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For TIGR s Fraser, Lean Bioinformatics Staff Demands Swift You re Hired!

SAN DIEGO, Oct. 27 – The bioinformatics department of the Institute for Genomic Research is understaffed and under funded, a reality that has led the group to adopt novel—and in some cases less stringent and controversial—hiring practices, according to Claire Fraser, the Institute’s president. 

“We just can’t find the people to fill these positions,” Fraser said in an interview with GenomeWeb  at the 2001 annual Genome Sequencing and Analysis Conference, held here through Sunday. “People who can really cross the divide between biology and computational science are very few and far between.”

“It’s an area where I don’t think we’ve ever been fully staffed in terms of what we think we need and positions we have funded by grants,” said Fraser. “That means that everybody has to work at 150 percent all of the time in order for us to keep doing what we’re doing.” TIGR currently employs about 300 researchers and support staff, 60 or so of whom work in the group’s bioinformatics department. 

Fraser, who was tapped to replace husband and co-founder J. Craig Venter, who is now president of Celera Genomics, said that the institute’s proprietary research is not the only casualty of running a lean facility.

“What has suffered as a result is not so much a finished product—because people are so enormously dedicated to their job and making sure that the [the research remains at] the highest,” she explained. Rather, the problem is felt by many of the group’s bioinformaticists who, as Ph.D.-level scientists, “came in with an area of interest that they were hoping to have a little bit of time to follow up on their own.”

“That’s what has had to be sacrificed,” said Fraser. “To me that is really a tragedy.”

Fraser, 45, joined TIGR in 1992 as vice president for research and was initially involved in studying gene expression in human tumors. More recently, she has been involved in whole-genome-sequence analyses of microbial genomes, leading the teams that sequenced the Mycoplasma genitalium  genome, the smallest of any known free-living organism, and the two spirochetes: Treponema pallidum , which causes syphilis in humans, and Borrelia burgdorferi , the bug responsible for Lyme disease. 

Now, in between sessions of the meeting her group has organized for the past 13 years, Fraser, sitting just steps from rows of white yachts docked in San Diego Bay, talks about new strategies—and their pitfalls—that TIGR has employed to attract new talent.

“We’ve actually done the experiment and hired people who are perhaps less qualified than what we would have hoped to find, and many times that has been a disaster,” she said. “It’s better to have people whose work you can really trust than to have people who aren’t quite at the same level or at the level you need.”

“It’s not an experiment that anybody who’s lived through it would want to rush into it again,” Fraser complained.

Has her group ever tried to poach from private industry? “It would be nice if we could. But the problem is, because we’re trying to pay a salary based on what we can get on a government grant,” it’s little match for private sector salaries.

“Unless someone [at a private sector lab] has had a falling out with their supervisor … we don’t stand much of a chance.”

TIGR's major funding is from the National Institutes of Health, the US Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation. 

Instead, TIGR “changed what we do in terms of hiring, and I think it’s made a difference in a few cases that if we have a really hot prospect come through the door and everybody is really enthusiastic about having that person come on board, we’ve streamlined our hiring process so that they leave that day with a bona fide offer letter in hand,” Fraser explained

Standard due diligence, she said—interviewing, background checks, and references—can take time, during which applicants are out interviewing with other labs.

“Now, I think, people have been shocked when they come in for an interview [at TIGR] and if they really look good they’re leaving with an offer,” said Fraser. “It took us a while to figure that out.”

That strategy is risky—how can you verify, say, university training when the time, resources, and utility needed for that task have been eliminated?—and TIGR has been bitten once already. “At one point we hired someone who claimed they had a Ph.D. degree but never finished” their training, said Fraser.

“I think that we’ve realized from the beginning that as much as we’d like to do everything, we can’t,” she added. “Whether we go outside industry looking for expertise or access to new technology, we want to be doing things at the highest level and in that sense we’ve always been somewhat opportunistic, looking to figure out ‘How can we do things in the best possible way.’”

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