Overview of Rampage by University of Alabama Neuroscientist

By: 
Jennifer Couzin-Frankel
2010-02-16 16:32
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Amy Bishop, the neuroscientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, who allegedly opened fire at a faculty meeting on Friday after she was denied tenure, has prompted a flood of news about her violent past and the stresses of academic life. After she was accused of killing three colleagues and wounding three others, Bishop was charged with capital murder and attempted murder, making her eligible for the death penalty in Alabama if convicted. The story keeps getting stranger, with revelations that Bishop killed her brother 24 years ago and was suspected in a mail bombing attempt against a researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston in 1993.

Police allege that Bishop killed her department chair, Gopi Podila, as well as plant pathologist Maria Ragland Davis and cell biologist Adriel Johnson. There were a dozen department members at the meeting, according to interviews given by some witnesses; survivors say they crawled under the table, grabbed Bishop’s legs and pushed her out of the room as her gun apparently jammed.

Reminiscences included Davis’s search for someone to care for chickens that hatched in a chicken embryo lab she taught (several were adopted and eventually made it to a petting zoo), and Podila’s mentorship of undergraduates and graduate students dating back 20 years.

Bishop earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University and came to Alabama in 2003; she holds an active grant from the National Institutes of Health for research on nitric oxide’s effect on motor neurons. The shootings have spawned lots of chatter about tenure reviews—in particular, whether collegiality should play a role in tenure decisions—and whether there were signs that Bishop would turn violent during an otherwise lackluster faculty meeting. A colleague of Bishop’s in the psychology department, who knew her and was up for tenure at the same time, said he had no intimation she would act as she did.

That said, revelations about Bishop’s past keep on coming. She killed her 18-year-old brother in 1986, when she was 20, but was released by police in Braintree, Massachusetts, who ruled the death accidental. On Saturday, Paul Frazier, the current chief of the Braintree police, released a statement noting that “the release of Ms. Bishop did not sit well with the police officers.” The district attorney who would have handled the case is now a Democratic congressman, William Delahunt; he’s currently traveling and hasn’t commented on the case. Delahunt’s chief of staff says that police suggested further investigation wasn’t necessary, but a Republican considering running against Delahunt is making the case an issue.

Bishop was also reportedly interviewed in connection with a pipe bomb package mailed to neurologist Paul Rosenberg of Harvard and Children’s Hospital Boston 17 years ago, when Bishop was pursuing her doctorate at Harvard. That case was never solved.

For a definitive sketch of Bishop's academic career, see The Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been covering the tragedy closely.

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