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UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging relocates to USC

By Chandini Soni

May 15, 2013 1:21 a.m.

The UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging’s recent announcement that it will move to the University of Southern California in the fall – a move many UCLA researchers say is unprecedented for a large lab – has raised questions about whether public universities are losing researchers to their private competitors.

The Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, one of more than 100 neuroscience labs on campus, analyzes brain scans collected from around the world to create maps of what brains should look like in different phases of a person’s life as well as those for patients with neurological diseases.

But last week, the lab’s two principal researchers announced that they and at least 85 graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and staff will relocate to USC.

It is not unusual for faculty to move from one university to another, but UCLA researchers say a move of this size is unheard of. Representatives from USC approached the lab’s two main researchers, Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson, at the end of last year.

The recruitment is part of USC’s effort to improve the quality of its research by hiring experts in specific fields who do multidisciplinary research, said USC President C.L. Max Nikias in a press release.

Toga, the director of LONI, declined to say how much money USC offered to the lab, but he said the move was about the resources and facilities USC offered, not the money.

Up until now, Toga and Thompson, a professor of neurology at the lab, have had to use more than 26,000 brain scans from other institutes for its research.

USC promised the group their own scanner, a more powerful version than what is generally available, with which they will be able to better study connections in the brain, Thompson said.

“There is tremendous investment in biomedical sciences (at USC),” Toga said. “There is a university-wide emphasis on combining sciences, from engineering and mathematics to neurobiology. Our research is based on this collaboration.”

Toga said he and Thompson did not give UCLA the opportunity to counter the offer because they had already made their decision.

Other researchers, however, said they were surprised to find out about the move.

“I’m disappointed,” said Carrie Bearden, associate professor in the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and the department of psychology. “(Toga and Thompson) have been so influential in neuroimaging research. I think it is a big loss for UCLA.”

Universities have tried to recruit the lab in the past, Toga said. The University of Pennsylvania asked the lab to relocate to its campus last year, but the researchers didn’t want to move across the country, so they rejected the offer, Toga said.

“The move is unprecedented in my opinion. Faculty move all the time, but it is usually just smaller labs,” said Thompson, who has helped UCLA recruit researchers in the past.

In recent years, UCLA has been about 70 to 75 percent successful in either recruiting faculty from other universities or retaining faculty who are being recruited, said Carole Goldberg, vice chancellor for academic personnel.

Goldberg said she could not comment specifically on why faculty choose to come to UCLA or stay at UCLA, but she said that she attributes the university’s success in part to its reputation worldwide and the convenience of a compact campus. Universities in other cities with different campus layouts might have less resources in close proximity, whereas at UCLA most facilities are within walking distance, she said.

She added that being a public institution does not seem to have affected UCLA, as the university has successfully recruited and retained faculty from both public and private schools.

“This is a way of life. (Recruitment) happens every day and in every direction,” said John Mazziotta, chair of the department of neurology. “Our faculty are great, and therefore they are desirable targets for other institutions.”

Thompson said he is opening the USC Imaging Genetics Center as a part of the USC Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics in Marina Del Rey, Calif., to minimize the disruption in his staff’s lives – they will not have to commute to USC every day.

Both Toga and Thompson have been at UCLA for more than 20 years and said they hope to continue to work with scientists at UCLA. Thompson also got his doctoral degree in neuroscience from UCLA in 1998.

“I would not move from UCLA unless there was an offer that was scientifically helpful,” Thompson said.

He said he will not let the lab shut down until every graduate student has a position, and he will stay at UCLA as an adjunct professor until his students graduate so he can mentor them.

Nicholus Warstadt, a third-year physiological science student who works under Thompson, plans to continue to work with him at USC after he graduates at the end of the summer, before applying to medical schools.

“I’m excited about taking new classes, working with new people and experiencing new science,” Warstadt said.

Mazziotta is currently negotiating with the remaining eight faculty of the lab in an effort to keep them at UCLA.

“The move is being portrayed as a Bruin-Trojan battle,” Thompson said. “But in science, everyone wins.”

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