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Cluster Hires Pave Way for New Biology Research

Scientist works with DNA chips

When it comes to top research talent, the University of Minnesota is searching the world over.

An article in the Minnesota Daily recently highlighted how the U’s College of Biological Sciences (CBS) is searching across the globe for a number of new faculty members to fill multidisciplinary research areas. CBS aims to use the practice, known as cluster hiring, to bring in the best talent for emerging fields, from cellular biophysics to synthetic biology. Clarence Lehman, the college’s associate dean for research and graduate education, said the approach was a better fit for modern academic pursuits.

“The disciplines in biology that had developed when it was a pure science really don’t apply anymore,” Lehman told the Minnesota Daily. “One has to break them; one has to connect them up.”

For CBS, that means bringing in the best faculty available to kick-start research in emerging areas. Putting new experts in a multidisciplinary field encourages them to collaborate with their colleagues and bounce ideas off one another. Since beginning its cluster hiring in 2012, CBS has brought 13 new researchers on board in areas like fungal evolution and functional proteomics (the study of protein structure and functions).

Advanced systems for understanding genetics

Professor David Greenstein, Ph.D., chairs one of the cluster hire search committees, seeking to boost the U’s genetics analytics capabilities by hiring up to three tenure-track assistant professors with expertise in computational and genome-enabled biology. When scientists discovered how to quickly and easily map a genome — all the genetic content contained within an organism — biological research fundamentally changed. Now, understanding genetics can play a role in advancing research across many fields.

The committee aims to bring in faculty who can develop genomic and computational approaches to answer significant questions about an organism’s genetics, its development or where its observable characteristics come from. Using advances in genetic knowledge, sequencing technology and data analysis, these faculty will examine biological questions ranging from evolution to medical genetics.

“It’s almost impossible to be an expert in all biological fields,” Greenstein said. “We need people who can develop new tools that serve as the glue to bring the rest of us along.”

One example is studying the genetic basis for a specific disorder, such as autism. Researchers may set out to discover which markers in the genome tend to increase a person’s propensity for developing autism, paving the way for further research into understanding and treating the disorder. To do so, they will need to sequence the genome of a large number of people with autism, along with those of their relatives who do not have the disorder.

While researchers can already do that much, finding key patterns and making sense of all that data is where cutting-edge computational methods take over. Researchers familiar with computational and genome-enabled biology have experience in knowing how to handle extremely large sets of data and can develop new tools if necessary to sort through it and form comprehensible results. In short, computational biology focuses on taking large amounts of otherwise inscrutable data and turning it into useful knowledge.

Hiring new, ambitious researchers like those sought for computational and genome-enabled biology, Greenstein said, is a crucial part of the university’s goal to push research forward and continue to make discoveries.

“The university can’t be complacent,” he said. “This is a concerted effort to strengthen an important area of biology.”

Top researchers often already have ideas for the type of research they would like to pursue. Rather than funnel hired faculty into a specific fields or projects, Greenstein said the search committee will allow those hired to pursue the biological questions of their interest. Once hired, faculty will set up their laboratories, hire lab staff and bring graduate students and post docs aboard. They will also be a reference point for current researchers from other fields, who can tap their knowledge to advance their own projects.

The cluster will review all applications submitted before Dec. 31, 2014 and arrange to meet with six to ten candidates between January and March in 2015.

Learn more about the CBS cluster hiring process.

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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