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MIT neuroscience center head quits

Tonegawa will keep his professorship

Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa has announced that he will resign as head of the MIT neuroscience center he established, two weeks after a university investigation found that he acted inappropriately when he discouraged a young neuroscientist from accepting a job at MIT because she would be competing with him.

Tonegawa will remain a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In a statement released late yesterday, Tonegawa wrote that he would step down from his position as director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the end of the year "so I can devote all my energy and focus to research."

Tonegawa declined to comment when reached by phone.

"Let's be absolutely clear: Susumu was not asked to step down," professor Earl K. Miller told the Globe in an e-mail. "What Susumu has done is noble. He decided that the best way for the MIT neuroscience community to move on would be for him to step aside and put an end to these distractions."

Provost L. Rafael Reif released a statement praising Tonegawa, but he did not say that MIT had tried to dissuade Tonegawa.

"We respect Professor Tonegawa's decision to step down," Reif wrote, thanking him for making the Picower "a world leader in neuroscience research."

An MIT spokeswoman said the decision was the professor's and declined to comment further.

A person who spoke to Tonegawa yesterday about his decision said he wants more time to raise money for a major new research project and also wants to get out of the limelight.

"He doesn't want to be distracted by any of the politics anymore," said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He just wants to walk away from it."

Tonegawa came under withering attack from some colleagues over the summer for his behavior toward Alla Karpova, a postdoctoral fellow being recruited to join MIT's faculty by the rival neuroscience center at MIT, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

In May, Tonegawa sent her two e-mails strongly urging her to reject MIT's offer because of overlap in their research interests. "I am sorry . . . I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here as a junior faculty colleague," he wrote in one of the e-mails.

Tonegawa said later that he was trying to help her by candidly characterizing the situation she would have encountered at MIT.

She declined the job offer.

A committee of four professors spent several months probing the incident. They issued a report Nov. 2 that found that Tonegawa acted inappropriately. However, the report said that he was to some extent provoked because he was excluded from parts of the hiring process.

The committee found fault with several other people, especially the McGovern director, Robert Desimone, and said that both Desimone and Tonegawa sometimes failed to take into account Karpova's interests and those of MIT.

Reif said that the main cause of the conflict was the unhealthy competition among neuroscientists at MIT, something MIT is trying to redress.

But Tonegawa's critics slammed the report, and several professors complained to the university's administration, saying that it contained inaccuracies. The report was removed from MIT's website until the comments could be evaluated. It has not yet been reissued.

Although Tonegawa's critics were disappointed with MIT's previous handling of the case, his resignation as director is likely to help ease tensions.

"I hope that this will be an important step forward in enabling a more collaborative and supportive environment in the neuroscience community at MIT," Stanford neuroscientist Ben A. Barres wrote in an e-mail.

Barres was the first person to ask the MIT administration to look into Tonegawa's treatment of Karpova.

MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who has previously said that Tonegawa's behavior would hurt MIT's efforts to recruit the best faculty, said, "This is the most constructive possible step to allow neurosicence to develop at MIT and a positive outcome for all concerned."

Tonegawa, 67, is a world-famous biologist who received the Nobel Prize in 1987 for his work in immunology. In 1994, he founded the institute later renamed after a gift from the Picower Foundation.

In his statement, Tonegawa thanked the Picower Institute's major donors and said he was proud of the faculty he had recruited to MIT.

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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