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Cluster hires facilitate long-term institutional success

BY Ananya Sen

In light of long-standing inequities in STEM representation, many universities are now recognizing the value of diversity in higher education. Achieving such diversity involves creating an inclusive campus that welcomes scholars from different backgrounds, not only to foster a healthy intellectual environment, but also to provide role models to aspiring students. Faculty cluster hiring is an emerging practice in higher education, involving cross-campus collaborations to hire faculty working on interdisciplinary research topics. In addition to increasing faculty diversity, both in terms of background and discipline, these programs also address other aspects of institutional excellence, including faculty career success, interdisciplinary collaboration, learning environment, and community engagement.

Driven by these reasons, the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology has so far been a part of four cluster hires. With each hire, the IGB’s intellectual environment and community was enriched by individuals who were interested in team science, building better mentoring networks, and welcoming racial and ethnic diversity in addition to disciplinary diversity.

The first cluster hire at the IGB took place in 2007, when the institute was first established. The faculty hired are now eminent scientists and well-known figures at the IGB and across campus. Welcomed to the IGB as a cluster at that time were Alison Bell (GNDP Theme Leader), Richard and Margaret Romano Professional Scholar and a professor of evolution, ecology, and behavior; Brendan Harley (RBTE Theme Leader/EIRH), Robert W. Schaefer Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Matthew Hudson (CABBI/GNDP), a professor of bioengineering; and Rachel Whitaker (IGOH Theme Leader), Harry E. Preble Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor of microbiology.

“This first cluster hire, which occurred as the IGB was forming, was a way to add additional talent in topics that would be studied in the IGB. Along with a focus on computational genomics and bioinformatics, the cluster hire was built around individuals who were interested in team science and could bring in the expertise that was needed by the themes,” said IGB Director Gene Robinson, Swanlund Chair in Entomology. “Fifteen years later, we can now clearly see the spectacular impact that this cluster hire program had on our campus. Many have taken on leadership roles across the campus or have become theme leaders at the IGB.”

Harley agreed that the cluster hire was one of the reasons he chose to join Illinois. Among all the projects he has done so far at the IGB, Harley is especially fond of the work his lab has done on brain cancer and craniofacial repair. “These projects are exciting because they required us to form collaborative teams the leverage strength from across campus,” Harley said. “The opportunity to work at the IGB was a massive incentive during my recruitment because it provided an environment where an essential driving force is collaboration and developing programs whose value far outweighs the sum of their parts.”

The success of the first cluster hire led deans in several colleges, including Feng Sheng Hu, a previous Dean of the College of LAS, to develop another one in 2019, with the idea of bringing in researchers who were interested in studying microbiomes. The Microbial Systems Initiative helped promote a convergence of interests among the College of Applied Health Sciences, the Grainger College of Engineering, the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, the College of Veterinary Medicine, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The effort was led by Whitaker and Cari Vanderpool (MME/IGOH), a professor of microbiology, Director of the MSI, and interim Associate Dean for Research at the College of Veterinary Medicine. “We wanted to rapidly elevate this area of research, which was underrepresented on campus because of previous hiring difficulties,” Vanderpool said. The IGB provided a “second home” for microbiome scientists in the cluster, ensuring that even if they were the first microbiome researchers in their home department, they could build a community at the IGB and develop a mentoring network.

Although the initial goal of the search was to hire six new faculty members, the effort brought together nine assistant professors across a diverse range of research interests: Paola Mera, Department of Microbiology; Asma Hatoum-Aslan, Department of Microbiology; Pamela Martinez (IGOH), Department of Microbiology and Department of Statistics; Brett Loman, Department of Animal Sciences; Jacob Allen (MME), Department of Kinesiology and Community Health; Adrienne Antonson (EIRH), Department of Animal Sciences; and Christopher Gaulke (MME), Department of Pathobiology. In addition to these researchers, Vanderpool also mentioned that they consider Nicholas Wu (IGOH/MMG), Department of Biochemistry; Joe Sanfilippo, Department of Biochemistry; and Shulei Wang, Department of Statistics part of the same cohort as the faculty brought in as a part of the cluster hires. This cluster hire also was notable for recruiting a cohort that included faculty from underrepresented groups in science.

