Astronomy student Sarah Ballard was flattered — starstruck, even — when her famous professor, Geoff Marcy, began meeting her outside of class in the spring of 2005 to discuss new planets and galaxies.
“It was exhilarating,” says Ballard, then a 20-year-old at the University of California at Berkeley, “and deeply affirming. He said I had promise to go really far.”
But in the end, it was Marcy who went way too far.
Their conversations soon became “sexual in nature,” Ballard, now 33, says, with Marcy divulging details about his sex life and asking about her own experiences. Then, later that summer after giving Ballard a ride home, Marcy “told me to relax and started rubbing the back of my neck,” she says.
Ballard fled the car, but like so many women who experience sexual harassment, the blow to her self-esteem stayed with her.
“I don’t know of a single person, no matter how cruel the harassment or the assault, who doesn’t feel some of that guilt and shame,” says Ballard, “…and wonders, ‘Could I have done something differently? Perhaps it was my fault?’ ”
Ballard struggled over whether to confront Marcy or tell school authorities. His support was critical to Ballard getting into graduate school, and she worried about potential backlash from the science community.
So when Marcy’s inexplicably “cooled” toward Ballard, she says she was both relieved and troubled.
“It was clear that the experience had deeply affected her,” says science writer Sarah Scoles, who interned with Ballard the following summer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and whom Ballard confided in about the incident.
“She trusted (Marcy) professionally…he had broken that trust and taken advantage of his power over both her and her career.”
Ballard graduated from Berkeley in 2007 and went on to Harvard, where she earned a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics….