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Harvard Med School s Systems Biology in Second Round of Hiring

The Department of Systems Biology at the Harvard Medical School, one of the pioneers in establishing a department for this emerging discipline, last week launched a second round of advertising for faculty positions in the new program that marked its one-year anniversary in September.

The school is currently taking applications for the position of assistant / associate professor in systems biology, enticing candidates with the “rare and exciting opportunity for outstanding researchers from a variety of backgrounds to take part in building a new approach to biological research and the formation of a new department.”

Unlike most traditional help-wanted advertisements, this announcement does not list a set of qualifications but describes the department’s research efforts and seeks a research proposal along with a candidate’s CV.

“We are looking for people who are interested in using intellectual tools, and, to some extent, physical tools from other disciplines, and applying those to open biological questions,” Rebecca Ward, executive director of the department, told BioCommerce Week. “We are mostly looking for people who are coming from a background that is different from biology. We expect to be hiring some card-carrying biologists as well.”

The advertisement, which was published in at least one scientific journal last week, is also posted at the departmental website at

The department, which will eventually support 20 to 25 tenure-track positions, started off with three faculty members last year and now has a total of eight faculty members, including director Marc Kirschner and assistant director Timothy Mitchison, as well as four lecturers and instructors.

Ward, who leads a staff of eight administrators, said the field of potential hires is not a vast one, but besides biologists includes engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and physicists.

So far, cell biology is the leading discipline in the ranks of the department, which also includes theoretical chemist Walter Fontana, who was hired from the Santa Fe Institute, and Jeremy Gunawardena, an algebraic topologist who holds a senior lecturer appointment, and is director of the department’s virtual cell program. He came to Harvard from Hewlett-Packard.

“At the moment, we are more rooted in understanding how individual cells work and how they make decisions,” Ward said in describing the department’s approach to systems biology. She prefaces any discussion of this emerging field by saying the department chooses not to define the field. “We are not so much about genomic data as we are about understanding individual signaling pathways, networks, and cell cycles, and mechanical structures within the cells.”

At some point, she said, that work should achieve a critical mass.

“The end point is to understand all biology,” she said. “That is where we are focused and where I expect us to be focused for a while — building up from the internal pieces of the cell and how they work, to how cells interact in organs. Then, maybe we can get to the whole-body physiology from there. It’s a long-term effort and not something that is going to go away in 10 years,” she said.

The department’s program in systems biology was approved by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in October and will accept its first student in September.

“We hope that they will be multidisciplinary students, people coming from a range of different disciplines interested in combining theoretical and experimental approaches to address problems in biology,” Ward said.

As part of the development of the program, the department is seeking to establish new core facilities, said Ward.

These would include the expansion of the department of cell biology’s Nikon imaging center and the establishment of other core facilities to support a multidisciplinary faculty, such as providing biologists assistance in computational work, and helping non-biologists with biological experimentation assistance, with tissue-culture support atop the list of needs, said Ward.

“These are all vague ideas to this point because we don’t have the faculty in place that we need to support,” Ward said.

In addition to the faculty hiring campaign, the department is also seeking to hire a senior software engineer, research assistants, and an accounting assistant as well as a lab manager for Vamsi Mootha, one of the department’s newest faculty hires. Additionally, post-doctoral opportunities are available in eight of the department’s laboratories.

New faculty hires will receive a start-up package, Ward said, but the department will function like other university departments with investigators seeking additional funding. The department has not applied for any of the National Institutes of Health “Roadmap” grants, Ward said, as the emphasis has been on identifying potential faculty members.

The department has not yet published any collaborative peer-reviewed papers, either.

Ward said that Harvard’s department and the neighboring Computational and Systems Biology Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (see BCW 10/14/2004) are philosophically “harmonious.”

“We are both interested in bringing people from different disciplines into biology and covering a range of tools from quantitative and theoretical disciplines to educate students about the different approaches that are available,” she said. “This is all very new, and it’s going to be an evolving course of study. I think it would be very surprising if the program looked the same in five years as it does now.”

However, this Harvard program has already had one recruiting success. Mootha, a specialist in cellular mitochondria, who was hired after the department’s first hiring campaign, received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation grant just days before he started his new position in the department, joining two other new faculty members.

“We were pretty happy with the search,” Ward said.

— Mo Krochmal ([email protected])

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