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Arizona’s Broken Arrow
November, 2008, Page 134
CHRIS ARMSTRONG WAS A
graduate student when the Havasupai project began in 1990, and he said that, from the very start, professor Markow told him to conceal he was studying schizophrenia. He kept quiet, he said, because this was his field of study, and he felt Markow had a “gold mine” for schizophrenia research with her access to Havasupai blood.
He said Markow told him the tribe had a 7 percent incidence of the mental illness, and he planned his dissertation around a study of their blood to see if it showed a genetic explanation for the disease.
Armstrong kept a diary during his college years – years also marked by abuse of alcohol and drugs – and he shared the diary with Stephen Hart during the internal investigation.
The diary notes that in late summer of 1990, as he prepared to go to Supai, Markow told him not to talk about schizophrenia with the tribal members. A couple years later, he says he lied directly to Tribal Vice Chairman Rex Tilousi during a visit to the ASU lab. He contended he was “instructed” not to tell Tilousi he was working on schizophrenia but to tell him he was studying diabetes.
“When he asked Markow for an explanation, Markow indicated that telling Tilousi that he was working on schizophrenia would ‘scare’ the Havasupai and would threaten the future use of DNA from the Havasupai in other research projects,” the Hart Report says.
Markow “strenuously” denied the subterfuge. She said they were not studying the mental illness at the time but acknowledged to Hart that she “instructed Chris that it was premature for him to discuss such a study with members of the population.” Armstrong countered that he was well into his dissertation research at this point, and he felt “shame” that he had lied to Tilousi.
Eventually, Armstrong found he could not establish the Havasupai link to schizophrenia that he was looking for and said Markow couldn’t verify the 7 percent claim; it turns out the claim is unfounded. He ended up shifting the focus of his research and received his doctorate in 1996.
By then, Armstrong had become concerned that there were bioethics problems with the Havasupai blood project. In particular, Markow’s former lab director worried that Markow did not have the proper “informed consent” for any research beyond diabetes. He wrote to her about his concerns, but she never answered him. He eventually decided to bring the issue to the attention of ASU officials. “He acknowledged that he had two motives: first to correct the situation, and second, he was upset with Markow,” the Hart Report notes. “He was angry and frustrated that he could not complete work on schizophrenia, despite the fact that Markow had made a number of promises about all the work that Armstrong would be able to do on schizophrenia with the Havasupai Tribe.”
Armstrong then wrote letters to the ASU professors whose bioethics courses he had taken, including the vice president for research and the chairs of the biology and philosophy departments.
Armstrong told the Hart investigators that he knew he was jeopardizing his career with these letters, because he knew he’d no longer get favorable referrals from his adviser, Markow. He eventually heard back from Nancy Tribbensee, then a legal adviser to the university and now the legal adviser to the state’s entire university system. She told Armstrong his charges were “unfounded.”
Armstrong says he thought of taking his concerns to the tribe but ultimately decided against it. But he did fire off an angry e-mail with a veiled threat, noting that if the tribe, the media and the National Institutes of Health knew about these problems, they’d have “a field day getting to the bottom of these issues.”
Markow’s attorney, Mick Rusing, doesn’t put much faith in either the findings of the Hart Report or Chris Armstrong’s veracity. He calls the report “a bogus, put-up job” and says he can’t believe they’d take the word of someone like Chris Armstrong over a nationally honored scientist like Markow. He calls Armstrong “a flake,” claiming “he has a vendetta against the school and professor” and can’t be trusted because of a history of alcohol and drug abuse. (Indeed, the Hart Report goes into considerable detail of Armstrong’s abuse problems, including his 1999 felony conviction of distributing cocaine, which brought a 37-month sentence he completed in April 2002.)
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