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Turtle Researcher’s Award Rescinded After He Uses Racy Photos of Women in Presentation

A well-known turtle researcher who was being honored last week for his lifelong scientific achievements ignited a controversy when he gave a presentation on river turtles that also included revealing photos of women in swimsuits.

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Sarah Mervosh
, New York Times

A well-known turtle researcher who was being honored last week for his lifelong scientific achievements ignited a controversy when he gave a presentation on river turtles that also included revealing photos of women in swimsuits.

The researcher, Richard Vogt, was being recognized as a distinguished herpetologist — a scientist who studies amphibians and reptiles — at an annual meeting of herpetologists and fish scientists in Rochester, New York.

His plenary lecture Thursday contained photos of men and women doing research in water environments, including a handful of scantily clad women whose torsos were censored with blue boxes, according to several people in attendance. The images were censored by staff at the conference, not Vogt. One of the women pictured was his wife.

The lecture from Vogt, who other herpetologists say has a history of behaving inappropriately toward colleagues and using provocative photos in scientific presentations, prompted some in attendance to walk out and was swiftly and vocally criticized within the herpetology community.

The Herpetologists’ League, a membership society for scientists in the field, rescinded Vogt’s award Friday and has formed a committee to address diversity and inclusion.

“Many members of all genders took strong offense to the images that were presented and to the awarding of this distinction to someone whose extremely inappropriate behavior toward other attendees has been long known,” the league said in a statement Sunday.

“We acknowledge that scientific achievement does not excuse misconduct in the profession at any level,” the statement added.

The controversy shows how the #MeToo movement, which has empowered women to publicly address sexual harassment, is reaching the male-dominated field of science.

“We’re scientists. We are there to learn about the animals,” said Emily Taylor, a herpetologist who saw the presentation. “We are not there to be subjected to pictures of half-naked women holding the animals.”

Vogt has made many contributions to herpetology, including findings that the sex of turtle offspring is linked to egg incubation temperature and that turtles use vocalizations to communicate to one another.

But the Herpetologists’ League said after the presentation that Vogt had a reputation of behaving inappropriately toward colleagues, including young women, and of using provocative images. The decision to honor him was made by the president of the Herpetologists’ League, and some members of the board “strongly advised against the choice.”

Vogt did not respond to emails seeking comment. Attempts to reach him through the Turtle Conservancy, a nonprofit whose advisory board he sits on, were also unsuccessful.

Herpetologists who work with animals in water often wear swimsuits. But Taylor said she had repeatedly seen Vogt use “sexually explicit gratuitous images of women’s breasts in bikinis — not just a woman doing her work.”

In one past talk, Taylor said, Vogt illustrated the size of turtles with a photo of a woman in a bikini who was lying next to them.

In another instance, Vogt used a photo of a bikini-clad woman lying in the sand with baby turtles “nestled near her breasts,” said Lori Neuman-Lee, who leads the Herpetologists’ League’s new diversity and inclusion committee.

“It wasn’t explicit,” she said, “but it was not professional.”

It was unclear which photos were included in Thursday’s presentation. They were most likely censored by someone on the audiovisual team at the conference, Neuman-Lee said.

Neither the Herpetologists’ League nor Vogt was aware before the presentation that the images had been edited, the league said in its statement.

“His talk also included a picture of his wife that was altered and pictures of men, including himself, with minimal clothing while working on turtle beaches,” the statement said.

Herpetology has historically had a “macho, bro culture,” said Dan Edwards, who studies the evolution of reptiles and amphibians and was not at the conference.

When she was a young scientist nearly 20 years ago, Edwards said, people joked that “to be a herpetologist you had to be bearded and wear socks and sandals.”

“And it’s like, well, I’m not bearded,” she said.

Edwards said she had routinely witnessed obscene photographs and sexual innuendos in herpetology talks, though she said it had become less common in recent years.

Still, she said that culture had made her less inclined to attend professional herpetology conferences. Others who spoke out on social media said they, too, avoided such meetings or switched career paths.

Neuman-Lee, who is spearheading efforts to welcome more underrepresented groups into herpetology, said that last week’s lecture may have been a turning point.

“This has provided an opportunity — an unfortunate opportunity — to talk about this,” she said. “There was not really any way to do that before this incident.”

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