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Hiring John Lupton three years ago was not cheap for the University of Utah. It spent nearly $1 million to set up the young physicist's laser-equipped lab - and that's not even counting his $30,000 annual helium tab.
He needs the helium to keep his equipment cool while his research team probes the optical properties of chains of carbon atoms known as polymers.
"We're betting a lot of money and emotional energy when we hire a young faculty member because we don't know if they will succeed," said Tom Parks, the U.'s vice president for research. "We have [department] chairs who have a good track record of hiring good faculty. We hire mostly at the junior level so we have to have better horse pickers."
It's a high-stakes enterprise. Institutional prestige and hundreds of millions in research grants are on the line. By many accounts the U. is coming out on top. While funding for research has remained flat nationally, the U.'s take has increased most years and is now at a record $350 million.
As a Research One institution, the U.'s quest for external funding falls within its mission, according to James Anderson, a professor of communication who serves as president of the U.'s Academic Senate.
"Its purpose for the state and the larger society is to break the trail that others can follow," he says in an e-mail. "There is . no necessary downside to supporting outstanding research scientists on campus. In fact, that sort of faculty attracts others like them and the best graduate students and often outstanding undergraduate students, too. The better you are the better you get."
In other words, Anderson supports investing in promising young scientists, even if it results in inequities in pay and support favoring the hard sciences.
"I say bring 'em on," adds Anderson, who directs the U.'s Center for Communication and Community. "They challenge the rest of us to do our best whether in the lab, at the desk, in the studio or the classroom."
The's U. most notable trail blazing has come in molecular biology, a field where administrators and department chairs have picked some winning horses, like Mario Capecchi, the U. geneticist who won a Nobel two years ago for his contributions to gene targeting.
In the three decades since Capecchi's arrival, the U. has hired others who are making critical contributions in related areas: geneticists Lynn Jorde and Gabrielle Kardon; oncological scientist Bradley Cairns; neurobiologist Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado; cardiologist Dean Li; biologists Susan Mango and Baldomero Olivera; and biochemists Brenda Bass and Venki Ramakrishnan, who uses X-ray crystallography to map the atomic structure of ribosomes, a tiny structure inside cells that helps them make proteins.
Ramakrishnan left the U. a decade ago to continue his work at the famed MRC in Cambridge, England, where his breakthroughs were honored with this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. U. administrators point to Capecchi and Ramakrishnan's Nobel Prizes as proof the university is capable of supporting top-tier research, despite its lower-tier budget and salaries.
"Two Nobel laureates have done their pioneering work here," Lupton says, arguing that the U.'s investment in cutting edge research is a wise one, however extravagant it may seem. The U. lured the British-born scientist to Salt Lake City with the promise of institutional support for his work, which required an expensive nanoscale opto-electronics lab. In the three years since, he says, his work has returned nearly double the university's initial outlay.
Lupton's research, which federal grants support, has won the attention of private foundations, which have showered his lab with additional support. The Packard Foundation named him a fellow last year, a prestigious honor for young researchers that carries $875,000. That will buy a lot of helium.
"Every penny invested in excellence here is going to have a return, not just in terms of federal taxpayer funds, but where the big bucks are, and that's foundations. You have to be the best to get that sort of money," Lupton says.
The U.'s star researchers may teach just one course a semester, but it's in students' best interest to limit these professors' loads, says Lupton, who came to the U. with his wife Elizabeth, a materials scientist who also works at the university.
"Quantity is not necessarily quality for good professors," he says. "Students get to see world-class researchers teaching them elementary physics. If people here win Packard awards and publish in world-class journals, such as Nature, the value of students' degree increases. The quality of instruction and the quality of research are absolutely inseparable."
Higher education leaders around the nation are rethinking this equation in today's recessionary climate, as state legislatures divert taxpayer outlays from public universities to health care and prisons. Budget cutting in California, for example, has knocked Berkeley off its pedestal: It has fallen from the world's No. 2 research institution after Harvard to now No. 39.
Given new budget constraints and escalating tuition, some may ask whether U. resources would be better weighted toward students. The university strives to balance the educational needs of students and research interest of faculty, Anderson observes, but under the current arrangement, the school's innovations and intellectual capital help drive the state's economy.
"Part of that intellectual capital is the training of the upper echelon of professionals in law, engineering, medicine, business as well as our political leadership and the civically engaged citizen," he says. "These are lofty goals that are tough to achieve and there is always tension in managing the resources to attain them."
The U. has nowhere near the resources to recruit world-class talent that large state and private research institutions have. So it looks for emerging talent, lures them to Utah, often leveraging the state's natural amenities, and nurtures them along. That model succeeded for Capecchi and others, such as Chris Johnson, the computer scientist who, at age 31, launched what became the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute, or SCI, in the early 1990s. This center revolutionized the way data, particularly in biomedical fields, is processed by many U. researchers and is now a key element in the interdisciplinary framework supporting much of the U.'s cutting-edge science.
Johnson is generating new ways to visualize data. The center's work simulating explosions and fires under a multi-million dollar Department of Energy grant exemplifies this new way of handling data.
"We all feel we are being overwhelmed by data. In 2003, we created the amount of data that our entire human race had created in 40,000 previous years of recorded history. It's exponentially increasing," Johnson says. "One of our goals, one of the greatest technological challenges is how do we make the best use for this data, move it, store it, manage it. Visualization is one way we can create abstractions our minds can understand."
Now Johnson is in demand by universities hoping to replicate SCI on their campuses, but says he has no intention of leaving.
The U.'s successful ventures are no accident, but the result of careful strategic planning, observers say.
"The university has a history of excellent leadership in important chairman and administrative positions," says Brad Cairns, a decorated cancer researcher. "It only hires people who really get it, who understand that [research faculty] have to tackle difficult problems and there has to be a lot of institutional support. Research infrastructure is available to the entire [university] community. Everything I use is publicly available to others at the university. It facilitates collaborations."
This collaborative atmosphere is what drew Gabrielle Kardon to Utah in 2004, when she joined the department of human genetics after completing a post doc at Harvard. The main attraction was the prospect of great colleagues in her home department and affiliated departments in the life sciences.
"It's very a easy place to live and do science without loss of other distractions," she says. "It's an incredibly supportive environment. The faculty are really interactive. They don't sit by themselves. It's a really collegial place."