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An Iowa State University graduate student is suing the university, a fellow veterinary medicine research assistant and two supervisors, asserting she endured years of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation for reporting it.
According to third-year veterinary medicine student Chelsea Iennarella-Servantez, a fellow research assistant began harassing her in summer 2019 when he was a visiting scholar from the Czech Republic. He asked her daily for hugs, which she declined, according to a lawsuit filed April 11 in Story County District Court. He left briefly but returned to ISU for a job in the same lab, and Iennarella-Servantez said the “sexually inappropriate conduct continued and intensified.”
Married and in her late 20s, Iennarella-Servantez said the colleague would ask why she didn’t have kids yet, saying, “You’re almost 30 and will be infertile soon.” When she told him not to speak to co-workers that way, Iennarella-Servantez said he responded, “Liberals are too sensitive,” and “America has too many of these ridiculous laws,” according to the lawsuit.
During a conference in Winter Park, Colo. in February 2020, Iennarella-Servantez said she and two other students were in a hot tub when the colleague touched her shoulders without permission — asking about her tattoos. She told him not to touch her, according to the lawsuit, and he suggested she “chill.”
Iennarella-Servantez later reported the harassment to superiors — professor Karin Allenspach and associate professor Jonathan Mochel — even as the behavior persisted, her suit said.
When asked for comment, Iowa State spokeswoman Angie Hunt told The Gazette the university can’t discuss specifics but the Iowa Civil Rights Commission investigated the concerns and closed the case “as unsupported by the facts.”
Iennarella-Servantez told The Gazette this week she remains concurrently enrolled in both a doctor of veterinary medicine program and Ph.D. program, co-majoring in animal physiology and biomedical sciences.
She’s serving as president of the ISU Graduate and Professional Student Senate and reports the circumstances outlined in her lawsuit have made her campus experience “immensely difficult.”
Iennarella-Servantez said the harassment affected her mental health early on, and she began seeing a therapist for anxiety, according to the lawsuit.
She eventually took her concerns to the Biomedical Sciences Department chair and told supervisors she had started taking an antidepressant and going to therapy weekly.
Although Allenspach and Mochel said they addressed issues with the graduate student, his behavior didn’t stop, according to the suit.
The department chair suggested she change labs to avoid her harasser, and Iennarella-Servantez in her lawsuit said she “did not want to change labs and felt that she was being punished for reporting (the) misconduct.”
Iennarella-Servantez on March 30, 2021 met with the associate dean of the ISU Graduate College about the harassment and the dean said, “The harassment case may not produce a favorable result” and she should “forgive the guy,” according to the lawsuit.
The best “vengeance,” according to the dean, was to complete her degree and move on to a successful career, the suit said.
Iennarella-Servantez told superiors the investigation was taking a “profound toll on her mental health.” On April 21, 2021, the ISU Equal Opportunity Office sent her a letter reporting the defendant’s conduct “would not constitute sexual harassment violations.”
Even as internal investigations continued, Iennarella-Servantez said Allenspach accused her of being “very hung up” on the allegations, questioning her ability to maintain professionalism, according to the suit. The fallout continued, as Iennarella-Servantez was removed from a trial she was working on; became alienated from her lab group; and taken off shared projects with the defendant.
“Defendants Allenspach and Mochel informed (Iennarella-Servantez) in a letter from the Iowa State University legal department that she was no longer guaranteed a medical residency that she had been offered prior to reporting (the) conduct,” according to the lawsuit.
Iennarella-Servantez first filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and received a right-to-sue letter Jan. 12.
She’s suing for sexual harassment, hostile work environment and gender-related negligence. She also is suing for gender-related retaliation.
“Plaintiff was retaliated against and terminated for making a hostile work environment complaint to her supervisors,” according to the lawsuit. “Defendants’ retaliation continues at the time of this filing.”
Neither Iennarella-Servantez nor ISU responded to The Gazette’s requests for comment.
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