Penn’s Gene Therapy Program is at the forefront of pioneering biotechnology developments — but employees allege a toxic workplace environment lies behind the allure and that Penn is ignoring their complaints to protect the moneymaking program.
“I only lasted four months before I couldn’t take it anymore. I really couldn’t take it anymore,” Margaret Spencer, a former executive assistant, said. “It was a dysfunctional, toxic workplace on many levels, and I didn’t have anything to do ... It was exhausting.”
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to 11 current and former GTP employees, all of whom said they endured a dysfunctional workplace environment at the hands of GTP management. Some of these employees, both current and former, requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The program, which employees said is marred by extreme work disorganization and inappropriate office behavior, resulted in low morale and unusually high turnover rates among employees. Several have filed formal complaints and spoken to GTP’s human resources department, the Perelman School of Medicine’s human resources department, the University’s Title IX Office and confidential Ombuds Office, and some even hired their own lawyers to demand an end to the abuse.
The DP obtained email correspondence between employees and GTP, Medical School human resources representatives, and other University administrators, Slack messages between employees and GTP executives, unsolicited photos sent to employees from GTP administrative staff, written documentation of medical leave requests, and exit interview notes detailing the experiences of former employees.
Despite numerous complaints to multiple University offices over at least the past decade, employees said nothing has changed. They allege that the University has turned a blind eye to the abusive work environment at GTP, failing to hold the program and its director, Jim Wilson, accountable.
Wilson is also no stranger to controversy, having come under national scrutiny nearly two decades ago for leading a gene therapy trial that caused the death of an 18-year-old, leading to several research violations by Wilson and detrimental action against the University’s affiliated research operations.
Twenty years later, Penn has rekindled its relationship with Wilson. The University is financially benefiting from the Philadelphia-based genetics medicine company Passage Bio, at which he serves as chief scientific advisor, until June 2025, according to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission Report for the first quarter of 2021. Passage Bio has a research collaboration with GTP, giving the company exclusive rights, with certain limitations, to technologies developed with GTP, according to the report.
Gene therapy uses genetic modification of cells in order to treat or cure diseases, including cancer, genetic diseases, and infectious diseases. The field is growing fast, with Philadelphia labeled a hub for innovation, partly because of GTP’s location.
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to the DP that the University has no comment regarding the allegations against GTP or whether the University is aware of employee complaints submitted to the Medical School's human resources department. Associate Vice President for Communications at Penn Medicine Holly Auer redirected the DP back to MacCarthy in response to a request for comment.
Wilson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Toxic workplace pushes employees to leave
‘Shit falls downhill’: Employees belittled by meaningless job responsibilities
All 11 current and former GTP employees who spoke to the DP alleged mistreatment and ineffective leadership by upper-level employees: namely Wilson and Jessica Alkins, GTP’s senior director of organizational strategy and operations, who leads the program’s human resources and administrative functions.
Many former employees also said the program has an abnormally high turnover rate compared to biotech industry peers, largely because of the toxic environment.
Multiple former employees said Alkins was responsible for the abusive workplace environment, characterizing her and GTP’s own HR department as "manipulative” for ignoring employees' concerns. Alkins did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“It was such a toxic work environment,” one anonymous former GTP employee said. “I've never in my entire life ever experienced anything as awful as this, and I feel so bad for the people that also experienced it.”
Multiple GTP employees have filed formal complaints about Alkins, one former employee said.
Four current and former employees alleged that Alkins would often apply different standards to different people and would talk down to staff members of color, including to lower-paid positions filled primarily with staff members who are racial minorities at GTP, like cage wash technicians.
Turquoise Myricks, a current employee who was hired at GTP as a lab assistant in 2017, said her job responsibilities have completely changed since she first started. Myricks said her senior director at the time promised her a promotion to become a lab manager, and pushed her to fulfill the duties of a lab manager — like ordering supplies, organizing the lab, and talking to vendors on the phone. But once her senior director left GTP, Myricks continued those duties without the promotion.
Myricks believes her promotion was ultimately taken away once GTP’s human resources personnel, namely Alkins, stepped in after rumors about Myricks began to circulate among her coworkers, as they alleged that she was rarely at work or slacking at the job — even though Myricks said her directors did not express an issue with her directly. Alkins eventually called a meeting with Myricks to discuss the rumors, Myricks said.
“I never spoke to [Alkins] before in the first three years that I've ever been with GTP, and she always had this demeanor ... She’d talk down to you — she’d talk at you,” Myricks said.
