Friday, August 17, 2007

Why UVa will spend $20 million on 6 professors

Why UVa will spend $20 million on 6 professors-- This concept was one of the key recommendations that came out of the Governor's Commission on Biotechnology.

Why UVa will spend $20 million on 6 professors
By Brian McNeill | 978-7266
Sunday, August 12, 2007

In five labs at the University of Virginia, Joe C. Campbell’s research team is developing more efficient ways to transfer data over fiber optic networks, advancing night vision technology and building a better bioterrorism detector.
“Here at UVa, I sense that there is a growing emphasis on research in engineering and science,” said Camp-bell, sitting in his office in Thornton Hall. “It’s fun to be a part of something that seems to be growing into something even better.”
Campbell, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is one of six world-renowned researchers recently hired by UVa as part of a $126 million initiative.
The university’s Board of Visitors launched the “research enhancement initiative” in 2004 to boost UVa’s standings in science and technology research.
Though U.S. News & World Report ranks UVa as the nation’s No. 2 public institution of higher education, UVa’s scientific research rankings are a bit less lustrous. UVa’s School of Engineering and Applied Science graduate program, for example, is ranked 38th.
“To achieve the reputation that UVa wants to achieve, it’s got to move up in the rankings and everyone - except for No. 1 - is trying to do the exact same thing,” Campbell said. “If UVa wants to be a top-rated institution, it’s going to be very expensive.”
UVa has spent $20 million so far to attract Campbell and the five other “superstar” faculty members from research facilities around the world. A committee of UVa scientists selected the superstars - as many UVa administrators refer to new hires - out more than 175 applicants.
More money from the $126 million fund will be allocated to attract mid-level and junior faculty members to fill out the beefed-up research capabilities.
“If we hire the right people, it will create a whole new world at UVa,” said R. Ariel Gomez, vice president for research and graduate studies. “Not too many universities will say that they’re going to put over $100 million toward hiring the very best.”
As part of the initiative, geneticists Christine and Bernard Thisse will join UVa’s faculty this month. Recruited from the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology in Strasburg, France, the Thisses are among the world’s leading experts in zebrafish genomics.
Because embryos of the tropical fish are large and transparent, researchers such as the Thisses can study zebrafish embryonic development to gain insights into how cells form and mutate.
The Thisses’ research may one day help unravel the mysteries of human birth defects, how cancer cells form and much more.
The Thisses did not come cheap. To lure them from France, UVa spent $4.5 million. On average, hiring a faculty member in science, medicine or engineering carries a one-time cost of $500,000, according to UVa planning documents.
Meanwhile, the university spent another $3.35 million to snag Stephen S. Rich, a genetic epidemiologist leading a worldwide effort to better understand the genetics behind Type 1 diabetes.
There are 20.8 million Americans living with diabetes, and 4,100 new cases are diagnosed each day. Rich’s research may one day reveal who has a genetic predisposition to complications - such as blindness, or the loss of a limb - from diabetes, thereby allowing for preventative medicine. His research may also be applied to finding better treatments for cancer and other ailments.
The superstar faculty members are fetching some of the most lucrative salaries among UVa’s 11,962 employees. Campbell earns $310,600 per year, while Rich earns $300,000. Fewer than 15 faculty members earn $300,000 or more, according to public employment records.
A big draw
The university’s pricey investment in the six researchers will be worth it, top administrators said, because it will draw millions in public and private research grants, could generate profits from new discoveries and will help attract top-tier junior faculty members and graduate students.
“This program brings to the university a number of people who are very well known in their particular fields,” said Dr. Arthur “Tim” Garson, UVa’s provost. “And they are capable of tremendous collaboration across the university. Their talent will be leveraged throughout UVa.”
The six superstars will “seed” UVa’s scientific research efforts, Garson said. Eventually, their areas of expertise - genomics, biomedical engineering, nanotechnology and more - will be filled out at UVa with additional faculty members, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
One area of cutting-edge research that is coming into focus at UVa is known as morphogenesis, or the study of how cells form to create organs and tissue.
At UVa’s Morphogenesis and Regenerative Medicine Institute, research spearheaded by faculty members including the Thisses may eventually allow physicians to use a patient’s cells to grow them a new kidney, ligaments or even a limb.
By using a patient’s own cells to regenerate organs or tissue, there is much less chance of rejection than in the case of organ donation.
“This is the future of medicine,” Gomez said.
The project received an additional $1.8 million in UVa’s current budget. Garson said morphogenesis and regenerative medicine is considered the “next step beyond stem-cell research.”
Their space
In addition to UVa’s researcher recruitment effort, additional funds from the initiative will go toward expanding the university’s research space. A $40 million, 85,000-square-foot research facility, under construction at Fontaine Research Park, will house the researchers’ new labs and offices starting in the spring.
Not everyone at UVa is pleased with the mega investment in research. Kevin Simowitz, an organizer of a campaign to implement a “living wage” for UVa workers and a fourth-year American studies student, said the initiative represents skewed priorities.
“If UVa put as much time and effort into making sure that its workers weren’t below the poverty line as they spend hiring faculty members from France, I think we’d all be better off,” he said.
But Del. Tom Rust, R-Herndon, chairman of the House of Delegates subcommittee that oversees the state’s higher education system, said UVa’s efforts reflect a statewide push to increase the amount of valuable scientific discoveries in college labs across Virginia.
“It is in keeping with the direction we want the higher education institutions in Virginia to go,” he said. “We’re looking to become more of a leader than we are now in research.”


Joe C. Campbell
Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering
Innovator in fiber optics, researching night vision technology and bioterrorism detection
Hired January 2006

Stephen S. Rich
Director of UVa’s Center for Public Health Genomics
A genetic epidemiologist, he is leading a worldwide effort to understand the genetics of Type 1 diabetes
Hired January 2007

John T. Yates Jr.
Department of Chemistry
A top investigator in the fields of surface chemistry and physics, he researches photochemistry as well as astrochemistry in the solar system and deep space
Hired January 2007

Dr. Mark Yeager
Chairman of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics
A practicing cardiologist, he also conducts research that may provide new strategies for treating heart failure
Hired July 2007

Christine and Bernard Thisse
Department of Cell Biology
Experts in zebrafish genetics, a field that may unlock the secrets of human birth defects, cancer and more
Hired August 2007

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