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A Cat on an Abstract might seem like a playful Dr. Seuss fantasy, but in fact it is a truly worrisome object. The uninitiated might believe it preposterous that a Cat on an Abstract could cause mighty men to tremble, but they would be naive about the workings of great academic institutions like Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology. The reality is that at Caltech a Cat on an Abstract is a far more weighty matter than issues like foreign powers violating the United States International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

Caltech Disciplines Professor Troian

Caltech’s Cat on an Abstract—Skip Hickambottom and Dale Gronemeier

Professor Sandra “Pucci” Troian and her cat “Pucci”

To understand the awesome power of Cats on Abstracts, you have to know the story of Dr. Sandra “Pucci” Troian, a full professor of Applied Physics, Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at Caltech. Professor Troian is a popular professor at Caltech who regularly gets the highest evaluations from her students despite her physics classes being extremely rigorous. Professor Troian’s academic prowess is reflected by such matters as a physics law named after her and her husband (the Thompson-Troian law) and her presenting at the American Physical Society a dueling paper to one by Nobel-prize winner Linus Pauling; her theory, rather than Professor Pauling’s, was later proven to be correct.

Professor Troian’s first language is Italian, and “Pucci” is a common Italian surname. If you were interested in the “Pucci” in her name and you were a serious researcher at Caltech, you might Google the word “pucci”, go to The Urban Dictionary, and find it referring to Emilio Pucci, Italian high fashion dress designer (“not to be confused with gucci”). However, the relationship between “Pucci” and Professor Troian did not arise from a Pucci dress but rather from light-hearted banter about the television series Human Target in which Ilsa Pucci led a team of high-tech detectives outfitted with the latest technology; acquaintances analogized Professor Troian to Mrs. Pucci because she too worked with high-tech junior researchers tracking down physics mysteries. Out of that banter, her nickname became “Pucci”. Then she named her cat “Pucci,” although veterinary records establish that the cat’s legal name is actually “Kitty-Witty.”

“Pucci” co-authors an American Physical Society Abstract

Professor Troian’s relationship to a Cat on an Abstract began in summer 2012 when one of her postdocs (postdoctoral research fellows working for professors) married and decided to leave Caltech on short notice to join her new husband in Silicon Valley. Professor Troian was preparing to present to the prestigious American Physical Society an Abstract titled “Thermal resistance and temperature jumps at liquid/solid interfaces: Insights from molecular dynamics simulations.”

She anticipated hiring a new postdoc or graduate student to help with a new idea on the project, and that researcher might then be included as a co-author and speaker on the abstract if she worked on the Abstract’s subject. Since Professor Troian was slated to deliver another talk as first author, she listed “Pucci” as a co-author on her APS abstract submission as a placeholder so she could later submit her new hire as a co-author. The academic world, and especially its field of physics, has a rich history of tongue-in-cheek use of such coauthors.

For example, 2010 Nobel Prize winner in Physics Dr. Andre Geim published with his pet hamster, H.A.M.S. ter Tisha, the 2001 article in Physica B that is still widely cited, “Detection of earth rotation with a diamagnetically levitating gyroscope.” Michigan State University Professor J. H. Hetherington and F. D. C. Willard co-authored the 1975 “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchanges in bcc3 He” in Physical Review Letters, the top physics journal in the world. Professor Hetherington's co-author was his Siamese pet cat Felix Domesticus Chester Willard. Professor Hetherington would often send out reprints of this paper autographed by his cat's inked paw print. Michigan State’s Physics Department enjoyed the joke and asked Hetherington to sound out Willard on accepting a Distinguished Visiting Professor appointment. Rutgers University Professor Doron Zeilberger has published 32 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals with Shalosh B. Ekhad, which is Hebrew for the model number of his personal computer; Professor Zeilberger incisively explains that “the computer helps so much and so often.”

Caltech disciplines Professor Troian for listing “Pucci” as an Abstract co-author

While Caltech’s rigor would not approach the rigor of Physica B nor Physical Review Letters, it is at least one step above The Urban Dictionary. So Caltech formed an Investigation Committee on research misconduct consisting of four other full professors and an attorney to assist them to undertake the weighty task of getting Professor Troian’s explanation that “Pucci” was, among other things, the name of her cat as a placeholder on the Abstract.

