Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

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

Subject: CONFIDENTIAL

*CONFIDENTIAL*

Dear 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,

Susumu

Subject: RE: CONFIDENTIAL

From: “Karpova, Alla”

Date: Thu, 11 May 2006 22:07:46 -0400

To: “Susumu Tonegawa”

Dear Susumu,

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 na├»ve, 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.

Sincerely, alla

From: Susumu Tonegawa

Sent: Saturday, May 13, 2006 12:31 PM

To: Karpova, Alla

Subject: RE: CONFIDENTIAL

CONFIDENTIAL

Dear Alla;

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.

Comments

  1. #1 John C. Welch
    November 21, 2006

    Okay, so where’s the sexism? I’m really missing that part. Seems to me he was beyond cordial and took some extra effort to point out that as their research would compete for the same resources and fiscal support, even though it’s (from what I can tell), somewhat complimentary on various levels, that her accepting the position would create unwanted strife.

    None of this is due to her sex, but her work. Now, I may be just stupid, but how is this sexist?

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    November 21, 2006

    Other blogs and forums have deemed it sexist, not me. I’m staying out of that arena mostly because I don’t want to get blasted. But suffice to say that while I think he overstepped his boundaries in tainting the recruiting process, I honestly believe its because he felt threatened by her work/competition rather than her gender.

  3. #3 Shelley Batts
    November 21, 2006

    MIT has had a notoriously bad time in recruiting female researchers and demonstating equality, so its quite likely that nearly every academic snafu there is just clumsily colored with that same brush, whether or not it fits.

    It seems unethical to discourage a potential colleauge from accepting a position, merely because it makes you uncomfortable to see your research overlapping. That reflects extremely poorly on the collaborative spirit at MIT and Tonegawa’s leadership in making amends and fostering camradarie. In that case, likely his stepping down isn’t the worst possible outcome.

  4. #4 McD
    November 21, 2006

    The question of gender prejudice must be applied to equal treatment… would (and has) Susumu Tonegawa block the acceptance of a male “competitor” in such a frank and open manner? Or does the gender of his opponent in this instance allow his behavior: institutionally and professionally. Do researchers have the privilege of blocking “competitive” researchers from their environment?

    I’m just asking? I don’t move in those circles. Would such competition in an area lead to damage for the institution’s ability to function. Tonegawa takes the position that another Institute is hostile to his work… Does science benefit from such competition and should such competitive forces be encouraged within the larger body?

    I think, in public settings, Tonegawa should step back from the process due to clear and open conflicts of interest. Competition is good. Fair competition is best.

  5. #5 Julie Stahlhut
    November 21, 2006

    Actually, at the extreme of having separate, duplicate organizations fighting bitterly over faculty hires within the same university, competition is both unfair and self-defeating. As for sexism, I suspect the e-mails would have been worded quite differently if the junior participant had been male — but I doubt the underlying message would have been different. There was certainly, for lack of a better word, ageism going on. A senior person subjected a junior person to unprovoked intimidation. That’s abusive and unprofessional behavior. Period.

    As an undergrad alumna of MIT, I was sickened by the whole affair; the only feeble humor I could find in the situation was a desire to see the Picower and McGovern Institutes renamed “Judean People’s Front” and “People’s Front of Judea”.

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    November 21, 2006

    “he was beyond cordial”

    Anyone with direct experience of academic and scientific politics can easily see the unbridled aggression in his e-mails.

  7. #7 jackie
    November 21, 2006

    PhysioProf has got it right. These emails are great for exposing how academics communicate – with iron fists in velvet gloves. Tonegawa would stab you in the back all the while telling you how it’s really best for you. You know each of them wrote these emails fully expecting them to be passed around.

  8. #8 grubstreet
    November 21, 2006

    It is unethical to address any job candidate in this way. These arguments should have been (and I presume were) made to the department, but once the department had made the offer, it is highly inappropriate to attempt to shape the outcome in this way. Sexism per se is not the issue, it’s the unethical conduct. There is not question that this is inappropriate behaviour (sadly, the only unusual factor here is that he’s been called on it).

