By now, much of academia has heard about the goings-on at MIT. Susumu Tonegawa, head of the prestigious Picowar Institute at MIT and Nobel Laureate, is stepping down from his position following a university review which found he “behaved inappropriately when he tried to discourage a young female scholar from accepting a job offer from MIT.” He was accused by 11 other faculty memebers of stating that he would not interact with her if she accepted the position, and that her presence would make for an uncomfortable situation for the neuroscience institute due to perceived academic competition between her and Tonegawa. She ended up turning down the job offer, despite stating that working at MIT was one of her dreams. There’s been a lot of he-said she-said as to what the content, and montivations, of Tonegawa’s conversations were. Was it sexist discrimination? Purely about competition?
Below the fold are the actual emails exchanged between Tonegawa and young researcher Alla Karpova, found freely available on the net. Make your own conclusions.
Karpova, after receiving these e-mails, turned down a job offer from MIT. She would have worked at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, while Tonegawa directs a different center, the Tonegawa’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.
Boston Globe reporter Marcella Bombardieri obtained these emails during the course of reporting about the incident. Below are the full e-mails, edited only to remove some names of minor characters in the dispute.
From: Susumu Tonegawa
Sent: Thursday, May 11, 2006 7:09 PM
To: Karpova, Alla
I enjoyed talking with you enormously. Although I do have a reservation about the use of the MIST technology as the primary approach for studying circuit mechanisms underlying the behaviors and cognition, I was very impressed by your intelligence, energy and engaging demeanor. I became fond of you very much.
With these positive things said, I do have a strong reservation about having you as a faculty colleague in the same building here at MIT at this time because of a serious overlap in research interest and approach: reward-driven learning and decision-making studied using genetically engineered rodents (and possibly primates in the future). We briefly discussed the possibility of arranging a collaboration. But this is complex because others (postdocs and students) are involved and your lab and my lab’s expertise are not really complimentary. Furthermore, for career development (tenure evaluation), it is disadvantageous for a junior faculty (you) to have a collaborative arrangement with a senior faculty member (me).
I put some further thought into it and talked extensively with my postdocs and graduate students. I also talked with my current collaborating faculty colleagues, and we all came up with the conclusion that if you set up a lab at the McGovern Institute, unpleasant competition will be unavoidable. Also, my postdocs and graduate students and your counterparts will be very reluctant to be open to each other about their current status of research. Management of these people and the research projects will become very difficult for both of us. What accentuates this difficulty is the still uneasy atmosphere between McGovern and Picower which you may have noticed.
An additional drawback in logistics is about the shared resources and facilities. When this building complex was designed, the McGovern Institute did not show much interest in the facilities needed for rodent research, focusing more on primate research. Consequently, I, as Director of the Picower Institute, took the major role in securing and designing rodent holding, behavior and transgenic facilities. For instance, there is a communal rodent behavior facility but it is designed primarily for the Picower Institute users, and is furnished with Picower’s equipment. I am afraid that accommodating your lab would be difficult.
Alla, as you are very aware, two competing labs in the same building is something we should avoid by all means. Some people who are promoting your arrival here are ignoring this basic principle, but I don’t believe that they are doing a service to you.
In summary, I am sorry, but I have to say to you that at present and under the present circumstances, I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here as a junior faculty colleague. That said, I admire your intelligence, talent and maturity. I am most happy to support you if you and I are going to work with some distance between us. Who knows, in several years our paths may cross again.
With warm regards,
Subject: RE: CONFIDENTIAL
From: “Karpova, Alla”
Date: Thu, 11 May 2006 22:07:46 -0400
To: “Susumu Tonegawa”
I really appreciate your kind words and your openness about the issue at hand. Although I would have by far preferred to be part of the outstanding neuroscience community at MIT, I can hardly image being happy there without being able to freely interact with the members of the Picower Institute. I tremendously respect you and admire what a wonderful group you have built there, and would give so much to have someone like you as my mentor, so having tensions with you would make things fundamentally different.
I had really hoped to convince you that I would find a way to ask sufficiently distinct questions in my lab to both prevent the feeling of competition and to promote a genuine interest in learning about each other’s results. I do know I would have done my absolute best to try to ensure that. I am probably very naïve, but I did think it would be possible. However, you are much more experienced in this matter, and if you don’t think it would be possible, you are probably right.
On top of our personal interaction, it would pain me to see my appointment to increase the tensions between the Picower and the McGovern Institutes. By nature, I always try to diffuse conflicts and to bring people closer. It is unlikely that I could live with myself if I knew that I contributed to escalation of such a conflict. I was naively excited about McGovern’s interest in me because I felt that I could always find the understanding and support at the Picower and that maybe I can help diffuse some of the tensions between the two, while it seems that the opposite would result from my appointment.
With that, as painful as it is, I will probably turn down any offer McGovern may give me. As much as being part of this special community at MIT is a dream that almost came true, it is probably not worth the tension and discomfort it would generate. Once again, I tremendously value your openness on this subject.
From: Susumu Tonegawa
Sent: Saturday, May 13, 2006 12:31 PM
To: Karpova, Alla
Subject: RE: CONFIDENTIAL
Thank you for the quick response. By this time I assume you have been informed about an informal offer from Chris Kaiser [head of MIT's biology department] and Bob Desimone [director of the McGovern Institute]. I suppose Bob Desimone is trying hard to convince you that there is so much support for you at MIT, particularly at McGovern, that you do not need to take the “Tonegawa and Picower factor” into your equation for your decision. I wouldn’t be surprised other McGovern people are sending you similar messages. Much of the enthusiasm is of course derived from your talent and charm. Who would not notice them. However, these people really do not understand your and my work, the technologies involved and their complexity. A substantial portion of their enthusiasm originates from the sense of competition and rivalry with the Picower Institute and the desire to duplicate a research program based on rodent genetic engineering at McGovern which, as you know, has already been established very successfully at the Picower Institute.
Their sense of rivalry and desire is so strong that they are not paying sufficient attention to your professional benefits and personal welfare. You are an unusually mature and interacting person. Nevertheless, it is a hard thing for a young person like you to establish a lab, particularly on a type of research program and approach where no senior faculty members in the immediate environment can provide mentoring as well as work support (facility, reagents, etc.). This is clearly the case at McGovern. Obviously, my lab and I can fulfill this role, but as I elaborated in the previous email, the closeness of your and our interest and the competition between the two Institutes would not permit me and my lab to do that.
Many Picower Institute faculty members are very upset about the way this recruitment process was bulldozed. 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.
Alla, I believe you and I discovered during the private meeting that we have a lot in common, the enthusiasm for rodent genetic manipulations for the new type of systems neuroscience, importance of interactions, fondness of candid demeanor, etc. Unfortunately, your arrival at the McGovern Institute as a junior faculty member at this time will deprive a lot of fun from both you and me. As I wrote in the previous message, I would like to work with you with some physical distance from each other for several years to come so that we can both work free of these compoundednesses. Fortunately, you have great offers from two other prestigious institutions. As someone who is fond of you, and as a senior member of the neuroscience community, I honestly recommend you to take one of these positions rather than plunge into the hot pan.
With warm regards, Susumu
Source of emails.