Professor Troian also submitted to Caltech’s Investigation Committee evidence that she is not the only physics professor who uses loved objects such as her cat as placeholder authors on their scholarly works, including the well-know hamster, Siamese cat, and personal computer examples.

But all that made no difference to the humor-challenged professors/attorney on Caltech’s Investigation Committee who followed the recommendation of Caltech President Edward Stolper and Vice Provost Morteza Gharib that a Cat on an Abstract is a weighty wrong – a wrong they deemed as permanently damaging Caltech’s stellar reputation. The learned professors/attorney dutifully found Professor Troian guilty of research misconduct and recommended disciplining her with a warning letter. Her case was forwarded up the kitty ladder and serious disciplinary sanctions imposed.

Ultimately, Caltech President Edward Stolper told Professor Troian he’d easily make the kitty-litter mess go away if she’d just admit that a Cat on an Abstract is misconduct

Ultimately, Caltech President Edward Stolper told Professor Troian he’d easily make the kitty-litter mess go away if she’d just admit that a Cat on an Abstract is misconduct – but that the next two years would be miserable for her if she didn’t. Professor Troian refused to surrender, and so President Stolper disciplined her for listing a Cat on an Abstract and placed notice of it in her personnel file.

Professor Troian then appealed President Stolper’s discipline to Los Angeles Superior Court Mary Strobel. Judge Strobel determined that it was okay to list a real person as a placeholder co-author but not a cat, so she upheld the discipline – but ignored the fact that “Pucci” was also the name of the apparently real person Professor Troian. (California law allows a person to assume any name; one is not necessarily stuck with the bad naming judgment of one’s parents.) Professor Troian plans to appeal Judge Strobel’s ruling in a year or so when all the proceedings in her court case are finally concluded. She will then have the opportunity to convince the Court of Appeals that Judge Strobel made a factual error and reverse the discipline.

Our guesstimate is that by the time all the Court proceedings are concluded, Caltech will have spent more than $2 million on attorneys fees for its high-powered law firm – on top of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the value of the time of its full professors, internal attorneys, and a half-dozen Caltech administrators involved in the Cat on an Abstract brouhaha.

Caltech’s indifference to Israeli violations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations contrasts with Caltech’s diligent discipline for the Cat on the Abstract. 

Caltech’s spending millions of dollars on the Cat on an Abstract saga contrasts with its indifference to violations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations by an Israeli postdoc working for Professor Troian – violations which Professor Troian alleges she reported and tried to stop, which Caltech’s highest levels of administration quietly supported, and which explain why Caltech has so aggressively pursued disparaging Professor Troian with its discipline for her Cat on the Abstract.

In late Spring, 2010, Professor Troian says that she discovered that one of her postdocs who had come from Israel’s high-powered Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (IIT) violated International Traffic in Arms Regulations by transmitting information to his IIT Israeli mentor and perhaps others. The information was part of her work on the NASA/JPL Space Micropropulsion Project; that Project has developed lightweight means to make fine steering adjustments on satellites and other aero systems.

The International Traffic in Arms Regulations restricted information on the Project from being disclosed to persons not authorized by the U.S. State Department, but Professor Troian says that her Israeli postdoc ignored those restrictions. When she began trying to determine the extent of his unauthorized disclosures, a virus – later traced to his computer – caused hundreds of files to be transferred to an unknown address and shut down her computer system. He also entered unauthorized work spaces without permission to find out what other aeronautics projects were ongoing.

When she pressed him on his conduct, he admitted he was following directives from his Israeli mentor in the hopes of getting a faculty position at ITT upon his return to Israel (which he then later got). He refused to respond to her inquiries on his disclosures of protected information. Because of this misconduct, Professor Troian dismissed the Israeli postdoc from her Project in August 2010

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Professor Troian says she reported his violations to a number of Caltech officials and to NASA/JPL. She urged Caltech to fire him, to determine the extent of the damage he had done to national security, and to report his violations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations to U.S. Government authorities.

Professor Troian says Caltech did the opposite of what she recommended. Instead of firing the Israeli postdoc, Vice Provost Gharib personally hired him to work directly under himself for two more years before he went back to Israel to get his post at IIT. Caltech did nothing to determine what the postdoc transferred to Israel.

