Accused Alabama Shooter Was a Bright Scientist With Career Ups and Downs

Huntsville Police Dept.

Amy Bishop, in a police booking photo.
February 15, 2010

Amy Bishop, the Alabama biologist accused of shooting six of her colleagues, three of them fatally, in a faculty meeting last week, has spent her career studying mechanisms that lead to the degeneration of neural tissues.

That career has been moderately successful, at least as such things are conventionally measured, by publications, research grants, and praise from peers. Ms. Bishop and her colleagues recently developed an innovative technique for studying neural cells—a project that has drawn more than $1-million in private investment.

But interviews with her colleagues and reports in the news media suggest that Ms. Bishop has also had a long history of strife.

William Setzer, chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, where the shootings took place, and an adjunct lecturer in the biology department, told The Chronicle, "She's pretty smart. That was not a question."

But he also said he had heard from colleagues in biology that she clashed with other people. "There might have been some question about how good" a principal investigator and mentor she was, he said. "Yeah, she knows her stuff, and she's a good technical person, but as far as being the boss and running the lab, that was kind of the question."

Ms. Bishop, who is 44, graduated from Northeastern University in 1988 and earned a doctorate in genetics from Harvard University in 1993. She spent much of the next decade working as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Bruce Demple, then a professor of genetics at the Harvard School of Public Health. In 2003 she won a tenure-track position at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

Her life had been shadowed by violence, however. The Boston Globe reported this weekend that Ms. Bishop fatally shot her younger brother at their home in Braintree, Mass., in 1986. She and her mother told the police at the time that the shooting was accidental. But the chief of police in Braintree released a statement Saturday in which he said that some police officers at the time of the killing were frustrated that the investigation was stopped.

And on Sunday, the Globe reported that federal law-enforcement officials once considered Ms. Bishop a suspect in a still-unsolved case involving a mail bomb sent to Paul A. Rosenberg, then an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard University. Although she and her husband were investigated, they were not charged with the crime.

According to the Globe's account, Ms. Bishop had feared that Dr. Rosenberg would criticize her dissertation, which was submitted the same month that the bomb was mailed, December 1993.

The Chronicle could not confirm whether Dr. Rosenberg sat on Ms. Bishop's dissertation committee, but he collaborated with Paul M. Gallop, her dissertation adviser, who died in 1996. Dr. Rosenberg declined to comment on Sunday.

Most of Ms. Bishop's published papers concern nitric oxide, a molecule that cells use to communicate with other cells. But at high levels, nitric oxide is toxic. It is believed to play a role in the development of certain cancers—and also neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease.

In a 2004 paper that was developed in Mr. Demple's lab, Ms. Bishop and several colleagues described genetic mechanisms that seem to allow some cells to resist nitric-oxide toxicity, at least at moderate levels.

If those mechanisms can be somehow be turned into genetic therapies, they might eventually lead to new treatments for a variety of neurogenerative ailments. That was the premise of a $219,750 grant that Ms. Bishop received in 2008 from the National Institutes of Health. But according to several accounts—including a Chronicle interview with her husband on Sunday—Ms. Bishop's output was not regarded as adequate by the tenure committee at Alabama. She was notified last spring that she did not get tenure, and although she made several appeals of that decision, they were ultimately unsuccessful.

Slow to Publish

Ms. Bishop published only one peer-reviewed paper in each of the years 2004, 2005, and 2006. She published no papers in 2007 and 2008. Last year she published three peer-reviewed papers, one of which appeared in the little-known International Journal of General Medicine. Other biologists who do similar work on neurodegenerative disorders tend to publish at a much faster clip.

Mr. Setzer, the chemistry-department chair, said he had heard from colleagues in biology that Ms. Bishop's publication record was thin and that she hadn't secured enough grants. There were also concerns about her personality, he said. In meetings, Mr. Setzer remembered, she would go off on "bizarre" rambles about topics not related to tasks at hand—"left-field kind of stuff," he said.

Still, Mr. Setzer said he was "mildly surprised" that Ms. Bishop had not received tenure last year. He asked the biology-department chairman, Gopi K. Podila, about it and was told that while Mr. Podila supported her, most of the faculty members in the department did not.

Apart from her problems with tenure, Amy Bishop was quite happy and successful in her relationship with the university over her invention of a new kind of cell incubator, according to a business partner.

The invention, called the InQ, is an integrated machine for growing and examining cell cultures, in a manner that its developers are touting as wholesale advance over the archaic 133-year-old system of Petri dishes.

Its use could drive scientific advances against nerve-related ailments—such as Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and stroke—because nerve cells don't survive more than a day or two in a Petri dish, said Richard E. Reeves, chairman of Prodigy Biosystems, which is making and marketing the device.

The idea came about because Ms. Bishop was frustrated by the limits that Petri-dish technology imposed on the types of nerve experiments she saw as critical to her field, Mr. Reeves said.

He added that she responded to that frustration about four years ago by going to her "computer-nerd husband," James E. Anderson, and persuading him to help her invent a better place to work on her experiments.

The result is a machine about the size of a desktop photocopier, with a slot in the front resembling the opening in a compact-disk player. The sample, placed on a tray, is slid inside, where the necessary mixture of nutrients and gases can keep the experiment alive for months. Internal instruments, including a microscope and camera, allow the researcher to work from a remote location by computer, without opening and exposing the sample.

Using the InQ will allow long-term studies of nerve cells outside the human body, which could be critical to breakthroughs in disease research, Mr. Reeves said. The units are expected to sell for about $30,000 apiece. Although Petri dishes cost only pennies, the accompanying incubators and microscopes can cost $50,000 to $200,000 apiece.

David B. Williams, president of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, highlighted the invention in November 2008 in his online blog, as the prime example of why research universities are key to future economic development.

"This remarkable technology," Mr. Williams said of the InQ, "will change the way biological and medical research is conducted."

The university, which owns the invention, brought it to BizTech, a business-incubator company, which used financing from Mr. Reeves's Huntsville Angel Network to create a firm, Prodigy Biosystems, to make and sell InQ. Ms. Bishop serves on Prodigy's Board of Directors.

Mr. Reeves said he could not discuss financial terms, though he said that the profit-sharing arrangements with the university followed a standard model and that Ms. Bishop was satisfied with the relationship.

"She was having issues with her tenure at the university," he said. But, he said of InQ, "this was going well."