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Professor allegedly bullied MIT prospect

E-mails suggest she turn down job offer

Forty minutes after MIT's biology department voted to offer a job to a young neuroscientist, Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa sent the woman an e-mail warning that her arrival at the university would create serious problems because she would be competing directly with him.

``I am sorry . . . I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here as a junior faculty colleague," Tonegawa wrote to Alla Karpova , a postdoctoral fellow in her late 20s, who subsequently turned down MIT's offer and took a job in a Virginia lab.

In e-mails obtained by the Globe, Tonegawa strongly counseled Karpova not to accept the job, suggesting that professors trying to recruit her were misleading her into thinking that MIT could provide her a supportive atmosphere.

The e-mails also show that Karpova made repeated efforts to persuade the neuroscientist to give his blessing to her coming to MIT. She even promised to avoid research in which he was interested.

The e-mail dialogue is key evidence that a committee, created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Susan Hockfield, will examine in response to allegations from colleagues that Tonegawa bullied Karpova. In academia, even professors who oppose a hiring generally are expected to fall in line with the decision once it had been made. The committee will have to address whether Tonegawa violated the standard.

The case may be the biggest challenge that Hockfield, also a neuroscientist, has faced since she took office in December 2004. She has declined to comment.

If the accusations are deemed true, Hockfield will face the task of standing up to one of MIT's greatest luminaries, someone who brings in tens of millions of dollars of research funding.

``This may come down to a question of pragmatism vs. moral leadership for the president," said Lewis M. Duncan, president of Rollins College in Florida and former dean of engineering at Dartmouth College.

In a chronology of events that Tonegawa e-mailed to colleagues, obtained by the Globe, he said he sent her his first e-mail as a follow-up to her interview with him two days before the Biology Department vote.

``I felt that Dr. Karpova should be given as much information as possible for her decision, not just `MIT is a wonderful place, don't worry about anything, just accept the offer ,' " he wrote.

Karpova has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

In a written comment provided by a spokesman, Tonegawa said this week he stood by his previous statement that ``I did nothing to interfere with the offer" to Karpova. Tonegawa's earlier statement also said he could not agree to collaborate with or mentor Karpova because of his responsibilities at his center, the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. But his e-mails intensely oppose her arrival at MIT.

In a May 11 e-mail, Tonegawa praised Karpova and said he'd grown fond of her but ``unpleasant competition will be unavoidable," because of overlap in their research interests. He said some rodent research facilities were designed primarily for his center, and people at the center who were recruiting her, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, had not shown interest in the facilities.

But a spokeswoman for MIT said this week that the university's central administration allocates lab space and provides each professor with his or her needs.

Karpova responded later on the night of May 11 to Tonegawa that she would probably turn down the offer, though she had hoped to convince him she could do research that was sufficiently distinct from his.

``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," she wrote. ``I tremendously value your openness on this subject."

Tonegawa sent a second e-mail on May 13, saying his McGovern colleagues were enthusiastic about Karpova because she could help them compete with his already successful work at the Picower and were not paying enough attention to her personal welfare.

Karpova declined MIT's offer, but soon reconsidered and sent Tonegawa three increasingly impassioned messages in May and June. He did not reply by e-mail, although his chronology said he replied to one by phone.

She made it clear MIT was her first choice. Although she had other prestigious offers, Karpova wrote that ``scientifically, I believe [MIT] provides the most stimulating environment." She added it was the only way she and her boyfriend could live in the same city.

Tonegawa's critics take issue with the way he portrayed the relationship between the Picower and the McGovern in his e-mails to Karpova. Several neuroscientists said there is little rivalry and much collaboration. Tonegawa's supporters say that some friction is inevitable when two neuroscience entities coexist, while his detractors say that he, in fact, is the only source of tension.

In his second e-mail, Tonegawa's concluding line left no doubt about his stance: ``I honestly recommend you to take one of these [other offers outside MIT] rather than plunge into the hot pan."

Gareth Cook of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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