MIT Professor Accused of Scaring Off Female Scientist From Job

July 16, 2006

A star neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been accused by 11 other faculty members of scaring a young female competitor away from a job at the institute, The Boston Globe reported on Saturday.

In a letter to MIT’s president, Susan Hockfield, the professors say that Susumu Tonegawa, a Nobel laureate and director of the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, told Alla Karpova that he would not interact or collaborate with her, or serve as her mentor, if she accepted a job at MIT, and that members of his research group would refuse to work with her as well. Ms. Karpova, described as one of the most promising young neuroscientists, has since turned down the job.

The signers of the letter, all women and most involved in MIT committees on gender equity, want administrators to formally apologize to Ms. Karpova and to investigate the situation, saying Mr. Tonegawa’s actions “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.”

Six other MIT faculty members affiliated with the Picower Center subsequently wrote to the president to defend Mr. Tonegawa. And Robert J. Silbey, the dean of science, told the Globe that he believed Mr. Tonegawa was simply telling Ms. Karpova that he did not want to collaborate on research. Mr. Tonegawa’s tone “wasn’t at all threatening or unpleasant,” he said. “It was in fact quite complimentary.”

The controversy is especially sensitive at MIT, which has been a focal point for accusations of bias against female scientists for a decade. Seven years ago, the institute acknowledged in a report that it had discriminated against women (The Chronicle, April 2, 1999), setting in motion a new movement for academic women (The Chronicle, December 3, 1999). In a follow-up report three years later, female academics at MIT said they still felt marginalized (The Chronicle, March 20, 2002). And just this past spring, the MIT scientist who laid the foundation for the institute’s 1999 report said that universities step up efforts to improve women’s status in academe only in response to external or internal pressure (The Chronicle, April 14).