CBS adapts hiring for new areas

The college has found success in “cluster hiring” to fill staff voids in new research fields.

Parker Lemke

Generating cutting-edge research sometimes means starting from scratch with hiring.

Due to the evolving nature of science fields, the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences is searching for new faculty members to fill areas of research where the college is lacking.

Known as cluster hiring, the recruitment plan has canvassed academics across the globe in an attempt to fill the new areas. And since the initiative’s start three years ago, department members say the hiring method has proven successful.

Biology department heads say they settled on the new recruitment approach to attract the best talent for emerging multidisciplinary research fields, like genome variation, cellular biophysics and synthetic biology.

“Biology really is an all-encompassing science for this century,” said Clarence Lehman, CBS associate dean for research and graduate education. “The disciplines in biology that had developed when it was a pure science really don’t apply anymore. … One has to break them; one has to connect them up.”

The cluster recruitment trend began in 2012 when University President Eric Kaler set aside $11.8 million for extensive hiring in science and technology fields. At the time, Lehman said former CBS Dean Robert Elde wanted the concept to generate cross-disciplinary ideas.

Since then, CBS has bolstered its faculty members by hiring 13 new researchers with the recruiting approach, said Elizabeth Wroblewski, CBS strategic initiatives director, who helps oversee the effort.

The always changing nature of science compels the University to venture into new areas of study, Wroblewski said.

“Biology is expanding,” she said. “There are interesting areas to research and investigate [in which] we do not necessarily have the expertise.”

Scott Lanyon, head of the ecology, evolution and behavior department, said bringing in new faculty members typically involves identifying an academic area where current research is nascent.

Faculty searches frequently grow competitive as many national intuitions vie for the top picks, he said.

And when the University moves into an unfamiliar field of research, Lanyon said, it can be challenging to build an applicant pool when the school only advertises a single position.

“Good [researchers] want to be around other people who are working in a general discipline,” he said. “They want to bounce new ideas off one another.”

Filling new niches, building new networks

Allison Shaw, an assistant ecology, evolution and behavior professor who moved to campus in July, was plucked from a postdoctoral positon at Australian National University.

As part of a two-person cluster focused on mathematical modeling, Shaw studies the patterns of animal movement.

“It seemed like a fantastic department already,” she said. “That they were able to hire so many people at the same time really indicates that they’re invested in the future.”

Shaw said she is already looking into a future collaboration that would examine how aphids spread viruses between plants.

Lanyon said Shaw’s team, a quantitative and theoretical biology cluster, filled an important research niche in which biological sciences are probed quantitatively using computer modelling.

“The ability to handle really large data sets and extract information from them, analyze them statically and so on has become part of what biology and the life sciences are all about,” Lanyon said.

But cluster applicants aren’t meant to work in a specialty vacuum, Lanyon said, and the process is meant to inspire collaboration.

Although his department is now home to four new faculty members hired through the 3-year-old process, he said four others are based in other University departments and hold joint appointments.

Ran Blekhman, an assistant professor in the department of genetics, cell biology and development, has worked at the University for a year, after he was selected through the cluster process.

Blekhman, who studies how the human body interacts with bacteria, said the hiring framework fosters a supportive work environment.

“We have a community of young investigators all starting at the same time and working in relatively close areas,” he said.

Continuing the cluster culture

One of the University’s upcoming clusters will focus on computation genome-enabled biology by mixing genetic studies with data analysis, said David Greenstein, genetic, cell biology and development professor and chair of the new research effort.

He said the initial deadline for the three new positions is scheduled for Oct. 15, adding that an attempt to form a similar team last year was not as successful as hoped.

“We interviewed 10 people, and the ones we wanted chose to go elsewhere,” Greenstein said. “We weren’t willing to compromise, so we thought we would do it again.”

While the review process closely scrutinizes applicants, Greenstein said the potential faculty members also closely examine the University to see if their research programs would be good fits at the school.

 “The best applicants are putting us under the microscope,” he said.

Part of the success of cluster hiring comes from its appeal to investors, Lanyon said.

Although Greenstein said he doesn’t know how many applicants he can expect from the crowd-pulling method, he said the University’s support shows a commitment to acquiring talent.

“We want to make sure we scour the planet for the best people and bring them to Minnesota,” Greenstein said.