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Group Hire Makes Waves on Campus

Seven marine biologists join USC College in a bold hiring strategy that taps the expertise of each talented individual.

By Carl Marziali
September 5, 2006

Group Hire Makes Waves on Campus

Universities hire new faculty as openings come up, mostly one at a time and sometimes in multiples, but never before has a university invited candidates to self-organize into a team, choose their own research direction and get hired together.

Until this year, that is, when marine biologist Anthony Michaels, director of the USC College’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, went fishing for top talent with a lure he called “the cluster hire.”

His colleague Kenneth Nealson, holder of the Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies, called it something else.

“The notion that you could put an ad out there and ask people to form their own research group and apply for a job – at first it struck me as just a crazy idea,” Nealson remembers.

The strategy has a non-existent track record. None of those interviewed for this article had heard of a precedent for the cluster hire.

The closest relative may be an experiment at Columbia University’s economics department, which recruited seven superstars in 2005 the way a Hollywood agent throws a hot party: by making sure the cool people on the guest list know about each other.

Michaels went farther. No candidates were recruited individually. Instead, the Wrigley Institute placed ads in scientific journals inviting faculty in marine environmental science to “propose their own group and their own plans for innovative teaching and research.”

When outsiders choose a research direction, Michaels explained, “they are expanding our horizons rather than meeting our perceived needs.”

More than 200 responses poured over the Wrigley transom. Many groups had first-rate scientific credentials yet fell short for other reasons, Nealson said.

“But there were two or three groups that really struck us as something special.”

After combining three small groups into a world-class cluster focused on environmental genomics and biogeochemistry, Michaels and his colleagues took the next radical step. They invited the whole cluster to USC for a joint symposium on Oct. 10, 2005.

What followed was the unique spectacle of job candidates presenting to each other as well as to their prospective employers – and in the process, coming to realize the entire group’s potential.

“It was obvious there was a lot of positive energy there,” said cluster member David Hutchins, a world-class biogeochemist from the University of Delaware. “This was a powerful way to develop a really strong group almost overnight.”

Said Nealson, “It was just like a fantastic symposium at a major international congress. I think we overwhelmed the deans. It was pretty magical.”

Equally powerful were the 85 letters of evaluation by outside experts, including 10 members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shepherding the complex, months-long process from advertisement to offer letter were Michaels with colleagues Doug Capone, then director of the marine environmental biology program, and David Caron, then chair of biological sciences.

In the end, a cluster of seven coalesced. When offered positions, all seven accepted and agreed to join USC in the 2006-07 academic year. In addition to Hutchins, they are:

Katrina Edwards, a rising star in geobiology and biofilms; James Moffett, a world leader in marine trace metal chemistry; and Eric Webb, a specialist in marine cyanobacterial physiology and genomics, from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Mass.;

John Heidelberg, a key player in the application of whole genome sequencing to microbes of environmental significance, from The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md.;

Karla Heidelberg, a specialist in invertebrate ecology and marine microbial genomics, from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md.; and

Sergio Sañudo-Wilhelmy, also an expert in marine trace metal chemistry and biogeochemistry, from the State University of New York-Stony Brook.

Together, they enable the Wrigley Institute to “corner the market” in environmental genomics and biogeochemistry, Michaels said.

“This makes us probably the number one marine microbiology group in the country, maybe the number one environmental microbiology group in the country, and we’re among the best in the world.”

The institute might not have gotten to this point anytime soon by the usual route. Michaels and others had tried to recruit a couple of scientists in the cluster years earlier, when USC College announced its 100-faculty Senior Hiring Initiative.

The scientists were “not that interested,” Michaels said.

Michael Quick, dean of research in the College, estimated that individual recruitment would have netted one or two researchers out of seven. The cluster hire “immediately gets you on the map of others. And it also gives you [an] instant great department or instant great center.

“We’re starting to see this as a potential model,” he said.

Quick acknowledged the obvious drawbacks, such as funding challenges and the risk of provoking envy from around campus, but he said that this multidisciplinary cluster benefits more than just one department.

The day after their symposium, cluster members met faculty pursuing related research in molecular and computational biology, mathematics, chemistry, biological sciences, environmental engineering, the USC School of Dentistry and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Bill Costerton, director of the Center for Biofilms in the School of Dentistry, already has plans to work with members of the cluster.

“I know this gang,” he said. “My base field is microbial ecology. That’s a brand of microbiology that’s been making huge, huge advances lately.”

Cluster members already are developing new courses and research proposals among themselves and with other USC scientists, according to Caron.

The Wrigley Institute is purchasing a latest-generation genome sequencing machine for joint research use, Michaels added.

“These folks can’t wait to get started,” he said. “USC has an academic culture that makes interdisciplinary scholarship much easier than at many other institutions. It’s one of our unique and, I think, under-recognized strengths.”

Another perceived strength of USC – money – instead may be over-estimated, Michaels said. He argues that even a medium-size university with 15 or 20 openings each year could hire in clusters instead of strictly balancing hires between competing units.

“It’s your choice to do a Noah’s Ark, one-per-department kind of thing.”

Even so, Michaels credited former USC College Dean Joseph Aoun for having the “guts” to break with tradition.

“The easiest thing for him to do would have been to say no,” he said.

Since word of the cluster hire got out, Michaels, Nealson and others have been fielding calls from deans and administrators at other schools.

“What are you guys doing and how did you do it?” was the wide-eyed question to Nealson from a board member at Germany’s renowned Max Planck Institute.

“It’s been quite the buzz in oceanography,” Hutchins said.

Other disciplines also are talking. The School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University is facing a wave of retirements and is strongly considering a cluster hire. Astrid Merget, the school’s dean, fears that replacing faculty one by one would risk “perpetuating the past.”

“We’re going to say, ‘You guys come up with the proposal, and you put the team together,’” Merget said.

She said she first heard of the cluster hire concept from Michaels.

“I always sort of watched USC as a pace-setter. You watch and you take notice. The multidisciplinary side of it makes this especially attractive.”

Michaels agreed that cluster hires are ideally suited to multidisciplinary research.

“In a traditional field, the needs for a specific area of scholarship are fairly well defined by the field and, if you want to be great at that, you just get the right people in the right spots,” he said.

“In a new area, particularly one between disciplines, there is no established roadmap. The self-assembly of a cluster … is critical, and the interdisciplinary community that emerges out of these friendships is often the template for how that area of scholarship should be organized.”

Luckily, Nealson said, marine science is a field with large numbers of multidisciplinary scholars who know each other through long scientific expeditions – ideal conditions for the formation of research clusters.

In fact, the idea of the cluster hire came to Michaels as he thought of a way to hire faculty for the Wrigley Institute’s marine laboratory on Catalina Island. The island’s relative isolation makes it imperative that researchers get along.

But when Michaels presented the idea to his deans, Beth Meyerowitz, then dean of faculty, told him: “It’s a very innovative way to hire. Don’t restrict it to the island.”

Nor, it seems likely, will the concept remain restricted to USC.