turketltaub allegedly shared his marital problems with Van der Stelt, which she said she indicated made her uncomfortable.
Another alleged incident that took place in private occurred during a party that Turkeltaub hosted for lab members at his house in or around January 2021. Turkeltaub walked in on Van der Stelt while she was in the bathroom, according to the lawsuit.
Screenshots obtained by The Hoya of messages from the same group chat where the alleged sexual jokes occurred show messages from Van der Stelt the day after the alleged bathroom incident. In them, Van der Stelt says she felt comfortable around Turkeltaub on the night the incident is said to have occurred.
Van der Stelt said she did not indicate at the time of the alleged bathroom incident that the behavior made her uncomfortable.
“I thought about saying something, but I didn’t know if he would even remember that he did that,” Van der Stelt said.
“It’s one of those situations where you’re like, do I say something to make this worse?” Van der Stelt added.
According to the lawsuit, Van der Stelt indicated to Turkeltaub on multiple occasions that his sexual comments made her uncomfortable, but she feared “significant repercussions” if she rejected his advances because of the control he had over her academic career.
In advance of this story’s publication, over a dozen students and professors who have worked with Turkeltaub reached out to The Hoya independently, saying they believed the allegations against him to be false.
Some of these students told The Hoya they learned of the story prior to publication from either Turkeltaub; Olivarius, his lawyer; or other members of their lab. Many of these students declined to speak on the record about their experiences in the lab.
Of the students who reached out prior to publication, two students who said they worked in the lab between 2020 and 2022, during the alleged period of harassment, said they never witnessed any inappropriate behavior.
One of these students, Kelly Martin (MED ’22), said while any jokes that were sexual in nature were inappropriate for the workplace, she did not believe they made anyone uncomfortable.
“He definitely should have known better because he was her boss, and I’m positive he would never get that comfortable with an employee or student again,” Martin said in an interview with The Hoya.
Carolyn Gershman, a third year PhD student, said she worked in the lab during the time of the alleged harassment and said she never witnessed anything that made her uncomfortable.
“All of my personal experiences and my working relationship with Peter, Dr. Turkeltaub, has been very professional,” Gershman said in an interview with The Hoya.
Van der Stelt said that when she did raise concerns to other members in the lab about Turkeltaub’s behavior, including some of the behavior alleged in the lawsuit, she felt as if her concerns were overlooked.
Van der Stelt said when she raised concern about Turkeltaub’s behavior to other female students, she was told she was “jealous.”
“The blame would go on to me,” Van der Stelt said. There would be some excuse.”
“That I was just being jealous, or that it was in my head that I was making a big deal out of nothing,” Van der Stelt added.
In a March 31 email obtained by The Hoya sent to dozens of past and present members of the IPN program lab, including Van der Stelt, Martin said that members of the lab had spread rumors that female member were being groomed by Turkeltaub, something Martin said she disagreed with based on her own experience with Turkeltaub.
Van der Stelt said multiple people in the lab dismissed her concerns that Turkeltaub’s behavior was inappropriate.
“I felt like there was a pattern of inappropriate relationships of Peter with his female subordinates, and that I was pointing that out, and that I was being scapegoated as being just jealous of those relationships,” Van der Stelt said.
“And the statement of it just being in my head was directly from Peter. And I felt like it was gaslighting,” Van der Stelt added.
Lára Stefansson, a close friend of Van der Stelt and a third-year in the neuroscience program who took a class taught by Turkeltaub, said that midway through 2021, Van der Stelt had disclosed to her that she was having issues in her lab but did not specify what exactly was making her time in the lab difficult.
“There were moments that she would disclose that things were off. But she didn’t necessarily speak to exactly what was happening,” Stefansson said.
Three students who work on the medical campus — and asked not to be named — said Van der Stelt had also disclosed to them that she felt uncomfortable with behavior taking place in the lab around the same time.
One student said they believed jokes and culture inside the lab fostered by Turkeltaub crossed a professional boundary.
The three students also said they believed if they raised concerns either about the PhD program in the neuroscience department, including the cognitive side, or concerns about faculty, these concerns would not be addressed in the department.
When asked about this, the university spokesperson referred The Hoya to their statement that they do not comment on ongoing legal matters.
Stefansson and the three other students who worked on the Medical Campus said they believe the allegations in the lawsuit.
Van der Stelt eventually filed a complaint with the Title IX office. After she reported to the office, Van der Stelt says she was told that the behavior she reported was against Title IX policies but felt pressure to remove herself from the lab.
“I explained over and over again that I didn’t want to leave, that this was my work. And that even if I did leave, everyone who I could potentially study with to meet my academic goals collaborated with [Turkeltaub], so I really feared retaliation. And they continued to push me to leave,” Van der Stelt said.
“I feel incredibly disappointed that I went to an office to get help in addressing unprofessional behavior. And I feel like their solution was to remove me or to allow me to be removed instead of addressing what was problematic,” Van der Stelt added.
Van der Stelt said other students she spoke with also told her they were considering filing complaints with the Title IX office because of behavior they had witnessed in the lab.
According to the lawsuit, after she filed with the Title IX office — which continues to investigate her complaint — in fall 2022, the university allegedly retaliated against her for filing a complaint against Turkeltaub by refusing to cooperate with her requests to transfer into a new lab, forcing her out of her Ph.D. program.
“It wasn’t just a few people then gaslighting me, it was the whole institution,” Van der Stelt said.
The lawsuit alleges that after learning that Van der Stelt had filed with the Title IX office, six professors declined to advise her.
Van der Stelt said that based on conversations she had with these professors, some of whom she had worked with before, she believed that they were willing to take her on as a student. According to the lawsuit, two of these professors who originally indicated they would like to work with Van der Stelt had previously praised Van der Stelt in reports for her work in their labs.
Multiple professors named in the lawsuit told The Hoya they either did not know that the alleged harassment had occurred when they declined to advise Van der Stelt or that their decision not to take her on as a student was because they did not have the capacity to do so.
Van der Stelt says after she went to the Title IX office, however, she felt one professor was hostile to her.
“I tried to reach out to [that professor] and say, like, ‘hey, could we have a conversation about how we can work best together as a team?’ And she just refused to talk to me in any productive way,” Van der Stelt said.
Van der Stelt said Turkeltaub also removed her name from a paper she worked on after she reported her harassment.
“Peter would actively have conversations with other people, staff members, who have significantly less research experience than I have, and let them try to let them make decisions about my thesis work, which I had been a staff member, so I knew that that wasn’t normal,” Van der Stelt said.
Van der Stelt has since transferred to the University of Pittsburgh to continue her Ph.D., where she receives a smaller student stipend and lives away from her husband in Washington, D.C.
The lawsuit demands a trial by jury and for an award of compensatory damages to be determined at trial.
Evie Steele and Clayton Kincade contributed reporting.
This article was updated Aug. 25 to clarify that Stefansson was in a class taught by Turkeltaub, not a member of his lab.
Please note the entire resource list for sexual assault-related content: Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Service (202-687-6985); additional off-campus resources include the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (202-333-7273) and the D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiner Washington Hospital Center (844-443-5732). If you or anyone you know would like to receive a sexual assault forensic examination or other medical care — including emergency contraception — call the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. (202-742-1727). To report sexual misconduct, you can contact Georgetown’s Title IX coordinator (202-687-9183) or file an online report here. Emergency contraception is available at the CVS located at 1403 Wisconsin Ave NW and through H*yas for Choice. For more information, visit sexualassault.georgetown.edu.