Now, Myricks said she feels like she’s “just a trash person” who has been stripped of everything she learned at GTP in the past. Myricks said she arrives at work at around 7 a.m. and within 30 minutes, she completes her daily tasks, like making sure machines are working properly. After that, she takes the trash out.
Employees said they also felt significantly overwhelmed by the pressure they felt from administrative members to complete day-to-day tasks, including preparing an excessive amount of food for meetings, plating food for upper management, and picking up lunch for executives.
Like Myricks, some said the duties of their jobs were unclear and their responsibilities frequently changed over time.
While some employees implicated Veronique Charles, GTP's senior administrative coordinator, and Carey Dougherty, GTP's associate director for talent development and employee engagement, for the office environment, others close to the matter told the DP that Alkins is the main person responsible for the haphazard workplace disorganization, since she gives orders and delegates tasks to Charles and Dougherty.
“I had always felt like someone had a gun to my head when I was doing work, like if I made one mistake one time, [Charles] would make me feel like I'm incapable of doing anything,” former temporary administrative coordinator Aliza Wolf said of her boss, Charles.
Wolf, who joined GTP in 2019 as a temporary employee, said that after making a couple of mistakes doing purchase orders, she was stripped of all her work responsibilities and was instead asked to make 20 to 25 snack baskets each week, excluding catering orders she had to do before meetings. Preparing food for meetings was “never necessary,” Wolf said, adding that a lot of the conversation at GTP was just about food.
“No one ever touched these snacks. No one really cared — like this was a huge waste, I think, of Penn’s money and my time,” Wolf said.
Like Wolf, a former administrative coordinator at GTP, who requested anonymity, said there was no stability with the job. Her daily work schedule and office location were suddenly changed several times, which she said contributed to her mounting anxiety on the job.
Though the tasks weren’t officially assigned on her computer, the former administrative coordinator said that she was asked to make snack baskets, coffee, and hot water for many meetings, especially for the meetings Wilson attended.
Three employees said that even though they completed various menial tasks correctly, some administrators would continuously say they had done the job wrong — nitpicking and rearranging the work they did all over again. Wolf said she was asked to plate Wilson’s food and that “everything had to be perfectly presented.”
Margaret Spencer, who was hired as a temporary employee in 2019 after working at Penn Museum full time for more than 16 years, said the nature of her role as executive assistant was unclear from the outset. During her virtual job interview with Dougherty and Alkins, Spencer said she was told she would be working for the deputy director and her two deputies in the Orphan Disease Center, a separate research center in the Medical School led by Wilson. But within her first 10 days at GTP, Spencer said the people to whom she was told to report changed three times.
Spencer sent the DP a three-page document she wrote when she was leaving GTP in July 2019, in which she detailed several issues she experienced at GTP in case she was asked to give an exit interview, which never occurred. In the document, Spencer said the program had a workflow style that resulted in “crap flowing downhill to a job with no clear vision, determination, or boundaries,” as administrative members piled overflow work onto their employees, who passed their work onto others.
Describing the work atmosphere, Spencer wrote that “poor communication leads to poor morale,” as changes in assignments or reporting processes would happen with no prior notice, and there was intrapersonal mistrust between employees and widespread resistance to changing workflow processes.
“My position by the end of the time I was there was the ‘shit-falls-downhill position,’ where anything anybody else couldn't do got dumped on me, because I could do it,” Spencer said.
‘Nobody stayed’: High turnover rate plagues GTP
Some former employees felt their jobs were unnecessary and alleged that GTP hires a large number of employees to bolster the size and reputation of the program. The disorganized work environment led to an unusually high turnover rate within the program, some said.
The program currently employs over 300 full-time employees and its annual operating budget is based on funding from public and private sponsors, according to its LinkedIn. In the last year, of the program’s 170 employees who are on LinkedIn, as of November 2021, GTP’s employee distribution and headcount growth has increased by 50% in its human resources sector, 80% in its program and project management sector, 20% in its operations sector, and 17% in its research sector, based on LinkedIn data.
The former administrative coordinator, who — like many other employees — began at GTP as a temporary employee through the talent acquisition firm Juno Search Partners, was responsible for setting up desks for new hires. She said there were always between two and 10 new hires every two weeks for a year. The program has a high turnover rate, she said, adding that “nobody stayed.”
