SEATTLE – The committee searching for a successor to Leland (Lee) Hartwell at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has begun narrowing down its field of candidates to a final few, with the goal of finding someone to succeed the departing president and director by the time he leaves this summer for new positions in Arizona, a member of the panel told GenomeWeb Daily News.
"We will reduce that [field], maybe interview around 10 people, and then get a short short-list, and bring a couple of people back to talk with us further," Barbara Trask, director of the center's human biology division, said in an interview last week. "Lee hopes to stop at the end of the current fiscal year in June, although he would stay on if we don't have anybody identified yet. But we're very hopeful that we will have at least identified a successor by that time."
If not, she added, the panel will continue its work until a successor is appointed. The committee is headed by Steve Davis, a member of the center's Board of Trustees, and senior adviser at McKinsey & Company, and includes other members of the Hutch's board and scientific faculty. The search committee is working with a national search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates.
Trask said the search committee remains open to new candidates, both from within and outside the Hutchinson center to succeed Hartwell, co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for identifying the genes controlling yeast cell cycle progression as those that control cell division and cancer in humans. "There are still some people that are being suggested to us that we're open to considering," said Trask, "but we don't want to have it drag on too long."
One key priority for Hartwell's successor, Trask said, will be overseeing the Hutchinson center's fundraising effort. During the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, charitable giving and other "net contributions" accounted for just 4 percent of the center's $354.8 million operating budget, investment income, just 1 percent. The largest share of revenue, 83 percent, came from government research grants and contracts.
The projected budget for the current fiscal year is $359 million.
The recession that started in 2008 led to revenue declines at numerous research centers — including the Hutch, where net contributions fell by half, to $14.9 million from $27.6 million in FY 2008. Investment income plunged further, to just over $3 million in FY 2009 from just over $16 million a year earlier.
Last April, the center laid off 83 employees, 3 percent of its total workforce.
The Hutchinson center now has 2,762 total employees, including 196 scientific faculty and 555 predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers and other scientific staff, spokeswoman Kristen Woodward said.
"Well, I think it [fundraising] is something that they've got to very much want to do, and it's an important factor," Trask told GWDN. "It's interesting: What is it that it takes to be a good fundraiser? You need a great staff who can pitch the story and bring in some money to somebody who's the director at the right moment. And Lee, for example, turned out to be a very effective fundraiser."
Under Hartwell, the center more than doubled its budget, while growing its staff from about 2,100 to its current toal. Established in 1975, the Hutch has broadened its mission in recent years beyond research into its namesake disease of cancer, into more basic science and public health topics.
"We're open to people who have less of a cancer focus," said Trask. "But a significant fraction of what we do here is cancer. We have a big cancer consortium grant, and so we don't want to lose sight of that as being a major mission. But it's a question that we're putting to some of these candidates: How do you think our research portfolio should look in 10 years?"
Another key question being posed to those seeking to succeed Hartwell: How much of the vision of the Hutchinson center should come from one person at the top? And how, if at all, should that vision be blended with the views of the center's faculty?
"This place has been very driven by individual faculty and their research interests. We do some programmatic building, but we really are reliant on faculty and their creativity," Trask said. "And some of those faculty, they don't want somebody coming in and saying, 'I don't like your area any more.' So we need to get the right balance."
Hartwell has helmed the Hutch since 1997, a year after joining the center as a full member and senior advisor for scientific affairs. While Hartwell is retiring from the Hutchinson center, he will not be idle, having agreed to establish and co-direct the Center for Sustainable Health at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.
At ASU, Hartwell will be the university's second Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine; serve as a tenured professor in the College of Teacher Education and Leadership, and hold tenured appointments at ASU's School of Life Sciences and its School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering.
Trask also told GWDN that a committee is reviewing candidates for two faculty positions at the center's human biology division. At deadline, the search panel was halfway through interviews with eight candidates, which the panel will narrow down to a final two that will be invited back to the Hutch for additional interviews.
Two of the four candidates interviewed at deadline had backgrounds in cancer and translational research, while the other two were focused more on studying infectious disease.
"The specs that we put in the ad show that we're particularly interested in growing our solid tumor laboratory research, infectious disease, human pathogens with or without a cancer relevance, computational biology, genetics, and genomics," Trask said, adding that the strengths offered by the candidates will help the center decide which ones it will ultimately hire.
While researchers in any of these backgrounds will be considered for faculty positions, she added, the center is seeking candidates interested in developing collaborations with other faculty at the center: "What will factor heavily in our division's choice is, do they have a strong track record? Are they up-and-coming stars in their field? … Do we see that they have a high chance of getting grants and being successful, getting national recognition, that sort of thing?"
The panel will rank the faculty candidates, and make recommendations to the human biology division's full faculty, which will ultimately vote on the appointments
"That full faculty vote will be middle March," she said. "We will have met all eight, and we will vote, and then the next day, I will be talking to the people that are our top choices, and getting them back for a second visit, in which we then work out the details of their offer."
In a separate search, the Hutchinson center is seeking to appoint a faculty member focused on computational biology to head the Herbold Computational Biology Program, within the public health sciences division. The position would be held in addition to conducting a research program, not a separate job.
That person's duties, Trask said, would include helping integrate Hutch faculty members and their research with the quantitative biologists and work of Sage Bionetworks, the not-for-profit medical research organization established last year to develop an open-access "pre-competitive" platform and databases for building networked and annotated models of human disease. Hartwell is a director of Sage, which is based at the Hutch's Seattle campus and was founded by Rosetta Inpharmatics co-founder Eric Schadt and Merck executive Stephen Friend.
Herbold was previously co-directed by Lon Cardon and Robert Gentleman. Cardon left the center in 2008 for GlaxoSmithKline, where he heads the phama giant's genetics operation. Gentleman, co-creator of the open source "R" statistical computing language, joined Roche's Genentech subsidiary in September as a senior director in bioinformatics.
"That's an indication of the fact that we recruited stars, and it's a highly competitive field. So we're looking for someone to head up that program, and a little bit more senior, so that they can be good mentors to junior faculty in that area," Trask said.
Among those junior faculty members is a recent hire by the Hutch, Frederick (Erick) Matsen, who is joining the center from University of California, Berkeley. "[Matsen] knew that Robert was leaving, but said, 'I still want to come,'" Trask said.