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Luring Prospective Faculty: How can basic science continue to woo—and keep—top talent?

January 2009--Assistant Professor William Wong remembers exactly when he decided to accept a job offer from the Department of Physiology. Faculty members eager to recruit Wong had just treated him to dinner at a fancy Fells Point restaurant. But it wasn’t the four-course meal or freely flowing wine that persuaded him to accept Hopkins’ proposal over three other more lucrative offers. It was something a senior faculty member advised Wong after the meal. “There are a lot of things money can’t buy,” the scientist said. “Among them are your colleagues.”

Like any suitor, basic science departments seek to garner a desirable prospect by advertising their best features. At Hopkins, that courtship has often involved promoting intangibles, such as its culture of collegiality, the high repute of its faculty and the excellence of its graduate students. “We don’t offer as large a dowry as some places,” says Rick Huganir, director of the Department of Neuroscience, referring to the startup package that pays for salaries, equipment and other costs involved in running a lab before grant support is secured. “But for people who value the science, that is not an issue at all because they want to be here. This place is uniquely interactive and collaborative.”

Given today’s fragile economy and shrunken NIH budget, however, some faculty leaders are now concerned that job-seeking scientists will begin focusing more on dollars and cents. “It’s important to examine how Hopkins can continue to hire and retain excellent scientists and maintain the vigor of the scientific enterprise in a period of economic uncertainty,” says IBBS director Steve Desiderio.

While some talented candidates have turned down Hopkins for more generous offers, the good news is that IBBS departments have recently recruited several of their top-choice candidates for faculty positions.

Wong, who was a postdoc with esteemed biologist Harvey Lodish at MIT and had a long list of publications to his name, was one such candidate. His decision to come to Hopkins meant turning down a sizably larger offer from a U.S. university and two substantially larger proposals from research centers in Singapore. After much deliberation, he decided Hopkins would better foster his long-term research vision, which entails understanding the molecular, cellular and biochemical processes that underlie metabolism and energy balance, studies that could help explain the root causes of diabetes and obesity. The U.S. university didn’t match Hopkins’ record for garnering grant support, and the Singapore centers focused on applied science, whereas Wong wanted to pursue basic science. But the most compelling reason to come to Hopkins was the chance to work with a stellar group of scientists, says Wong.

Already, he has launched joint studies with another recently recruited scientist , Michael Wolfgang, an assistant professor in Biological Chemistry. Both researchers are faculty members of the IBBS Center for Metabolism and Obesity.

Like Wong, Wolfgang turned down several competing job offers in favor of one from Hopkins. A postdoc in the department prior to accepting the offer, Wolfgang says he had concluded that Hopkins would provide the best environment for a new faculty member. “Other places are less collaborative, less collegial, almost antagonistic,” he says. “Here the university actually does support junior faculty rather than putting you on a boat in the ocean and saying, Row in.”

Yet not every recruiting effort has succeeded. Last year, Molecular Biology and Genetics failed to win its choice for an open faculty position. The scientist who declined had received two other offers, each significantly larger than Hopkins’, says chair Carol Greider.

“Young people are worried about how much is offered up front,” she says. “They want to hedge against declining NIH funds. The collective angst in the community about grants is having an effect.”

So how can Hopkins basic science remain competitive among job seekers?

One obvious solution is to increase the standard startup package that IBBS offers new faculty, an amount that is probably “in the middle of the pack” when compared to what other research institutions provide, says Hopkins Medicine Chief Financial Officer Richard Grossi.

Desiderio would like to see those amounts boosted across the board, a goal, he says, that will require building a larger financial base—potentially by enlarging the modest endowment through fund-raising. But enlarging the dowry for new faculty may not be the only strategy, says Peter Devreotes, director of the Department of Cell Biology, who advocates investing in state-of-the-art core facilities. “Young scientists want to go to the place where they can do the best science. If we can improve our reputation as a place where expensive equipment is accessible, scientists will flock here.”

—Melissa Hendricks

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