Temporary employees hired from Juno Search Partners “never seemed to last," the former administrative coordinator continued, adding that she knew of about five employees who were at GTP for less than four months and then was told to leave during the time she worked there. She said many of the temporary employees were younger and recent college graduates.
“It's every week, we have two or three people leaving," a current GTP employee said. "People seem miserable ... people complaining about [Alkins], complaining about the work environment, complaining about favoritism,” they said.
One former employee said GTP had a turnover rate of 23% for 2020, adding that Alkins did not share this figure with GTP executives to hide that the company was having retention issues.
“Biotech turnover is around 10 to 11% on average, which is good,” the former employee said, noting that GTP’s turnover rate last year was allegedly more than twice this figure. The median voluntary turnover rate for American biotech industry companies was about 8.1% as of the first quarter of 2015.
The former employee attributed workplace toxicity and the high turnover rate to the “ineptitude” of senior leadership.
Like others, Spencer believes the program continues to hire additional people instead of finding an efficient way to allocate work to an appropriate number of employees. She added that if GTP is bringing in a significant amount of money to the University, they “may feel they need to justify bringing in that much money by paying people” even if the jobs are not necessary.
Spencer said her role as an executive assistant was unnecessary because GTP's Orphan Disease Center personnel were self-sufficient.
“I believe that the only reason there was an executive assistant position was not for the [Orphan Disease Center]. It was not that there was need for that work, but that somebody thought it looked good,” Spencer said.
She earned significantly higher pay — $35 an hour — as a temporary employee at GTP than she did in her previous full-time jobs at Penn. She stayed at GTP for four months until July 2019, before declining to continue as a full-time hire as temporary employees traditionally do.
Wolf, who also began at GTP as a temporary employee through Juno Search Partners, similarly said she does not think the duties of her job were of any value.
“They needed people," Wolf said. "They just wanted people to make baskets and make it bigger as a department."
Spencer said all of the GTP support staff members were female during her time there, and that, except for her, all of them were young. While she said that many men do not take administrative jobs in the United States, she believes a reason why the majority of employees at GTP are female is because “women are cheaper than men.” The current GTP employee agreed.
Former employees also alleged that some higher-ups in the company were either slacking on the job, not present at the office, or exhibiting inappropriate behavior while at work.
Several former GTP employees said Charles would make sexually explicit comments to coworkers in the office, interrupt employees while they were working and constantly use online shopping websites and dating apps during work hours. These employees felt the relationships Charles crafted with her coworkers were inappropriate for an office setting.
The former administrative coordinator said after working with Charles, her direct supervisor, for many months, they realized that their seemingly close relationship was a ruse to get her to accomplish tasks at work while Charles laid back and did little.
In an email sent on Feb. 4, 2020 to Penn’s Office of Affirmative Action & Equal Opportunity Programs, the former administrative coordinator attached four photos of a “Complaint of Discrimination, Harassment and/or Retaliation Form” she signed on Jan. 29, 2020. She outlined three issues that she considered forms of retaliation from Charles.
The former administrative coordinator pointed to an instance when Charles demanded that she remove privacy screens off their computer monitor even though she insisted the privacy was necessary when dealing with confidential emails about employee issues. She also wrote that Charles assigned a task to complete on a day Charles and another colleague would not be present to help with.
“I feel as though my supervisor, Veronique Charles, is [retaliating] against me as there is currently an investigation happening from Penn [Medical School] HR ... I have also filed a formal complaint to the Title IX Office due to the many inappropriate things my supervisor has said to me while working here at GTP," the former administrative coordinator’s email to the office stated.
The Office of Affirmative Action & Equal Opportunity Programs works closely with the University’s Division of Human Resources on issues related to equal opportunity, affirmative action, and diversity for staff and applicants for employment, according to its website.
The former administrative coordinator wrote, “I would like [Charles] reprimanded for her unacceptable behavior at the highest level possible. Working with [Charles] has caused me to have severe anxiety and stress.”
Complaints against GTP fall on deaf ears
‘It was just ruining me’: Employees sought therapy, mental health leave
Before heading to work at GTP, the former administrative coordinator had a severe anxiety attack, hysterically crying and hyperventilating in the parking lot of her local train station. She felt as though her body physically would not let her walk onto the train that morning.
That day — Feb. 10, 2020 — the former employee decided to take short-term disability leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act to escape the toxic workplace environment she faced every day as a GTP employee.
