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Looking Broadly to Find the Best

NIH Building
CREDIT: Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

It came as a bit of a surprise to Susan Harbison when she was hired as an intramural investigator at the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Her research focus, after all, was on sleep—and while sleep is relevant to the institute's mission, it is not an obvious match. But Harbison was hired through a 4-year-old program called the NIH Earl Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigator search, which seeks out talented early-career scientists without seeking a specific set of skills or research focus. The idea is that, by keeping the request for applications as broad as possible, NIH can locate superb scientists who would be overlooked in a traditional, targeted search. To employ a sports metaphor, instead of aiming to fill a particular need, this NIH hiring program seeks the best athlete in the draft.

<p>Susan Harbison</p>

Susan Harbison

Courtesy of Susan Harbison

Courtesy of Susan Harbison

"They didn't know they were looking for somebody until they found them." —L. Michelle Bennett

Susan Harbison


And that is how they found Harbison. "Sleep is part of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's charter, but I don't know that they would have had a position open necessarily for an intramural investigator in the area of sleep," she says. "I'm the first one. So that speaks to the strategy of looking very broadly."

Pushing for breadth

The first Stadtman Investigator search took place in 2009 under the leadership of Robert Balaban, scientific director of NHLBI's Division of Intramural Research. Balaban had long employed a broad approach in seeking scientists for NHLBI, says the program's co-chair, L. Michelle Bennett, who is the institute's deputy intramural scientific director. But Balaban and Bennett thought that all of NIH—and biomedical science—could benefit from a broad hiring program, especially with budget cuts looming. They sought to spread the approach to NIH's other institutes and centers.

At first, many of the institutes and centers’ directors were skeptical, Bennett recalls, but Balaban "kept pushing it, kept suggesting it, saying it was a good way for NIH to go." Finally his "stubbornness," as Bennett puts it, paid off: The other institutes agreed to go along with a trial NIH-wide search in which they would seek the best and most interesting biomedical scientists. They dubbed it the Stadtman Investigator search. Bennett says that what ultimately convinced many of the directors was the idea that "even if budgets were cut, it would be a good way to demonstrate that NIH is still committed to hiring, and even if we're couldn't hire as many people, still we've got this program going and we're making an effort."

Bennett and Balaban, though, believed that the program would do more than help keep up appearances; it would help institutes locate researchers who were willing to take risks and collaborate across disciplines. "We thought it was important … given the funding environment and the need to make sure we're on the cutting edge of science to not worry too much or focus too hard on people from one particular discipline or one particular narrow area of science," Bennett says.

Wanted: scientists of all stripes

The program works like this: In the fall, NIH puts out a call for applications that is worded to be as inclusive as possible for a range of disciplines. It reads:

The National Institutes of Health, the nation’s premier agency for biomedical and behavioral research, is pleased to announce a new call for top-tier tenure-track candidates to become "NIH Earl Stadtman Investigators." We have multiple positions to offer. We are looking for creative and independent thinkers eager to take on high-risk, high-impact research. Regardless of your expertise—in the field or in the lab (wet or dry), within a discipline well established or on the frontiers of science—please consider the NIH for your career development.

Qualifications? That section is remarkably short. You just need a doctoral degree and:

an outstanding record of research accomplishments as evidenced by publications in major peer-reviewed journals. Preference will be given to applicants who are in the early stages of their research careers; only non-tenured applicants will be considered. Candidates in any area of biomedical, translational and behavioral research are invited to apply. Appointees may be U.S. citizens, resident aliens or non-resident aliens with, or eligible to obtain, a valid employment-authorization visa.

That's it—no long list of scientific specialties or techniques. Applications are accepted between 1 August and 1 October through an online system. Applicants submit a curriculum vitae, a 3-page research plan, and a 1-page vision statement outlining their research's potential impact on human health. The applicants must be early-career scientists, meaning they cannot yet have achieved tenure. Bennett says that the majority of applicants are postdocs. In the 4 years that the program has existed, it has averaged about 600 applicants per year.

An NIH committee reviews the applications and invites 10% to 15% of the strongest applicants to deliver a seminar explaining their work at NIH's main campus in Bethesda, Maryland. After the seminar, some are chosen to meet and interview with institute directors. Subcommittees made up of representatives from various NIH institutes attend applicants' seminars, as do interested parties from across NIH.

Directors within the various institutes and centers then decide whether to offer a tenure-track position to any of the scientists they've interviewed. If an institute lacks the resources to hire a promising candidate, two or more institutes can combine resources to make a single joint hire. Between 2009 and 2011, NIH hired 28 Stadtman Investigators. Those odds aren't bad when you consider that a single tenure-track opening in academia typically also receives hundreds of applications. Data aren't available yet for the 2012 class, as a few hiring decisions have yet to be finalized.

Harbison delivered her seminar in December 2010 on a genome-wide association study of sleep that she was doing with the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. In the audience were Bennett and Alan Michelson, associate director for basic research at NHLBI. "They were very enthusiastic about my research and, as a result, I was invited to interview for a position at National Heart, Lung, and Blood," Harbison says.

Bennett says that scientific directors have been surprised by the caliber of talent they see and find some way to hire these scientists, whether they technically have room on their staff or not. "In all years that we've done this, we've had scientific directors say 'We're not hiring,' and then they come across a candidate, or somebody in their program comes across a candidate, and then the next thing you know they're reconfiguring resources … to make this work," she says. "They didn't know they were looking for somebody until they found them."

Built-in community

Harbison began working in her lab in January of 2012. She says she has been very pleased with the experience so far. "You can find basically anybody who has a level of expertise in just about any subject you'd want," Harbison says. That's good for a scientist like her whose research interests span several disciplines, she adds. But that breadth comes at no cost in depth: There's no shortage of colleagues and resources directly related to her core work. For example, she attends meetings with a Drosophila interest group and also a Drosophila neurobiology interest group.

The Stadtman Investigator search process, Bennett says, primes scientists to fit in well at NIH because the seminars and interviews in the hiring process expose them to a much wider array of prospective colleagues and collaborators than a targeted search would do. "By the time they finish the process … they're pretty well connected to different people across the NIH," she says. "There's sort of this community that they've participated in building."