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CSHL Moving Forward with New Faculty Hires Despite Weak Economy

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory expects to balance its budget and carry out new faculty hires as planned over the next year, despite an uptick in expenses related to its new Hillside Laboratories and the weak economy, which in part accounted for a year-to-year dip in proceeds from its largest fundraiser, two top administrators said this week.

In an interview with GenomeWeb Daily News, President Bruce Stillman and Chief Operating Officer Dillaway Ayres Jr. said CSHL's budget will rise next year to about $133 million, from about $125 million this year and $123.5 million in 2008.

"We try to balance our budget each year after taking full depreciation expense. It has been a struggle to do that in the last few years," Stillman said.

The increase, Stillman and Ayres said, reflects increased depreciation as the Hillside cluster has begun to be used, in addition to rising operating expenses, and recruiting costs. CSHL traditionally has had younger faculty members at earlier career stages, working on rolling five-year appointments, since the laboratory does not grant tenure.

"That creates a problem, in a sense, in that we constantly have to recruit people. We have to constantly get new funds to do that," Stillman said.

Hillside, which formally opened last year following a capital campaign that surpassed its $200 million goal, is a $100 million cluster of six research buildings developed to relieve campus overcrowding. About half the cluster's total 100,000 square feet in six buildings is now occupied. That space includes labs built out gradually since the summer as various research operations have moved in.

One of the Hillside buildings, the David H. Koch Laboratory, is where faculty and staff from the laboratory's new Center for Quantitative Biology have moved in recent months. They include two new QB faculty members hired within the past year — Gurinder Singh "Mickey" Atwal, an assistant professor who is conducting statistical analysis of human genomic data; and Alexander Krasnitz, an assistant professor focused on the constraints and their solutions of brain neurons.

The two are among several faculty members envisioned for the QB center, whose permanent program chair will be chosen through a search now in progress. The center is the brainchild of interim director Michael Wigler, whose lab has been moved into Hillside's Nancy and Frederick DeMatteis Laboratory.

Atwal and Krasnitz are among more than a dozen new faculty members CSHL envisions will be appointed in all research specialties in its current hiring wave, enough to bring Hillside to capacity.

"We will be adding positions over the next year or two," Stillman said, as one prospective faculty member is in talks to come to CSHL in 2011. "We have three quantitative biology faculty, and we'll eventually have about 10. A lot of those will be QB fellows. And we'll hire additional people in cancer and neuroscience."

Fellows are recent PhDs or MDs who direct their own research program under the guidance of a senior faculty member.

Stillman said the laboratory's Genome Research Center in Woodbury, NY, about 5 miles south of CSHL's main campus, has made an offer to one faculty prospect, and is interviewing a second. CSHL's faculty stands at 47 members, up from 42 when the laboratory began its hiring wave last year.

Also at Woodbury, CSHL will carry out a $400,000 renovation of the Genome Sequencing Center next year to better accommodate more next-generation gene-sequencing systems. A plant seed storage facility located there will be relocated to the laboratory's warehouse, and the old space will be converted to new space for the tissue culture center, which will be moved within the center to allow for additional next-gen systems.

The project will be a small piece of the roughly $6 million CSHL spends on renovations each year.

CSHL has gone from a half-dozen next-gen sequencers at the start of 2008, to as many as 14 systems already operating, though a final number of systems has yet to be set. "One or two" new genetics faculty will use the renovated center, Stillman said.

"The proliferation of those has necessitated a complete rethink of how you design that space," Stillman said.

Other recent faculty hires include Mikala Egeblad, an assistant professor whose research includes the response of tumors to, and involvement of the immune system in chemotherapy; and Pavel Osten, an associate professor specializing in the neurobiology of autism and schizophrenia.

CSHL is conducting searches to fill three new faculty positions — an assistant professor in cancer biology, a combined assistant professor and associate professor of developmental neuroscience, and a research assistant professor in bioinformatics and genome analysis.

Ayres said CSHL will work in 2010 to boost its endowment fund, which during the first three quarters of 2009 through Sept. 30 has climbed 16 percent, to a market value of more than $250 million. While that is an improvement on the 24 percent drop recorded for 2008, the current endowment is still well below the $315 million market value recorded for the fund in mid-2007, before the financial market meltdown that touched off the current recession.

Endowment money accounted for 12 percent of CSHL's budget in 2008, but the loss last year prompted CSHL to change its formula for drawing endowment fund, and cut its budget earlier this year, Ayres said. The laboratory usually uses for its budget a percentage of the average market value of the endowment funds calculated over the most recent 12 calendar quarters. This year, CSHL drew down 5 percent of this year's endowment, rather than 5 percent of the 12-quarter average market value it faced under the traditional formula.

"We weren’t sure where the economy was going. If the endowments kept going down, and you keep drawing down on them in large amounts, then you're in a downward spiral, and that's not good," Stillman said.

Measured on the July 2008-to-June 2009 calendar used by most universities, Ayres said, CSHL's endowment fund fell by 15 percent — no small feat, he noted, in a 12-month period where Harvard's endowment tumbled 27.3 percent to $26 billion, the university's worst such loss in 40 years; and Yale's endowment dropped 25 percent, to $16.3 billion.

Ayres said CSHL is pleased with the roughly $3 million — slightly above the $2.8 million announced Thursday — raised at this year's Double Helix Medals dinner, held Nov. 10 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City. The sum is close to the $3.1 million raised in 2007, but below the $3.6 million collected last year.

Despite the year-to-year decline, the dinner remains CSHL's top fundraising event, and still managed to attract some 400 attendees as last year's did. Also, the dinner raises funds without the silent or live auctions conducted by many nonprofit galas, and generates far more than the about $300,000 it costs to produce the event, Ayres said.

Stillman said the year-to-year dropoff reflected both the difficulty of raising funds during the recession, as well as the fact that two of last year's awards went to James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule and chancellor emeritus of CSHL; and human genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter.

"We were fortunate last year that even though [the financial meltdown of] October [2008] happened, and our event was in November, that a lot of people had committed to the event well ahead of time. This year is a very different year," Stillman said.

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