“I was diagnosed with major depression,” the former administrative coordinator said, sharing that she began seeing a psychiatrist and was prescribed Zoloft, an antidepressant, the same month she left GTP. Working at GTP was “100%” the reason behind her diagnosis, she said.
Numerous former employees said the Medical School human resources contact, Michelle Hackett, listened to concerns and promised an investigation would be launched into GTP’s workplace culture issues. But despite their repeated complaints, employees alleged that the Medical School's efforts never amounted to any change.
The DP reached out to Hackett on Sept. 23, Oct. 7, and Nov. 7 for comment but received automatic replies to the first two emails that she was out of the office on medical leave with instructions to reach out to another Medical School human resources contact, Cassandra Harris, for assistance. Harris did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Three former employees told the DP they took unpaid leave from work via FMLA in order to leave GTP, and two former employees said Hackett herself gave them resources to file for FMLA and speak to Penn’s Title IX Office. Some employees said they ultimately went to a psychiatrist or therapist to cope with the massive toll working at GTP took on their mental health.
About two years after the former administrative coordinator started working at GTP, she reached out to Hackett in fall 2019 and shared complaints about both Charles and Alkins. She said Hackett told her she had the option to leave GTP on FMLA or short-term disability, though she initially resisted those options. She also said the Medical School's human resources department was aware of her diagnosis because they required that information to file her FMLA and short-term disability forms.
The FMLA entitles employees of covered employers to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for a number of medical reasons, including “a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In order for employees at Penn to be eligible for FMLA, they are required to have been employed by Penn for at least 12 months and have worked for at least 1,250 hours during the 12-month period preceding their leave. If FMLA leave is based on an employee’s serious health condition, the University requires that medical certification from a health care provider be submitted to an FMLA Administrator.
The DP obtained a document signed by the former administrative coordinator’s psychiatrist on Feb. 12, 2020 that stated she was diagnosed with “Major Depression, Single Episode” and was unable to work at that time. The document was sent to an employee in Penn’s human resources division that specifically handles FMLA requests.
In an FMLA form requiring signed certification of her health care provider the following day, the former administrative coordinator’s physician wrote, “[Patient] reports working in an extremely toxic work environment that is causing her distress, culminating in a panic attack earlier this week. She had an appt w/ psychiatry yesterday and was started on an antidepressant. She is also pursuing therapy + plans on going weekly until her condition improves or her work environment changes.”
The physician described the former employee’s symptoms as “crying, hypersomnia, stress eating, feelings of helplessness + worthlessness + some suicidal thoughts,” in a separate document addressed to Penn’s human resources department also signed on Feb. 13, 2020. “Severe problems w/ supervisor ongoing w/ issues of manipulation and retribution” were the non-medical factors that significantly impacted the former employee’s abilities, her physician wrote in the document, adding that she may need to see her psychiatrist and therapist for medication and counseling for six to 12 months.
This employee was not alone.
Wolf said that before she started another agonizing work week, she would sit in silence, dreading even one more day at GTP. Unable to eat, she would often throw up at work from anxiety. She said Charles, her supervisor whom she blames for the toxic work environment, would tell her to spend less time in the bathroom throwing up.
After speaking to the Medical School’s human resources staff to no avail, Wolf left GTP in March 2020 through short-term disability and FMLA for mental health reasons — about eight months after she was hired.
“It was just ruining me, and everyone always says their first job out of college sucks, and I was like, 'This isn't normal,'” Wolf said. “My therapist told me I should go on leave. And when I told Michelle Hackett my therapist said that, she was like, ‘Yeah, do it. Go on leave.’”
Wolf left on FMLA on March 10, 2020.
Another former employee similarly said she would get overwhelming levels of anxiety while at work.
“It would physically hurt me to walk into that office,” the former employee said. “My heart would start racing. It was just like nothing I'd ever experienced before. And I was just like, what am I doing to myself?”
“And then I left. I took a huge pay cut — that’s how much I wanted out of there,” the former employee said.
The toxic environment that prompted employees to leave is known among other gene therapy programs outside of Penn, the former employee said.
“If you mention GTP outside of Penn, people actually say to me, ‘God, you must be — how did you survive?’” they said. “And no one ever asked — that was the beauty of working there. When you went to get another job, no one ever said, ‘Oh, why are you looking for another job?’ Soon as they saw your resume, they're like, ‘Oh, I'm going to spare you that question. Because we all know about it."
