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Harassment Lawsuit Filed Against Scientist on Mars Lander Project

A member of the science team for NASA’s 2008 Phoenix Mars Lander mission has sued one of the mission’s co-investigators, Samuel Kounaves, alleging sexual harassment.

Research assistant Suzanne Young was part of a Tufts University group that helped build the experiments to analyze and characterize the chemical composition of the Martian soil during the NASA mission, led by the University of Arizona and housed in Tucson.


Young’s lawsuit, which also lists Tufts University as a defendant, was filed in Superior Court in Middlesex County, Mass., in December.

It claims “repeated incidents of improper and sexually charged behavior,” including the charge that Kounaves insisted that Young “live with him during the times when they were at team headquarters in Tucson.”

Young’s attorney, David Belfort, said she felt uneasy being asked to stay with Kounaves and other team members in shared living space.

Kounaves at first refused to pay for separate lodging for Young but “changed course” after Young complained to NASA colleagues, the lawsuit says.

Kounaves, co-investigator for one of the mission’s five science teams, has been a professor of chemistry at Tufts, in Medford, Mass., since 1988.

The UA’s Peter Smith, principal investigator for the mission, said in an e-mail that he was “aware of this unfortunate situation, but have nothing to add to the stories already in the news.”

“Our project policies were always designed to protect the interests of young scientists and encourage participation at all levels. Beyond that, I know nothing of the merits of the case in question,” Smith wrote.

Young’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages in excess of $250,000. The lawsuit claims that Tufts University retaliated against Young after she brought her charges to the attention of Tufts’ Office of Equal Opportunity.

“Not only did Tufts fail to investigate the situation, but it retaliated against Young by failing to renew her contract and summarily terminating her employment,” the lawsuit alleges.

A spokeswoman for Tufts said, “The university investigated the complaints and concluded that no violation of university policy occurred.”

Belfort said his client was terminated. He said Kounaves “effectively ended her career at Tufts and has made her life incredibly difficult based on what we perceive to be his personal attraction to her, and that’s just very unfair.”

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