URBANA — After a series of visits to the campus, including meet-and-greets with potential teammates, neighborhood tours and dinners highlighting local food of Champaign-Urbana (however, there was no reported home visit from the chancellor), the University of Illinois has landed a package deal: two young(ish) recruits out of Detroit who have committed to join the campus by fall 2014.
Meet Derek Wildman and Monica Uddin.
"We can't wait to get there," said Wildman, who has shared the news with colleagues, but not his Facebook friends yet.
Today is a big day for the Illini basketball program as coach John Groce signs local Centennial standout Michael Finke and two other blue-chippers, but across the campus, another kind of recruiting effort has been in high gear.
Chancellor Phyllis Wise's strategic plan calls for hiring 500 faculty in the next five to seven years; there are 180 open searches underway. And the hiring of husband and wife scholars Derek Wildman and Monica Uddin represents two pretty big "gets" for the campus' goal of building expertise in the area of human health and wellness.
"They are both great scientists and scholars," said Gene Robinson, director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, "but we can't vouch for their dunking or tackling abilities."
Wildman, an associate professor at Wayne State University's School of Medicine, works in comparative genomics and molecular evolution. He will be a professor in the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and a member of the Institute for Genomic Biology, or IGB.
"When you think of human evolution, most people think of fossils in Africa or Asia, but our molecules tell the story of our past as well," Wildman said.
Uddin, an assistant professor at Wayne State University's School of Medicine, works on identifying molecular variation associated with the risk or resilience of mental disorders. She will be an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and a member of IGB.
"Prof. Wildman, with great research accomplishments that use genomics and high-level computation to study reproductive biology, will be leading the effort to develop a new interdisciplinary thematic research group in computational and genomic medicine in [IGB], with a specific focus on women's reproductive health. And Prof. Uddin, already well known for her research in psychiatric genomics, will also be involved in the new computational and genomic medicine research theme as well as new initiatives in behavioral genomics," Robinson said.
Their recruitment was the result of a new kind of hiring strategy on campus called the Strategic Excellence in Hiring program, launched a few years ago by the provost's office, which oversees faculty affairs. The goal was to attract more established faculty to campus — essentially those who are not fresh from receiving their Ph.D.s but who have built research portfolios at other universities.
"When we recruit at this level, it's more like recruiting at the NBA level than the NCAA level. They've already proven themselves," said UI Professor Bryan White, who chaired the search committee.
The recruiting period began in 2011. Typically departments run their own searches, but this one was different because it required several colleges and units — Liberal Arts & Sciences, Applied Health Sciences, Engineering, Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Institute for Genomic Biology — to sign off on the search as it kicked off. Later, the candidates would choose a department with which to affiliate. Members of the search committee made a list of ideal candidates, then began the process of finding out who was willing to move, who was not "on the market," and whose home institution would propose counteroffers to the sought-after faculty member.
Over the years, Wildman said he has been approached by other universities, but he and Uddin said they decided to entertain the idea of joining the Illinois faculty because it was the right time. Their children are elementary-school age and they did not want to move later in life when their children were in high school.
They were won over by a number of factors, such as the "intellectual community," the "world-class" research facilities and computing power, Wildman said.
When the two visited, Uddin said, it was clear to her there was an "institutional will" to accomplish great research.
"Research these days is highly disciplined, and the more people working together to make that happen, the more successful they're likely to be," she said.
"A lot of my work is involved in understanding the genomics of pregnancy, and there is quite a good nexus of folks in reproductive sciences here. ... We see all-over-the-campus opportunities," Wildman said.
"What I look forward to doing is bringing all those people together so we can really tackle big problems," he said.
"In the future, it won't be uncommon for individuals to have their own genome sequenced, and in this area of personalized medicine, that genomic information will drive the design of drugs and therapies," Wildman said. He will develop that area of research.
As a biological anthropologist with interests in the molecular bases of human mental illness and health, Uddin has an unusual background for recruitment and appointment in the UI's psychology department, said Professor David Irwin, head of that department.
"But my colleagues and I believe that Dr. Uddin is the kind of silo-busting, interdisciplinary scholar who represents the future of our discipline," he said. Her research examining interactions among genetic and other risk factors in the development of and prevention of mental disorders "is a very important and growing area in psychology" and several faculty members and graduate students are interested in pursuing these kind of questions, Irwin said.
The couple has not set a firm date for joining the campus yet; they're hoping to start sometime next summer. With labs to staff, it's possible some of their students may want to make the move with them, and in the coming months they will be "putting out feelers," Uddin said.
"It's going to be very exciting," she said.