Former employees elevated concerns to the University to no avail
The lack of concrete action following University investigations frustrated employees who feel that Penn is protecting Wilson and GTP by burying the concerns of the program’s lower-level employees.
When employees would bring workplace concerns to GTP's human resources team, the employees claimed problems would not be resolved. One former employee claimed that “nothing ever changed.”
“I went to my boss. I went to my boss’ boss. I went to my boss’ boss’ boss. I went to the dean. I went to [human resources]. I went to Penn [human resources]. I finally had to get a lawyer because no one would do anything. They don’t care,” one former employee said.
Feeling as though they could not depend on GTP’s own human resources department to resolve workplace culture issues, many former employees said they brought their concerns up the food chain — including to the Medical School's central human resources department and Penn’s Office of the Ombuds and Title IX Office. Some of these offices encouraged employees to take mental health leave from work and seek therapy to address the strain GTP placed on their mental health.
One current employee said the Medical School's human resources department closed an investigation on GTP during the COVID-19 pandemic. They said the investigation inquired about Wilson, Alkins, and GTP’s Executive Director of Research Administration Monique Molloy, and added that Hackett continuously asked them if they were willing to file a complaint.
This employee also shared their experiences with GTP, specifically with Alkins and an ex-employee, with Penn’s Office of the Ombuds — a confidential and off-the-record resource appointed to help resolve workplace, academic, or general issues for all Penn community members — which advised them to either stick it out or leave the University.
“[The Ombuds Office] said it sounds like Dr. Wilson is not getting rid of [Alkins] any time soon, and we recommend that you just find another position within Penn or elsewhere, and for now, you just have to do as she says until you can find employment elsewhere,” the current employee said. “That was the only advice I got from that department — that you either jump when they say so and ask them how high, or you leave. And that's when I knew what I was up against.”
In an email to the DP on Sept. 30, the Office of the Ombuds wrote, “We will not share any information regarding matters brought to our office, and will not confirm or deny that any party has reached out to us for assistance.”
Some former employees said Hackett promised an investigation into GTP’s workplace issues, but they claim that they were never followed up with regarding the results of any investigation.
Penn Human Resources Executive Director for Staff and Labor Relations Jeffrey Rowland and Medical School Human Resources contact Albert Johnson also did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A link to human resource policies on the Medical School's website currently leads to a “page not found error.”
“[Hackett] always would say an investigation was going on about everything that was happening within our department, but we never heard anything as to a decision or anything, which was really frustrating,” the former administrative coordinator said.
Hackett was nonetheless receptive to listening to concerns, one former employee said, with another former employee adding that Hackett was visibly horrified as the employee recounted her experience.
“It's like being in a cult. You're surrounded by it — they try to indoctrinate you. And then you talk to somebody outside of that organization, and they're like, ‘Are you serious?’” one former employee said of her experience speaking with Hackett.
“I did go to Hackett for quite a few things,” one former employee said. “But to this date, nothing has been done. And it's like, they're losing employees, like every week, and I don't know how they can afford it."
Wolf similarly spoke to Hackett during many of her lunch breaks about day-to-day issues at work, and said that “nothing changed,” even though Hackett took all of her claims seriously.
The former administrative coordinator also filed a sexual harassment claim to Penn’s Title IX Office about the inappropriate workplace behavior she was forced to witness, and spoke numerous times with Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer Michele Rovinsky-Mayer about her experiences at GTP before she left, which Hackett gave her resources to do. The former employee said she was in contact with Rovinsky-Mayer over the phone before she met with her in person, and also met with two other employees in the Title IX Office.
Still, she was left in the dark.
Title IX complaints against University staff members must be presented to Rovinsky-Mayer, who ensures that complaints are investigated by trained officers. Complaints are expected to be resolved within 60 days of filing, either by a mutually acceptable resolution recommended by the investigative team, or either party may request a hearing conducted by a hearing panel that may recommend sanctions.
Rovinsky-Mayer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The former administrative coordinator said she is disappointed she has never heard any final decision regarding an investigation into her Title IX or Medical School HR complaints. She added that she was surprised "an institution like Penn would allow someone to continue to work for their University knowing everything that's going on, everything that's been said and done."
“It's so disheartening. It's just like, you're willing to let people be treated so badly and abused at work because that person is going to make you money, or because this person is married to that person, and they’re the director of so and so, so we can't afford to lose them," one former employee said. "What about me? Why don't I matter? Like, why do I have to be the sacrificial lamb?”
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.