  9. #9 ivan
    November 22, 2006

    i think that Tonegawas behavior in this case is really shameful. in his possible quest for the second nobel prize, maybe he forgot that the patients who desperately wait for the help from research might wait for longer time if jealousy and egoism interfere with the scientific progress. i dont see any particular sexism in this case, but it is sad enough even without it.

  10. #10 Andrea
    November 22, 2006

    I have met Tonegawa and know some of his past trainees. It would be foolish to say he wasn’t a highly competitive, assertive and occasionally ruthless individual – pretty much no one at that scientific level can avoid being so.

    On the other hand, I am quite certain that a male junior faculty in the same situation either would have received the same treatment, or would not have been discouraged from joining MIT, but Tonegawa would not have had the least compunction about not collaborating with the person (which of course would be his prerogative), de facto seriously hampering his career at a critical juncture.

    In other words, I feel that Tonegawa, clumsy and arrogant as he sounds in the e-mails, was trying to be open and frank about the situation, and ultimately helpful towards a junior colleague.

    Believe me, situations like these happen all the time in every institution, have nothing to do with sexism, and conflicts are almost always avoided before they arise. The reason why they weren’t this time, as Tonegawa undiplomatically remarks, is the sense of competition and strain between McGovern and Picower, and, in Tonegawa’s mind, the resulting carelessness and/or ineptitude of the McGovern faculty in pursuing this recruitment.

    The reason why the major brouhaha erupted, and why Tonegawa stepped down, has little to do with discouraging Karpova and sexism, although that’s the “catchy” angle the media played, but with his obvious disdain and mistrust for his MIT colleagues. I suspect that had he just discouraged Karpova from joining MIT, while being respectful of the people who tried to recruit her, nothing major would have happened.

  11. #11 Chris
    November 22, 2006

    Having some experience with how the hiring process works, I have to admit that I’m absolutely shocked by these emails. As other commenters have intimated, this smacks of self-serving bullshit cloaked in concern and advice.

    Now, departments are really concerned about their make up. They want to be sure to have both specific strengths and depth, and too much overlap is a bad thing, not because of competition, but for the opposite reason: if you have two people doing pretty much the same thing they will end up doing, well, pretty much the same thing. If they operate with more distance between them, there will be more room for each to produce individual insights and complementary rather than identical research. Since I don’t know enough about the research of the two individuals in question to gauge the overlap, I can’t say whether that’s at issue here. It’s definitely not the way Tonegawa approaches it in the emails, though.

    I’m also amazed at how Karpova handled this, though. It’s pretty clear that Tonegawa’s emails are threatening. Tonegawa has all the power in the relationship, and should Karpova end up at MIT, life would probably not be pleasant for her, though it would probably not affect Tonegawa negatively at all. I’m sure Karpova recognizes this.

  12. #12 amnestic
    November 22, 2006

    it’s also not all that professional or collegial for the McGovern cats to have leaked these emails to the media about an affair that should have been handled inhouse. now Tonegawa’s name is tarnished in the public arena and he had to step down, when he probably should’ve been reprimanded. if you read the report produced by the commission studying this case you’ll note that part of the issue was that the McGovern institute’s head answers to nobody within the university and thus is able to do things that are highly detrimental to the university like leaking private emails.

    also, i think it is worth really taking a look at how strong the overlap is between tonegawa and karpova’s research programs. they don’t just both study genetics and neuroscience. it isn’t about he research question (how does memory work?).. instead, they have both invested much time and effort on producing very similar technologies to use transgenic manipulations to swiftly inactivate very specific populations of neurons. they are the only two people doing this in the world and it is a huge technological feat. would Linus Pauling have welcomed Watson and Crick onto his faculty? or Collins and Ventner? I’m not saying the discovery will be as big an impact, but it will be huge when one of them pulls this off..

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