To this day, Caltech has never asked nor even tried working with Professor Troian to find out how much damage was done to the Project nor how much information he passed on to his colleagues in Israel. Despite the fact that reporting the violations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations to the U.S. Government is required, insofar as Professor Troian can determine, Caltech has never done so.

By the end of the 2010 calendar year, Professor Troian gave up on trying to get Caltech to do anything. She then began to experience some things that looked like retaliation. Vice Provost Gharib’s office launched an investigation of Professor Troian that challenged her inventorship on a patent, but outside intellectual property attorneys determined the challenge had no merit. S

he was denied a courtesy appointment in the Physics Department even though she didn't ask for any salary, space or other resources from that department – just an opportunity to play a more direct role in encouraging women to join the physics field.

Despite impressive support from her NASA/JPL colleagues for internal Caltech grants to continue work on her Space Micropopulsion Project, President Stolper (then Provost) denied a half million dollar grant to her. But she plowed on and tried to put it all behind her.

When the FBI visits Professor Troian, the retaliation escalates

The Caltech environment for Professor Troian darkened in the summer of 2012 after the FBI knocked on her door simultaneously with her newly-married postdoc heading out the door. While Caltech did nothing about Professor Troian’s reports concerning the Israeli postdoc’s potentially criminal conduct, her reports at NASA/JPL had progressed up the chain and were forward to the FBI.

In late June and early July 2012, FBI counterintelligence agents interviewed Professor Troian twice on what she knew about her Israeli postdoc and his violations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Professor Troian fully cooperated with the FBI’s questions to her about his conduct.

Then, Professor Troian says, the retaliation dramatically escalated. Two weeks after the second FBI interview, Vice Provost Gharib and Professor Troian’s Division Chair met with her to grill her on her FBI contacts. In December, her Division Chair told her that it was Vice Provost Gharib’s responsibility to ensure that the FBI did not come to campus and that she was harming Caltech’s reputation.

False allegations against Professor Troian began surfacing that she abused her postdocs (particularly the Israeli postdoc she dismissed and the postdoc who married and suddenly left to join her husband), that she didn’t give the postdoc who quit proper credit on her APS Abstract, and that she had a Cat on the Abstract. One of her Department Chairs threatened to throw her out of his Department.

Within a few more months, Vice-Provost Gharib and her Division Chair recommended disciplining her and Provost Stolper stepped in to form the Investigation Committee by handpicking the five professors/attorney. The investigation marched on for nine months. Amidst the solemn proceedings about feline misconduct, Professor Troian’s beloved cat Pucci disappeared, perhaps going into hiding in recognition of her forthcoming outlaw status.

Professor Troian didn’t have the other Pucci’s foresight; she was surprised that the Committee, the Provost and the President all ruled against her, despite what she believed was clear evidence the charges against her had been trumped up. Dr. Troian’s grant requests for her Project were again and again denied despite strong support from her NASA/JPL colleagues, she became persona non-grata at the regular meetings that sustain a University, and her name was stripped from email lists.

With less wit than Kitty-Witty, Caltech’s new President Thomas Rosenbaum in 2015 even denigrated Professor Troian by telling the Pasadena Star News that there was “absolutely no truth” to the information Professor Troian reported in her lawsuit–only to then have egg splattered on his face when Judge Strobel threw out all of Caltech’s allegations against Professor Troian except the Cat on the Abstract.

As of now, Caltech cannot claim that Professor Troian can be disciplined because she abused her postdocs or should have given the postdoc who suddenly quit credit on the Abstract, but it can proudly say that, for the time being, Professor Troian was properly disciplined for the high crime and misdemeanor of a Cat on an Abstract.

So a Cat on an Abstract is a truly fearsome object, reflecting the considered judgment of Caltech’s leadership that the International Traffic in Arms Regulations’ objective to limit international dissemination of weaponry information are so easily trumped by the dangers of a Cat on an Abstract. Such are the values of Pasadena’s world-class institution of higher education.

Skip Hickambottom and Dale Gronemeier

Skip Hickambottom and Dale Gronemeier