By Marcella Bombardieri and Gareth Cook
Eleven MIT professors have accused a powerful colleague, a Nobel laureate, of interfering with the university’s efforts to hire a rising female star in neuroscience.
The professors, in a letter to MIT’s president, Susan Hockfield, accuse professor Susumu Tonegawa of intimidating Alla Karpova, “a brilliant young scientist,” saying that he would not mentor, interact, or collaborate with her if she took the job and that members of his research group would not work with her.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they wrote in their June 30 letter, “allowed a senior faculty member with great power and financial resources to behave in an uncivil, uncollegial, and possibly unethical manner toward a talented young scientist who deserves to be welcomed at MIT.” They also wrote that because of Tonegawa’s opposition, several other senior faculty members cautioned Karpova not to come to MIT.
She has since declined the job offer.
In response to the June 30 letter, six of Tonegawa’s colleagues defended him in their own letter to Hockfield.
Tonegawa, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, is considered one of the world’s top scientists, and also one of the most powerful. The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, which he oversees, received $50 million in 2002 to support research into Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and other diseases. Despite his success, Tonegawa saw Karpova “as a competitive threat to him,” according to a June 27 letter from a Stan ford professor to Hockfield. All three letters were obtained by the Globe. Karpova’s job offer was made jointly by the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the biology department, which would not have required her to work with Tonegawa.
The MIT professors who signed the letter are pressuring administrators to give Karpova a formal apology and to investigate the situation. “We have damaged MIT’s reputation as an institution that supports academic fairness for young faculty and jeopardized our ability to attract the best scientists to MIT,” wrote the 11 professors, all women, and most involved in MIT committees on gender equity issues. Several of the professors could not be reached and one declined to comment.
Hockfield was traveling and unavailable for comment yesterday. MIT’s provost is looking into the allegations, said Robert J. Silbey, the dean of science. In a statement provided by an MIT spokeswoman, the university said it cannot discuss hiring situations, but acts to address any concerns about unfairness in faculty hiring.
Silbey, however, said in an interview with the Globe that he believed Tonegawa’s e-mails and conversations with Karpova were simply notification that he did not want to collaborate on research. The two have similar research interests. Karpova is just finishing a postdoctoral fellowship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and was interviewing for her first faculty job.
“Is he competitive? Yes.” Silbey said of Tonegawa. “What is he competitive for? To make Picower the best in the world. Does that get on other people’s nerves? Yes.”
The incident occurred a few months after an MIT professor raised concern in a faculty newsletter that the university has stalled in some of its efforts to hire outstanding women scientists and treat them equally. In 1999, MIT acknowledged a pervasive bias against women and promised to work to achieve equity in hiring, pay, and the overall treatment of women.
The tempest also adds to concerns about the future of MIT’s efforts in neuroscience. Some professors say Tonegawa has already caused tension because he is overly competitive with any potential rival, including the McGovern Institute, which shares the same new neuroscience building at MIT.
MIT professor Tomaso Poggio said Tonegawa appears to want “everything to be under his control.”
“Most people would say that he is very smart and charming and a very difficult person to deal with. He is not a team player,” said Poggio, a professor at the McGovern Institute.
On July 7, a week after letters criticizing Tonegawa were sent to Hockfield, a group of six MIT faculty, including two women, wrote to the president in defense of Tonegawa. The signers of the letter are all affiliated with the center that Tonegawa oversees. They wrote that Karpova asked Tonegawa whether he would collaborate with her, and he said that he would not.
“We feel that Susumu is being unfairly maligned, and we wish to express our strong support of him,” they wrote. “This is not a gender issue, and to portray it as such sets back the cause of women scientists.”
The letter also says that punishing Susumu would have “far-reaching negative consequences” and would endanger future funding for the institute Tonegawa oversees.
In an e-mail responding to a Globe request for comment, Karpova would not field questions about what occurred. “I do believe that this problem has been sorted out for the present,” she wrote.
She said she was accepting an offer to lead a research team at a lab called Janelia Farm in Virginia, recently established by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “and I am very excited about this unique opportunity.”
Karpova declined the university’s job offer in a June 24 e-mail to the science dean and other MIT officials, according to a copy included in a complaint to university officials from Stanford professor Ben A. Barres.
“I wanted very much to come to MIT,” she wrote in the e-mail. “However, the strong resistance to my recruitment by Dr. Tonegawa has convinced me that I could not develop my scientific career at MIT in the kind of a nurturing atmosphere that I and the young people joining my lab would need in order to succeed.”
Karpova added that senior faculty at MIT warned her “about the professional difficulties I would face at MIT in a situation where part of the community strongly felt that my research direction could potentially compete with their scientific interests.”
Tonegawa was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for pioneering work on the genetics of the immune system. He then moved into neuroscience, and is particularly focused on studying memory.
Several scientists said Karpova is considered one of the most promising young neuroscientists. Her work “has incredible potential for making big steps forward in our understanding of how the brain works,” said Barres, when asked to comment on his letter to MIT. He wrote in the letter that the young scientist told him about her experiences at MIT during a visit to Stanford, which also was interested in hiring her.
Barres’s letter also said that in addition to Tonegawa, Silbey, the science dean, advised Karpova not to come to MIT. Barres also wrote that Tonegawa told her “if she came he would do his best to block her success, including blocking access to the animal facility that he claims to have control over.”
Silbey said that’s not true, and contended that he told Karpova he wanted her to come to MIT. He said the overlap of her research and Tonegawa’s would make it important for her to establish her independence in order to win tenure.
Tonegawa’s tone, in e-mails Silbey saw, “wasn’t at all threatening or unpleasant. It was in fact quite complimentary,” the dean said.
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri @globe.com. Gareth Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org