Demoted researcher reinstated at UNC, will retire Dec. 31

Staff WriterApril 16, 2011 

— A prominent UNC-Chapel Hill researcher has settled a dispute with the university, regaining her credentials and full salary while agreeing to retire at the end of the year.

Bonnie Yankaskas, a noted epidemiologist, had been demoted, her pay cut essentially in half, after a hacker infiltrated a computer server that she, as the principal investigator for a major breast cancer study, oversaw.

The university held her responsible for the breach and first tried to fire her before recommending the demotion from full to associate professor and the pay cut.

Under the terms of a settlement announced Friday, Yankaskas has regained her status as a full professor, and her full salary of $175,000 has been restored.

She agreed to retire Dec. 31, according to a news release issued late Friday.

Under the terms of the agreement, the university will not comment on the settlement's terms. Nor will Yankaskas, according to her attorney, Raymond Cotton.

For 15 years, Yankaskas has overseen the Carolina Mammography Registry, a federally funded project that compiles and analyzes mammogram data submitted by dozens of radiology offices across North Carolina.

In 2009, UNC School of Medicine officials discovered that the server had been infiltrated two years earlier. Though the university doesn't think any personal information was removed, it nonetheless notified all 180,000 women with data on the server and set up a call center to answer questions. That cost roughly $250,000.

As the leader of the registry project, Yankaskas was responsible for making sure the data were secure. Because she's not an information technology expert herself, she hired a staff member to do so.

Yankaskas, who holds a doctorate in epidemiology, argued that she could not be held responsible for high-level computer security, a field in which she is not an expert.

"The University acknowledges that Dr. Yankaskas is an eminent researcher and a long-standing faculty member, and that she has made many contributions to the advancement of science and the improvement of health care for women concerned about or experiencing breast cancer," the university's news statement read in part. "The university also acknowledges that there was a communication breakdown, which hindered Dr. Yankaskas from learning that CMR had a vulnerable server. Dr. Yankaskas acknowledges that, as principal investigator of CMR, she had the responsibility for the scientific, fiscal and ethical conduct of the project, and responsibility to hire and supervise the CMR information technology staff who, with assistance as requested from School of Medicine and University information technology professionals, operate and maintain the CMR computer systems on which secure data are maintained."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

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