Bloomberg gift lures star professors to Johns Hopkins

$350 million gift from Michael Bloomberg has drawn top-notch academics to Hopkins to transform research.

They came from Harvard, Michigan, Columbia and Cornell, every one an academic superstar. Their research crosses disciplines, tackling complex questions about the consequences of environmental regulations on the poor, computational methods for analyzing DNA, and statistical measures of the distribution of galaxies.

Nearly two dozen Bloomberg Distinguished Professors are scattered across the Johns Hopkins University campuses in Baltimore and Laurel, looking for fresh scientific perspectives. University President Ronald J. Daniels says his theory — and Michael Bloomberg's — is that fostering collaboration across Hopkins' campuses could lead to discoveries that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

"This is precisely where we believe that you can be very impactful in moving your field forward and contributing to the resolution of important social issues, economic issues and changing perspectives on the world," Daniels said.

The scholars arrived over the past 21/2 years thanks to a $350 million gift from Bloomberg, the businessman, politician and philanthropist. His donation is one of the largest-ever gifts to a university.

The program aims to build academic bridges that could lead to unexpected breakthroughs in various disciplines. Each new Bloomberg professor is appointed to two separate schools to encourage fresh, creative approaches to their research. The 21 professors also gather periodically to share perspectives.

It can be a tall task to woo some of the nation's top thinkers to give up plum positions and years of work at other top universities, Hopkins administrators say. But halfway through a five-year effort to lure a corps of 50 leading academics to Baltimore, they say the money is helping to address a longtime problem. For all the institution's success, its scientists are too isolated in their own specialties.

Bloomberg announced the donation, which also provides $100 million for 2,600 need-based undergraduate scholarships over a decade, in January 2013. The remaining $250 million created an endowment to help cover the professor salaries.

That means the professors don't need to chase grants or worry about budget cuts, freeing them to focus on whatever research they think will be most fruitful. It's a significant draw for academics with big ideas.

"Philanthropy is no longer the dessert cart; it's the oxygen," said Peter Agre, a Nobel Prize-winning professor of molecular microbiology and immunology who was among the first three appointed Bloomberg professors in February 2014.

Agre and Carol Greider, another Nobel winner and a professor of molecular biology and genetics, are among a small number of professors who were already at Johns Hopkins when they were tapped for the Bloomberg slots. The program ruffled some feathers at first because there are only so many chances to gain a bigger paycheck or more prestige, said Denis Wirtz, vice provost for research.

The university community has since come to see how impactful the program can be. It was front-page news in South Korea when Taekjip Ha, a professor of biophysics, biophysical chemistry and biomedical engineering, landed a Bloomberg appointment last July spanning the medical, engineering and arts and sciences schools at Johns Hopkins, for example.

Others have left behind decades of tenure to join the Bloomberg professors, though they often retain titles or roles at their previous institutions.

Kathleen Sutcliffe, an expert in "high-reliability organizations" in health care and wildfire fighting, spent 20 years at the University of Michigan learning and teaching organizational theory and business management. She arrived at Hopkins last year to work with its Individualized Health Initiative, helping doctors improve treatment, testing and prevention for patients. She also is affiliated with the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety at the School of Medicine.

It can take an artful approach to attract candidates, many of whom have spouses and children to worry about uprooting, Wirtz said. The success rate is about 60 percent, with competition between Hopkins and a professor's home institution, and sometimes even a third or fourth institution, often heating up.

"It's not an interview, it's a sales pitch," Wirtz said. "You want to feel special. You want to feel you're the only one in the world for that department."

Kathryn Edin, a professor of sociology and population, had all the perks and prestige of Harvard University when Hopkins came calling. Harvard fought to keep her. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan, with a long history in the type of poverty research Edin conducts, was interested, too, once word got out she was on the market.

Edin, co-author of well-regarded books, including "$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America" and the Baltimore-focused "Coming of Age in the Other America," said the decision was difficult. All three institutions offered "a ton of resources," she said.

But Hopkins is located in a city Edin considers an ideal laboratory for her work. She jumped at the chance to launch a Poverty and Inequality Research Laboratory and lead a new 21st Century Cities Initiative in Baltimore. She had already conducted research in Baltimore on the long-term results of a historic experiment in housing vouchers and poverty. The unrest last spring following the death of Freddie Gray, who died from spinal injuries sustained while in police custody, only attracted her more and inspired research at the lab.

"The grand plan is to make Hopkins, through the initiative, the nation's leader in understanding processes of neighborhood transformation," Edin said. "Nobody really knows how to transform neighborhoods, but we really need it for cities to survive."

Once the professors arrive, the idea is to set them loose. The Bloomberg endowment provides six-figure returns each year, depending on investment performance, that pay or subsidize their salaries.

Arturo Casadevall, a professor of microbiology and immunology who came to Johns Hopkins in early 2015 from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, is focusing part of his research on helping people whose immune systems are compromised by HIV or organ transplants to survive fungal diseases. But he also came to Hopkins with a plan to shake up traditional training for doctoral students with classes in communication skills and how to determine causality in scientific studies.

"Our idea is you might be able to train better scientists if, in fact, you taught them better in the humanities," he said. "The idea is to preserve what's good about current training, giving them something they don't have now — breadth and the ability to critically think."

The most recent appointee, Michael Schatz, is an example of the unorthodox research approaches that could lie ahead. Schatz officially joined Hopkins last month as an associate professor of biology and computer science, combining those disciplines to unlock the mysteries of the massive amounts of data within the human genome that could reveal unknown genetic factors in disease.

"I've always sat right at this interface between computer science and biology, with extensions into medicine," he said. "There's so much benefit to be gained by bringing the different groups together."

In the meantime, recruitment efforts are ongoing. With appointments that haven't yet been announced and others that are in the works, the university could be halfway to having 50 Bloomberg professors by the end of the summer.

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