The biggest challenge for the MSI cohort was moving to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the midst of the pandemic. Most of them had to move their families and their labs in the summer of 2020, when the campus and the community were under lockdown. To help them achieve a sense of community, which is a hallmark of cluster hires, Vanderpool and her colleagues organized several virtual workshops and webinars to help the new hires.

“We had faculty from different departments talk about how to navigate tenure track, provide resources orienting the new faculty to life at Illinois, how to approach collaborations, and how to mentor and teach,” Vanderpool said. “It’s not just the design and development of a hiring strategy that is important, it is what you do once you have recruited folks. We put a lot of focus on getting them integrated not just into their home departments, but also into the broader campus community, and it's really paid off. They’re all doing great work and getting funded.”

More recently, the third cluster hire has been built around photosynthesis engineering, which recruited assistant professors into three different colleges: Steven Burgess (GEGC), Department of Plant Biology in the College of LAS; Megan Matthews (GEGC), Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Grainger College of Engineering; and Laurie Leonelli (GEGC), Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of ACES. In addition to other projects in their own laboratories, these researchers are all a part of Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, an international research project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and headquartered at the IGB, that is engineering crops to be more productive. The three new faculty members will be focusing on optimizing how plants capture sunlight and use the energy for growth, developing multiscale computational models to understand the impact of changing environments on plants, and exploring the natural diversity found in photosynthetic organisms. As with the second cluster hire, the faculty also have a home at the IGB where they can tap into the established intellectual and mentoring networks.

Vanderpool is now organizing a fourth cluster hire effort that she hopes will be supported by the NIH Common Fund’s Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program. The program aims to use the cluster hire mechanism not only to enhance multidisciplinary diversity but also to enhance and maintain cultures of inclusive excellence in the campus biomedical research community. It was developed due to the recognition that fostering inclusive environments will provide creative minds the opportunity that they might not otherwise have to contribute to the research and health goals of the U.S. As the nation’s population continues to become more diverse, it is important to ensure that diversity in scientific talent is recognized and supported.  

“One of the attractive aspects of cluster hires is that people know they are not coming in by themselves. It can be really hard when you’re a member of an underrepresented group and having a cluster hire attracts more people who are willing to risk joining a department where they won't be the only one,” Vanderpool said. “The goal of the program is also to transform the institution's culture through improved mentoring and professional development activities, and make those efforts sustainable.”

The proposed new hiring effort involves seven departments, including the biochemistry, cell and developmental biology, microbiology, and molecular and integrative physiology departments in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology; the chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering departments in the School of Chemical Sciences; and the bioengineering department in the Grainger College of Engineering.

“Our proposal is based on our success with the previous cluster hires and the idea that we have made a lot of progress in building supportive communities that people are excited to join,” Vanderpool said. “This one is different from MSI because we have intentionally made the scientific themes very broad in order to attract a larger and more diverse pool of applicants. The faculty will be from a broad diversity of backgrounds and could be studying really different things.”

Although building a community from such scientific diversity may be more challenging, Vanderpool is confident that the existing communities at the IGB and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology will help. “We are leveraging our strengths to provide the new faculty with a mentoring network, and help them develop a community that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with their scientific discipline.”

“Cohorts are important at all stages of one’s career. It is increasingly important when you think about inclusive hiring practices particularly for people who have been historically underrepresented in science. It’s difficult to find a community if you're the only one there,” Harley said. “The pandemic has taught us the importance of building communities and having such cohorts is a fantastic way for us to demonstrate that we're not just interested in good science, but we want a community of scholars that is built around the ideals of team science.”

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