After my post yesterday suggesting that women scientists may still have a harder time being accepted in academic research settings than their male counterparts, Greensmile brought my attention to a story in today’s Boston Globe. It seems that almost a dozen professors at MIT believe they lost a prospective hire due to intimidation of the job candidate by another professor who happens also to be a Nobel laureate. Possibly it matters that the professor alleged to have intimidated the job candidate is male, and that the job candidate and the 11 professors who have written the letter of complaint are female; I’m happy enough to start with a discussion of the alleged behavior itself before paddling to the deep waters of gender politics.
But first, the story:
MIT star accused by 11 colleagues
Prospective hire was intimidated, they say
By Marcella Bombardieri and Gareth Cook, Globe Staff | July 15, 2006
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 Stanford 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. …
[Robert J.] Silbey [the dean of science], … 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 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.
The fact that no one seems to be disputing here is that Tonegawa made it clear to Karpova that he would not be collaborating with her if she accepted MIT’s offer to join the faculty. The disagreement hinges on the manner in which he did so, his intent in doing so, and what impact this could be expected to have on the research and career prospects of a new faculty member at MIT.
By and large, scientists get to choose their own collaborators. At least, senior scientists who have already established their scientific reputations, accrued facilities and secure funding sources, and won a prize or two get to choose their own collaborators. Junior faculty members may be able to collaborate with each other, or, if they’re lucky, an established colleague may deign to collaborate with them.
Collaborating with a big name can have a lot of advantages. You can learn a great deal about successful grant writing, about the social structures within your university and within your field of science beyond your university, and about making research work. People may pay more attention to your work because it is associated with the big name. On the other hand, people may assume that any of the important of exciting things that come from this collaboration are due to the talents of the big name.
Indeed, it sounds, in this particular case, like MIT might have been prepared to place an extra burden on a junior faculty member who might collaborate with a senior colleague — note that dean Silbey stressed that it would be important for Karpova to establish her independence if she wanted to get tenure. But, it seems, this would be required even in the absence of a collaboration with Tonegawa, given the closeness of their research interests. (One must wonder whether the same importance would be placed on establishing independence if Karpova were doing research in an area that no one else at MIT was pursuing. Was she starting out with an extra burden simply in virtue of working in an are where MIT already had a star? If so, what precisely would be the point of hiring an additional faculty member in an area that was already “covered”?)
So, we have a situations where a job candidate knows up front that the prospective colleague whose interests are closest to her own will not enter into a collaboration with her. This might not rule out the prospective colleague mentoring her, but it does seem unlikely, given that he was willing to make the non-collaboration decision without even getting to know her as a colleague. Indeed, the sense one gets from the Globe article is that Tonegawa was at minimum prepared to refuse any help (including collegial interaction) with Karpova, and was perhaps inclined to be an active obstacle to her success.
There’s no reason to think that this kind of behavior needs to be motivated by sexism. It’s entirely possible that Tonegawa is just one of those scientists who sees academia as a bare-knuckles brawl over scarce facilities, funding, grad students, prestige, and Nobel Prizes. Or, perhaps, that he’s a hyper-competitive jerk who would have no qualms about making life hard for a potential competitor, especially a very promising one with her whole careeer ahead of her. He might even have the best of intentions, viewing himself as a gate-keeper dedicated to maintaining the high standards of his research institute by keeping the riffraff out (although here, it’s not clear that he would have enough data about Karpova to decide up front that she is riffraff).
Whatever the reasons, Tonegawa made it clear to Karpova that he would not be part of an environment that nurtured her talents and helped her get her footing in a new academic research environment. Having an environment where you’re likely to be able to get assistance, mentoring, and collaborators is more likely to help you on your way to tenure than an environment where you’re more or less on your own. Karpova, able to do the math, opted for a work environment more likely to put her on a successful trajectory.
Eleven women professors at MIT think Tonegawa’s actions are part of a pattern where women get less support than men. Two women (affiliated with the center Tonegawa oversees) are on record as saying that gender is not the issue here. It’s hard to know for sure what Tonegawa’s motivations are here. However, it seems to be easier for junior faculty who are male to find mentors in male-majority departments than it is for junior faculty who are women (and this has been noted in print). Maybe it has to do with the choosing-who-to-talk-to freedom in academic science — if you’re more comfortable talking to your male colleagues than your female ones, that’s what you do. And somehow, magically, without any of their senior colleagues spending much time with them, women are supposed to break into the senior ranks so there are some senior faculty who are able to mentor the new hires who are women.
It might be reasonable to ask whether it matters that the motivations of Tonegawa and others are not sexist if the effects end up being the same.
And indeed, I’m willing to bet that some new hires who are males might benefit from a less gladiatorial model of social relations in academic science. More cooperation might even lead to better science. You’d think that someone with a Nobel Prize already on the shelf might have the courage and the intellectual curiosity to want to find out.
Read more thoughts on this story from Dr. Shellie.