July 9, 2012

Jackson Lab shifts focus to recruiting

Contributed Rendering
Contributed Rendering
Construction on Jackson Laboratory's new 250,000-square-foot Farmington research center, shown below, is scheduled to begin early next year.
Michael Hyde, vice president for advancement, Jackson Laboratory.

For Jackson Laboratory, attracting scientific talent isn't just a priority, it could mean the difference between the biomedical research center's success and failure in Connecticut.

With its funding now fully approved, the Maine-based nonprofit is moving its top priority away from convincing politicians to help finance its expansion into the fledgling field of personalized medicine and toward recruiting leading scientists from around the world to set up shop and conduct their research in Farmington.

Connecticut's billion-dollar plus investment in bioscience is attracting attention from researchers across the globe, officials say, but recruiting academic scientists in a specialized field is no easy task.

Wooing a world-class researcher doesn't involve transplanting just one individual, but typically an entire team.

"There is intense interest from the scientific community but academic hiring is a slow process," said Michael Hyde, the vice president for advancement at Jackson Lab. "Moving an accomplished researcher is like moving a business or family. It doesn't happen overnight."

As part of the state's $291 million investment in Jackson Lab, the firm has promised to create 300 bioscience jobs in Connecticut over the next 10 years. By the end of this year Jackson Lab expects to have 25 hires already in place, including key administration positions and 10 researchers, Hyde said.

The most significant hire so far has been Yu-Hui Rogers, a genomics researcher and experienced scientific administrator who is coming from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., which also specializes in genomics research.

Rogers has been hired as a site administrator to oversee operations at Jackson's soon-to-be-built research facility in Farmington. She will be in charge of all aspects of research support including finance, human resources, information technology, facilities and scientific services.

Hyde said Jackson Lab also has five research contracts already signed. Yijun Ruan, an associate director of the Genome Institute of Singapore and a biochemistry professor at the National University of Singapore, was the first researcher hired. He is bringing with him a six-member team.

Some of the hiring is being coordinated with the UConn Health Center, as both institutions begin to establish a collaborative relationship that aims to leverage each other's research wherewithal.

In some cases, there will be joint hires, where the Health Center and Jackson Lab share costs and personnel, said Frank Torti, vice president for health affairs and dean of the UConn Medical School.

Jackson Lab has been running ads and presenting at scientific conferences to spread the word of its major expansion, but a lot of interest in the research positions is being spurred through word-of-mouth and reports about Connecticut's investment in bioscience, Hyde said.

Much of the talent recruitment is focused on scientists who study human genomes and their relationship to various diseases. That includes mathematicians and statisticians who specialize in finding trends and patterns in vast data sets.

"There are not a lot of people in the world who know how to do that," said Hyde, who added that Jackson Lab will eventually have about 100 biologists and statisticians working in Farmington.

Jackson Lab will focus its research on personalized medicine. It involves gaining a better understanding of human genome sequences for various diseases like cancer, and tailoring treatments and medications to each person's unique genetic code.

Many view the field as the future of medicine.

The new researchers will begin their trek to Farmington this month, and set up shop in temporary lab space at the Administration Services Building at the UConn Health Center campus.

The ground-floor of the building has been retrofitted to accommodate about 10,000 square feet of wet and dry lab space. Jackson Lab signage as well as rows of cubicles can already be seen at the site.

Construction on the 250,000-square-foot state-of-the art lab facility is set to begin early next year and take about 18 months to complete. In the meantime, Jackson Lab scientists will get underway with their research in the next couple of months and hope to begin unveiling some new discoveries in 2013, Hyde said.

The nonprofit Jackson Lab has an interesting business model that will require it to make scientific advances to be financially viable.

The state has approved $291 million in funding for the Maine-based research operation, but most of that money — approximately $191 million — will be for capital investments in equipment and the research center in Farmington.

The state will hold title to the research facility until Jackson Lab meets certain requirements, including the creation of 600 jobs over 20 years, Hyde said.

The remaining $99 million will be allocated over a 10-year period to help support Jackson's operating budget.

But Jackson Lab will have to raise much more money — $3 for every $1 the state invests — to stay financially viable.

Hyde said part of that effort will include building an endowment of up to $40 million. That effort is now underway.

Attracting research funds is another key cornerstone to their financially viability. It also may be the most challenging. Hyde admits that personalized medicine is still a relatively brand new scientific field. Finding complex relationships in DNA and turning that knowledge into medical or preventative treatments and strategies will be a challenge.

But Jackson Lab does have a track record in raking in research dollars: its Maine-based operation brought in $56 million in grants from National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2011.

"We know genomic medicine is a new and complicated field, but there is a huge potential for innovation," Hyde said. "We don't know what will evolve from the research."

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