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MIT professor's drive draws awe, criticism

Some say it hurts university staffing

By the late 1970s, Susumu Tonegawa could have relaxed. The young Japanese scientist had already unlocked sensational secrets of the immune system and was a favorite for a Nobel Prize.

But other researchers were right on his heels.

He worked all night and would drive others in his lab in Basel, Switzerland, to do the same, colleagues recall. He told his first wife they couldn't have children because he didn't want the distraction, according to a news report.

Today, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor is a 66-year-old Nobel laureate and father of three. But friends and enemies alike say the scientist now engulfed in controversy has mellowed little. The Globe obtained e-mails Tonegawa sent in May to a younger neuroscientist who had an MIT job offer; the missives said, ``I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here" because ``unpleasant competition" would result between their two labs.

Some say ruthless competition is the main force driving great science. But others say Tonegawa has taken rivalry to an extreme that is harmful to the university, and to the larger cause of science, especially in an age when advancements are often too complex for one scientist to make alone. His critics fear his actions will hinder MIT's quest to recruit the best talent -- especially women. Although no one has suggested that Tonegawa treated Alla Karpova differently because she is female, the university must fight particularly hard to attract women, scarce in science and engineering.

``He wants his center to be the world's number one, and that comes with . . . paranoia," said Lan Bo Chen , who founded two biotechnology companies with Tonegawa and called him a genius and a good person. ``Unfortunately, we are all like that. I can't think of a scientist who isn't paranoid."

Nancy Kanwisher , an MIT neuroscientist, expressed the opposing view in a letter to the provost in May, complaining that Tonegawa had sabotaged Karpova's appointment.

``Tonegawa apparently sees science as a zero-sum game, in which another lab's success is his loss," she wrote. ``This is not an attitude the rest of us share, and it is not an attitude that is likely to lead to the greatest scientific breakthroughs."

An MIT committee, established by the university's president, is investigating whether Tonegawa intimidated Karpova , who received a job offer from the center he considers his rival. Tonegawa has e-mailed colleagues that he believed it was important for Karpova to be aware of the problems she would face if she came to MIT. Karpova declined MIT's offer and took a job at Howard Hughes Medical Institute lab in Virginia.

He has declined to comment to the Globe except for two brief statements, saying he did nothing inappropriate.

Born in 1939, Tonegawa was the second of four children. His father, an engineer who worked for a textile company, had to move the family every few years between rural factories in southern Japan. As an adolescent, Tonegawa was sent to Tokyo to get a better education.

Tonegawa once said his parents were upset he chose low-paying academia. Two months into graduate school, his professor told him that he would be better off if he studied in the United States, Tonegawa wrote in his Nobel biography. He has been an outspoken critic of the Japanese educational system, saying it stifles the ability of young scientists to think creatively.

After seven years in California, he took a job at the new Basel Institute for Immunology in Switzerland, even though he knew little about the field, partly because his visa required he leave the U nited States for a time.

The lab director initially was skeptical of Tonegawa's desire to study immunology at the molecular instead of the cellular level, which was unorthodox at the time. But the biologist ended up revolutionizing the field. Scientists were mystified about how the immune system can generate specific weapons to fight against millions of disease-causing invaders. Tonegawa later received the Nobel for showing that a limited number of genes shuffle into a virtually endless number of combinations to produce different antibodies.

``He is by far the best scientist that I know," said University of Chicago professor Martin Weigert , who worked with Tonegawa in Basel around 1980.

Weigert said Tonegawa combines pure brain power with amazing instincts. But in those days in Basel, he was ``all business," driving everyone in the lab incredibly hard. Despite his fondness for Tonegawa, Weigert said, the two had a distant, cool relationship until recently.

Tonegawa joined the MIT biology faculty in 1981 and won the Nobel in 1987, nine months after the birth of his first son, who is now an undergraduate at MIT. He and his second wife, Mayumi , have two younger children. A former Japanese television reporter, she writes science books published in Japan.

In a brief phone interview, she praised Tonegawa's ``naked honesty" and called him a man of principle.

Several of Tonegawa's colleagues at the center he directs, the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, called him a wonderful mentor to women and men, while a number of other scientists around the country also praised him as a good collaborator. The majority of scientists at MIT and elsewhere who were reached by the Globe, however, declined to discuss him .

Many scientists say he can be aloof and unfriendly, but many also say he can be charming and fun to be around because of his high energy.

In a video of last December's inauguration of the Picower, Tonegawa appeared relaxed and cheerful, with fashionably shaggy, graying hair. He made fun of himself for his age, and for daring to speculate on the future of brain research, paraphrasing a line from playwright Eugene Ionesco, who wrote, ``You can only predict things after they have happened."

He also spoke about the importance of collaboration between scientists in different fields.

But many friends and foes agree that Tonegawa's competitive streak is one of his most visible traits.

Some years ago, on a group trip in China, the athletic Tonegawa was the first one to climb the steps of the Great Wall, said Matthew Wilson , a professor at the Picower Institute.

Once, for a period of a couple of weeks, Wilson recalled, Tonegawa kept trying to beat him into the office in the morning, coming in closer and closer to 7 a.m. Finding his colleague there first ``made him feel like he was behind," Wilson said.

``It's not about beating others, it's about challenging himself," Wilson said. ``I've never seen him be selfish or petty."

Chen compared him to a Japanese samurai, a warrior who will aggressively defend what is dear to him.

After receiving the Nobel, Tonegawa switched to a different field of biology, neuroscience, because his restless mind was searching for the deepest questions in science, his friends say.

But three MIT professors, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tonegawa damaged the university's immunology program because he had falling-outs with other scientists and refused to hire people he didn't consider loyal to him.

Tonegawa has joked about his unpopularity, said Tomaso Poggio , a professor at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the center that was trying to hire Karpova.

At the Picower inauguration, ``he said on the podium, laughing, that he moved to neuroscience because he made too many enemies in immunology," Poggio said. ``He makes similar comments about leaving Japan and then Switzerland."

In 1995, the journal Science wrote that many researchers were failing to abide by guidelines that said once their research was published they should share with other scientists their ``knockout mice," rodents engineered with a missing gene. Tonegawa was the scientist most frequently cited for failing to share his knockouts, Science wrote.

At the time, Tonegawa responded that he needed to protect his postdoctoral researchers from scientists who were direct competitors. The brouhaha over his e-mails to Karpova has similar undertones. In one of his e-mails to Karpova, Tonegawa spoke of ``ill feelings" between the two institutes. But several other MIT neuroscientists have said that he is the source of the ill feelings.

Some of Tonegawa's supporters say the scientist has been open about his ambitions for the Picower Institute, which he views as his legacy, his stamp on human understanding of the brain.

Stanford neuroscientist Robert Malenka , who serves on Picower's board of advisers, said he recalls Tonegawa saying he wants the Picower to have two more Nobel laureates. Tonegawa, he said, has ``a very good heart," and is more honest about his competitive nature than others. He also called him ``kind of like the George Steinbrenner of science."

``Most scientists can appreciate the discoveries of others, but deep down, they want to do it themselves," he said.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at

 MIT professor's drive draws awe, criticism (By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 8/7/06)
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