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Report: Caltech Prof Fired His Grad Student Because He Was In Love With Her

Caltech's Cahill Center for Astronomy & Astrophysics (Photo by Michael Locke via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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A 38-year-old Caltech professor fired his 22-year-old female graduate student because he was in love with her, according to a BuzzFeed investigation.Christian Ott, 38, is an astrophysics professor at Caltech who uses supercomputers to model supernovae, according to BuzzFeed. He was born in Germany and came to Caltech in 2009, receiving tenure in 2014, according to Science Magazine.

The student Ott fell in love with was Io Kleiser, who was 22 when she began studying supernovae at Caltech in 2012. Ott and Kleiser began talking over online messaging, often late in the evening. Sometimes he guilted her for not devoting more time to their research. Ott later arranged a meeting with Kleiser over coffee where he told her he was terminating their working relationship. He told her he "couldn't emotionally deal with her," she said, and brought up and email from a few weeks prior to which she failed to respond. Several days later, he messaged her, "Of all my students I cared most about you and I failed in the worst way. My problem is that I don't want to be in a power position, but factually I am." Kleiser said she became depressed for several months. "It made me feel sick," she told BuzzFeed.

While Kleiser went on not knowing any of Ott's more deep-seated reasons for firing her, Ott began to talk about those reasons with 23-year-old Sarah Gossan, another graduate student. He told Gossan that he was in love with Klesier and that he feared that "she was using her sexual influence over him to not do any work," Gossan said.

In Gossan's third year of study, she said Ott became very demanding and he made her feel "worthless." In April 2015, she changed advisors, then filed a complaint with the university's Title IX office. In June, Kleiser was informed by the school's Title IX coordinator that Ott had kept a Tumblr page (now offline) that contained 86 poems he had written about her. Kleiser later met up with Gossan, who told her everything, and Kleiser added her name to Gossan's complaint. In September of 2015, the university confirmed with Kleiser via a letter that she was fired because of Ott's feelings, and that it "significantly and adversely affected your educational opportunities at Caltech."

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Other students who left Ott's research group since 2012 also spoke with BuzzFeed, some saying they were suddenly fired or felt bullied.

Ott wrote an email to BuzzFeed saying, "At Caltech graduate students are not 'fired' by the decision of a single faculty member. When problems with students arise, multiple faculty get involved and a solution is found that ensures the graduate student is not harmed."

After university officials found that he violated university policy when it came to his interactions with the two female graduate students, Ott was put on unpaid leave for nine months. He is not allowed back on campus until July 1, and can only interact with one graduate student. When he comes back, he will attend mandatory "rehabilitative" training. The university issued a statement about Ott's "gender-based harassment" which was emailed to the university on January 4, but only after BuzzFeed News began looking into the case, according to the outlet. The statement also states that Dean of Graduate Studies Doug Rees is putting together an advisory council to review students' experiences with their advisors.

Kleiser is now studying supernovae at Berkeley, while Gossan plans to finish her degree at Caltech next year.

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