Universities in hot pursuit of research talent

The Baltimore Sun

When the University of Maryland's medical school wanted to raise its profile in the burgeoning field of genomics, officials recruited one of the world's leading experts - and her 60-member team.

When the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center saw a hole in its program dealing with public health preparedness and bioterrorism, its officials thought big too - and lured an entire institute of researchers then at the Johns Hopkins University.

For others on the hunt for talent, the goal might be young researchers - preferably those with scientific credentials validated by a major grant underwriting their work. But landing a big name, such as a Nobel Prize winner, might be the answer for an institution that needs a recruiting tool to attract top-tier thinkers.

The ultimate goal is scientific excellence, the potential for major discoveries and breakthroughs that bring prestige, financial rewards and, eventually, even more talent. With so many schools and medical centers in the game, the competition for the best minds can be fierce.

"Universities are vying for the public's interest - applications from students, support from benefactors and donors. Some want to have championship football teams or basketball teams. Research universities have a different kind of product," said Dr. Peter Agre, 58, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry for research he did while a professor at Hopkins' School of Medicine. "Having a winning science program is like having a winning football team."

Buying a winner doesn't come cheap. Some top researchers will draw salaries in the mid-six figures, not to mention the money needed to pay for their fellow scientists, support staffs and lab space - bills that grant money won't ever fully cover.

In the past two years, Hopkins and Duke University each has won and lost Agre. In 2005, fresh off his Nobel and with 24 years at Hopkins under his belt, Agre was a hot property. He had been getting two or three invitations a week to visit other institutions - visits that invariably led to, "Would you consider coming here?" Suddenly, he said, he was getting two or three inquiries a day from "really fine universities."

He chose Duke, taking an administrative role that offered the opportunity to learn the inner workings of a top medical institution. Its location in North Carolina, not far from where he received early medical training, also appealed to him. And he got a lab there, staffed with colleagues who left Hopkins to join him.

But in January, Agre will be back in Baltimore - this time as director of the Malaria Research Institute at the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

It's not the money, he said, but an unparalleled chance to study malaria. Besides, he missed the collegiality of Hopkins, which he called the "academic equivalent of an Amish village." And he had never really left Baltimore, spending many weekends here with his wife and youngest child, both of whom stayed behind so she could finish high school.

Agre and the University of Maryland's genomics recruit, Dr. Claire Fraser-Liggett, are classic big-name quarry. Fraser-Liggett directed the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, whose scientists were the first to sequence the entire genome of a free-living organism.

Sometimes, though, centers want the young up-and-comers.

"For me, I don't necessarily seek 50 virtuoso violinists. Sometimes you need a harmonica player, a specialist in a smaller area," said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland Medical School.

Gallo, credited with co-discovery of the AIDS virus, was sought-after himself more than a decade ago when he was recruited to Baltimore from the National Cancer Institute.

One of Gallo's main goals is an AIDS vaccine. He said he often has specific recruiting needs that do not require an experienced, top-tier scientist. He recently hired two young researchers, one who became the American Chemical Society's young investigator of the year two years ago. He later got a big-time job offer from another university - one that Gallo talked him out of accepting. Right now, Gallo is looking for a structural biologist.

But even the esteemed Gallo can't always hire who he wants. As he looks for a biologist, Gallo said he's been told to find someone who brings along a significant grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. E. Albert Reece, dean of Maryland's medical school, said this is part of the reality of running an institution like his.

"If departments or institutes are expanding, you prefer to identify someone with a funding track record, so they are able to hit the ground running," he said.

Grants often beget future grants, which sometimes lead to patents and royalties and more money for the institution down the line.

Reece brought Fraser-Liggett, 52, to the University of Maryland this year. She had planned to leave her longtime job in Rockville, but without knowing what her next move would be.

However, she had discussed her intentions with her husband, Dr. Stephen Liggett, who worked at UM's medical school. Liggett ran into a vice dean of the medical school and mentioned off-handedly that his wife was looking for something new.

"Within 15 minutes I had a call from that person, asking if I would be at all interested in moving - not just myself but a significant number of colleagues - to Maryland," Fraser-Liggett, recalled. "Within 10 days after my first phone call, I had a draft offer letter in my hand."

She would earn $350,000 a year and run a new Institute for Genome Sciences, which will eventually employ more than 100.

Fraser-Liggett had not looked into switching jobs before and said she had received surprisingly few offers. But she recalled that once the word of her talks with Maryland got out, despite what she considered discretion in their conversations, "I was surprised at the number of phone calls I got."

Sometimes these kinds of phone calls result in a bit of musical chairs for scientific celebrities.

Last year, several top stem cell researchers at Hopkins - including Dr. Peter Donovan, co-director of Hopkins' stem cell program - took jobs in California, where voters had approved $300 million a year in stem cell funding.

Across town, Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr., chairman of Maryland's department of epidemiology and preventive medicine, was lured this spring to the University of Florida to run its Emerging Pathogens Institute.

In 2003, the 20-person staff of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies - started at Hopkins' school of public health by one of the institution's former deans, Dr. Donald A. Henderson - moved to the University of Pittsburgh.

Henderson, now 79, was a major name to lose, having led the World Health Organization's campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. Pittsburgh pulled off the coup partly by allowing the work to continue in Baltimore.

Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean of the Hopkins medical school, said he is disappointed when he loses the best. But, he added, "You have to remember, part of our purpose is to send the talent out of here. We should be training the leaders of the world, and they should go out there and lead."

Often they are replaced by young researchers who go on to do their best work within the confines of Hopkins - and under its flag, should they make the next great breakthrough in science.

"It's a limited pool of resources, and I would rather invest in young people and make sure they have enough water and fertilizer and let them grow," Miller said.


Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad