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Buffalo Bioinformatics Scores Skolnick, Dell Cluster

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Jeffrey Skolnick spent three years as director of computational and structural biology at the new Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., but even the heavy investment in resources there couldn’t keep him from his new job as director of the Center for Excellence in Bioinformatics in Buffalo, NY. When the Buffalo recruiters called, Skolnick wasn’t exactly in the market for a new job — and he didn’t go easily. “I sat down and created a quite extensive wish list for what it would take to move me,” he recalls. “And they basically gave me everything I asked for.”

“I’ve been given a hunting license to build a world-class center,” he says. Skolnick, whose own background is in statistical mechanics of polymers and includes 10 years at the Scripps Research Institute, hopes to poach top bioinformaticists to fill the 10 faculty positions available at the center, but for the quality he’s seeking, he expects the roster will take about three years to fill. “The kind of people I’m interested in hiring are the kind of people who have lots of opportunities,” he says. “I’ll have hit rates of one in three, four, five.” And he makes no bones about the inherent difficulties in bringing them to Buffalo, which measures its winter snowfall in feet rather than inches. “The answer is, I’m going to buy ’em,” he says. “I’m not living in la-la land.”

The recruits may not have to be dragged kicking and screaming. The new center, scheduled to be completed in three years, will have 35,000 square feet devoted to bioinformatics. And Skolnick just signed a deal with Dell for a 4,120-processor cluster for his group — it’s the computer company’s first such major deal in bioinformatics, and its aggressiveness in winning the deal may signal a shift in direction. With resources like these on board — and the $260 million pledged to the center so far — “we don’t have any excuse not to do really good science,” Skolnick says.

He expects systems biology to be a major theme at the center. “It’s certainly the natural progression of where biology is going to move in the next five or 10 years,” he says. “It’s where the field of bioinformatics has to go.”

And Buffalo, it appears, is where Skolnick has to go. It’s a return to his home state for the Brooklyn (“with an accent like this?”) native, though he’d never been to the upstate city before. “I keep joking that I’m going to get a Humvee to drive through all the snow, but it’s much more likely I’ll just get a fast Internet connection and stay home,” he says. “It’s not often in one’s career that one gets an opportunity of this magnitude.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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