Some personal reflections on being recruited to Iowa
The last year has been a remarkable one for my family, my laboratory and myself. The story of how I came here began with a cold call in late October, 2008 from a famous friend of Iowa Biochemistry, Daryl Granner. I did not know Daryl at the time but I was well aware of his work on regulation of the phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase gene by insulin. Daryl told me that he had returned to Iowa to do some recruiting for Dean Rothman and that he was inquiring about candidates for Head of Biochemistry. At this point, I thought Daryl was about to ask whether my Dartmouth colleague Bill Wickner might be interested.
As the family and I were very happy living and working in New Hampshire and I had not been looking for a position, I dragged my feet before responding. However, as I reflected and learned more about Iowa, the prospect of joining and leading the Iowa Biochemistry faculty grew in attractiveness. At the same time, it seemed an unlikely proposition that I would emerge as the lead candidate and that my family, laboratory and I would uproot ourselves only six years after we left Philadelphia.
Upon my first visit, I was blown away by the attractions of Iowa City and the University, and the investments that the College of Medicine had made in shared resources. I was impressed by the probing questions of prospective colleagues and flattered to be considered to be potentially in the peer group with the other collegiate leaders. I had read the 3-part AACR series, “The Successful Medical School Department Chair” to understood the search process, but I hadn’t spent any time figuring out what my leadership style is and I hadn’t thought about being a chair enough to have a specific vision of what I wanted to do if I were given the opportunity.
Some time between my first visit, in which I told everyone that I wasn’t looking for a job, and my second visit, when my family was finding Iowa City to be a highly livable place, I developed the beginnings of the leadership statements that would give my candidacy specificity and traction. I told people that I didn’t consider Biochemistry to be a narrow discipline with clearly defensible boundaries. I recalled how formative environments, especially at Stanford and Brandeis, contributed to my scientific development and tried to express my desire to create a participatory, cohesive environment that would demand and produce excellence. Moreover, I told faculty and collegiate leadership that I generally prefer to recruit the “best available athlete” rather than to confine searches to a narrow focus.
When my whole laboratory was invited to the third visit, we knew that things were getting serious. However, the NASDAQ had dropped from 2274 on September 19, 2008 to 1294 on March 6, 2009 and most academic job searches had been cancelled. It seemed unlikely that the recruitment opportunities described by collegiate leadership in the fall of 2008 would still exist going forward. Remarkably, those opportunities were preserved. By the end of March, my family and laboratory started thinking that Iowa City would be the right place for us if the opportunity presented itself and the Dean and I were able to strike a deal.
Two post-docs, three graduate students, a new technician and a summer student came on board. Additional friends and family saw opportunities at the U of I, such that the ultimate caravan at the end of June consisted of 11 people, two cats, a dog, and more sporting goods than any similarly sized group of people ought to own.
The move was great: all of our personnel got housing either walking distance or public transportation distance to the lab. Our family was very much embraced by the warmth of Iowa City. The laboratory, which was superbly organized by Dr. Seth Brown, Matt Wean and Anisha Singh, and moved by Jeff Crane, who is famous in trucking circles, didn’t break anything of value and was able to get experiments up and running by the second week of July.
In my first year as Head, the Biochemistry faculty made me look good by increasing the Departmental research base by 40%. This was a combination of success at ARRA grants, timely renewals, new awards and the transfer of our NIH and NSF awards. I am extremely fortunate to have a mentorship team which consists of three former chairs of Biochemistry (Madeline Shea, John Donelson and Art Spector), Daryl Granner and the other basic science chairs who have helped me learn the ropes.
We’ve come a long way in a year but I am certain that the best is yet to come.