This 18-Year-Old College Journalist Could Bring Down Stanford University’s President

The same day as the story’s publication, the university launched an investigation into Tessier-Lavigne’s research and the seven years of alleged scientific misconduct detailed in the Stanford Daily’s story. 

“It was pretty astonishing,” Stanford Daily editor-in-chief Sam Catania said. “I can’t say I was expecting the board of trustees to act quickly.” But the launch of the investigation, he said, “just became another news event for us.” Baker continued to cover the story, revealing possible image manipulation in additional papers coauthored by Tessier-Lavigne. He also reported on calls for the university president to step down and the expansion of the group of individuals who would be investigating the allegations of scientific misconduct. (You can read all of the Stanford Daily’s coverage here.)  

On Feb. 17, three days before the Polk Award winners were announced, Baker published another massive story revealing accusations that Tessier-Lavigne had failed to make public findings of falsified data in a 2009 paper that identified a potential cause of brain degeneration in Alzheimer’s patients (for which he was senior author). 

His one in-person interaction with Tessier-Lavigne was brief, Baker said. He approached the university president shortly after sending him an email requesting comment for the story about the alleged cover-up of the falsified Alzheimer’s data. “I walked up to him. I just said, ‘Hi,’ and he said, “Oh yes, yes. I have received your letter. I look forward to being in touch. I’m in a hurry.’

“I started to say something, and he closed his car door in the middle of my sentence,” Baker continued. “And of course, he did not get back to us. His lawyer did.” 

Soon after the publication of the Alzheimer’s story, Tessier-Lavigne sent a letter to Stanford faculty and staff attacking the student paper’s reporting, calling it “replete with falsehoods.”

Tessier-Lavigne’s letter solidified Baker’s conviction that his stories would never have been published if the Stanford Daily weren’t an organization operating outside the control of the academic institution. (The paper celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence from the university this year.) “The stakes are just too high,” Baker said. “The person that we’re writing about is literally in charge of all of us.”

Both the Stanford Daily reporter and editor-in-chief shy away from questions about the impact that their investigation might have on Tessier-Lavigne’s tenure as the university’s president. 

“We just want to report the facts and we want to get it right. That’s what’s most important to us,” Catania said. “You know, whatever happens, if at the end of the day, we were fair, we were accurate, and we were thorough. To me, that will be ‘mission accomplished’ on the part of the Daily.”

For his part, Baker said he just wants to get “to the bottom of exactly what happened.” He added, “I try not to think too much about what’s going to happen based on all of this. The thing that I’ve spent the most time thinking about is making sure we get it right, and making sure we get it as comprehensive as possible. I’m not in charge of making the judgments; other people will come to their conclusions. So my only job here is just to keep going and figure out what’s actually there.”

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