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Professor Accused of Career Intimidation Incident Highlights Growing Research Rift

By Angeline Wang

Allegations made against a prominent MIT professor regarding his actions during the Institute’s failed recruitment of a young female scientist have raised concerns about the tensions between the Institute’s neuroscience units and the ability of professors in the two major neuroscience centers to collaborate on research. Nobel laureate and Biology professor Susumu Tonegawa, the head of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, was accused of bullying neuroscientist Alla Y. Karpova into declining the Biology Department’s offer to become an Assistant Professor working at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

The allegations were raised in a letter addressed to President Susan Hockfield on June 30. It was signed by 11 tenured female faculty members from the five MIT schools, many involved in gender equity issues on campus. The 11 professors state in the letter that they strongly believe “MIT failed in this situation” and that MIT’s reputation as an Institute that supports fairness had been damaged. “We have 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.”

The letter goes on to explain that this case is not the first instance in which structural issues have interfered negatively with faculty recruitment in the neuroscience community.

In response to the June 30 allegations, another letter was sent to Hockfield by six of Tonegawa’s colleagues defending his actions, as reported in the Boston Globe. Two of the six faculty members were women. All six are affiliated with Picower and were hired by Tonegawa.

“We feel that [Tonegawa] is being unfairly maligned, and we wish to express our strong support of him,” the letter said, as published in the Globe. “This is not a gender issue, and to portray it as such sets back the cause of women scientists.”

In actuality, the June 30 letter did not bring up gender at all, but Biology professor Nancy H. Hopkins does feel that it plays a part. Hopkins was the chair of faculty diversity last year and is also one of the signers of the June 30 letter.

“Regardless of the specifics of any one case, it is always a gender issue in recruiting because of the significant under-representation of women on the faculty,” Hopkins said, adding that there are currently 36 women and 240 men on the School of Science faculty at MIT. “We know that identifying and attracting exceptional women can require novel approaches and special commitment by the faculty and administration.”

Tonegawa was unavailable for comment but released a statement to the Globe two weeks ago, saying that he welcomed the committee’s efforts to strengthen the relationship between the neuroscience entities at MIT.

“I am absolutely certain that I acted entirely appropriately at all times regarding the candidacy of Ms. Karpova,” his statement, as published in the Globe, said. “I did nothing to interfere with the offer she received from the McGovern Institute. Ms. Karpova asked me to serve as her mentor and to collaborate in research if she were to join the McGovern Institute faculty. Because of my responsibilities as director of the Picower Institute and other factors, I felt I could not agree to her request.”

E-mails offer further insight

The latest documents that have been made public are a series of confidential e-mails between Tonegawa and Karpova written in May, which were obtained by the Globe. ( The e-mails show that Karpova, who had just completed a postdoctoral fellowship and was applying for her first faculty position, had considered MIT to be her top choice but was disheartened when Tonegawa described the problems that would arise because of their similar research interests and that “unpleasant competition will be unavoidable.” Tonegawa, in the e-mails, while praising Karpova and saying that he had grown fond of her, also described the “uneasy atmosphere between McGovern and Picower.”

“Many Picower Institute faculty members are very upset about the way this recruitment process was bulldozed,” Tonegawa wrote in one e-mail. “These Picower people are seriously concerned that your arrival under the conditions will intensify the competition and ill feelings between the two institutes. These concerns are in fact shared by a substantial number of other members of the Biology Department.”

Interestingly, many faculty members in the neuroscience departments do not share Tonegawa’s opinions on the relationship between the two research centers. Both Robert Desimone, director of McGovern, and Mriganka Sur, Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department head and member of Picower, feel that the relationship between the research centers is a collaborative one and that faculty members work together quite a bit. Sur also said that there is no competition for space, as the new building was designed so that the three neuroscience entities — McGovern, Picower, and the BCS Department — could coexist.

An important factor in recruitment, Sur said, is to have consensus within the faculty on a candidate.

According to the Globe, Karpova declined MIT’s job offer on June 24 in an e-mail sent to the Dean of Science Robert J. Silbey and other MIT officials. The copy obtained by the Globe was included in a complaint to Hockfield from Stanford neuroscience professor Ben A. Barres ’76. Barres had heard Karpova’s story during her visit to Stanford, a school that was also interested in hiring her.

“I wanted very much to come to MIT,” she wrote in the e-mail, as published in the Globe. “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.”

In his letter, Barres said that Silbey also discouraged Karpova from coming to MIT. In a Globe article, Silbey denied that claim. Silbey declined to comment to The Tech.

On July 17, upon her return from traveling, Hockfield responded to the June 30 letter and thanked the professors for bringing the issue forward in such a “positive and productive way.” Hockfield wrote in her letter that MIT has reached out to Karpova “to apologize for any misunderstanding during the recruitment process that might have made her question MIT’s commitment to young faculty.”

Hockfield also called for the creation of the faculty committee to investigate the incident and the overall structure of the neuroscience programs.

“We are disappointed,” Provost L. Rafael Reif said, referring specifically to the administration’s reaction to the Karpova situation. “MIT has made a significant commitment to neuroscience, which we believe is a tremendously exciting field with enormous promise that can be realized at MIT. I have confidence that we will learn from this situation, and that we will come out of it considerably stronger.”

Karpova declined to comment on the current situation but said in an e-mail that she has since accepted an offer to run a lab at Janelia Farm, which was recently created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She said that she is excited about the “unprecedented opportunity to just focus on science” and “will have a lot of fun being in a highly collaborative environment.”

Faculty committee to investigate

The investigation into faculty hiring practices within MIT’s neuroscience programs is currently underway, a few weeks after allegations were made against a prominent MIT professor regarding his actions during the university’s failed recruitment of a young female scientist.

The faculty committee, convened by Reif on July 18 to conduct the investigation, will use the faculty search and recruitment processes, in this specific case and in general, “as a window into underlying tensions among the neuroscience entities at MIT,” Reif said in an e-mail. According to Reif, the faculty members chosen to be on the committee are all “highly respected members of the MIT community” who are not members of either the Biology or BCS Departments. The faculty members also have experience in hiring faculy and have managed interdisciplinary research programs, Reif said.

According to committee chair Jacqueline N. Hewitt PhD ’86, director of the Center for Space Research, the structure of the neuroscience programs will be examined, as well as the way interdisciplinary work is conducted between the departments and research centers. A combination of documents and interviews with faculty, researchers, and the people involved in this specific recruitment case will be used to help “fill in some of the gaps.”

Hewitt said she hopes that the committee will complete its fact-finding work by October, at which point the provost will use the acquired information to make recommendations to improve collaboration in the neurosciences. According to Hewitt, whether Karpova chooses to be a part of the committee’s investigation into these events is her choice.

“This issue has broad significance because the most important intellectual challenges of our time call for interdisciplinary approaches,” Hockfield said in a July 18 press release.