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Dartmouth professors' research focused on sex, food

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 02. 2017 2:06AM
From left to right are Todd F. Heatherton, Paul J. Whalen and William Michael Kelley. 

HANOVER — Two of the Dartmouth College professors under investigation for sexual misconduct used female Dartmouth students in psychological experiments, one which exposed them to images of erotica and food, and measured their weight gain and sexual activity six months later.

The subsequent findings are just two of many studies the psychology professors submitted to academic journals during their careers at Dartmouth, though attorneys for one of the professors say the investigation has nothing to do with their research or teaching.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced his office was looking into whether sexual misconduct allegations against three professors amounted to a crime.

MacDonald’s office, police and Dartmouth College have released few details of the investigation. Dartmouth initially described it as “serious misconduct;” MacDonald then described it as “sexual misconduct,” which prompted Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon to allude to “sexual misconduct and harassment.”

The attorney for one of the three professors, Todd Heatherton, said he has not violated any written Dartmouth policies, including those focused on sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.

“He has engaged in no sexual relations with any student,” wrote Massachusetts lawyer Julie Moore in a statement emailed to the Union Leader. She said the investigation centers around “an incident that occurred outside of New Hampshire.

“Dr. Heatherton has fully cooperated with the investigation. Dartmouth officials have advised us that, to their knowledge, any investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, as it relates to Dr. Heatherton, is limited to this out-of-state matter.”

Dartmouth has not responded to Heatherton’s repeated attempts to learn more about the investigation and whether it related to an unspecified out-of-state incident that he was previously questioned about, Moore’s statement reads.

Heatherton, as well as William Kelley and Paul Whalen, are on paid leave. Their profile pictures and short biographies remain on the college’s website. The postings include past research into psychology and brain science.

Sex desire, weight gain

Heatherton and Kelley were listed as authors of two experiments that involved female Dartmouth students. In one, an MRI was used to measure brain responses when 18- and 19-year-old freshmen women were shown dozens of images, including food, people consuming alcohol and people in sexual scenes.

Six months later, 48 of the 58 subjects voluntarily returned and were queried about their sexual desires and measured for weight gain.

The study concluded that individual differences exist when it comes to a person’s brain-reward response to visual cues such as pictures of food or sex.

“It seems likely that the stress associated with the first year of college may be a contributing factor to changes in behavior,” the authors also wrote.

The research was supported by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse.

The article said the subjects were paid and consented to the experiment in accordance with the guidelines set by the Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects at Dartmouth College.

Not tied to investigation

The second study was titled “Neural Predictors of Giving in to Temptation in Daily Life” and was sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, the National Cancer Institute and the German Science Foundation.

It involved 31 women, all from the Dartmouth College community, ranging in age from 18 to 28. The study said it used only women to be consistent with previous studies. They exposed the subjects to images of high-caloric food alongside other photos and measured neural responses.

The “findings demonstrate an important role for the neural mechanisms underlying desire and self-control in people’s real-world experiences of temptations,” reads the report.

Nothing ties the experiments to MacDonald’s or Dartmouth’s investigation into the misconduct.

“The investigation is unrelated to Dr. Heatherton’s scientific work in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, and it does not involve his academic research, scholarship, publishing, or teaching,” said his lawyer. “The investigation is unrelated to any conduct of Professors William Kelley and Paul Whalen. Until the investigation has concluded, neither we nor Dr. Heatherton can comment about the specifics of the investigation.

Protocols in place

When asked for comment, Dartmouth spokesman Diana Lawrence said the college has protocols in place for research involving students.

Moore did not provide a statement about the research.

Moore’s statement, which was also written by Concord lawyer Steven Gordon, stressed that Heatherton’s current sabbatical from Dartmouth is unrelated to the investigation.

The director of the college’s Center for Social Brain Studies, Heatherton received a senior faculty grant in October 2016 and used it for this academic year.

“The College not only did not advise Dr. Heatherton that he is a threat to campus safety but, with the College’s knowledge and approval, he has continued to work with, meet with, and mentor his current graduate students and advisees and is grateful for their support through this process,” the statement reads.

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