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USC steals 2 star brain researchers from UCLA

USC lures prominent neuroscientists from crosstown rival UCLA. They'll bring with them graduate students, staffers, substantial government and private funds and highly sophisticated equipment.

May 10, 2013|By Larry Gordon and Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times
  • Neuroscientists Arthur Toga, left, and Paul Thompson will move to USC next fall, along with scores of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staffers who now work at UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.
Neuroscientists Arthur Toga, left, and Paul Thompson will move to USC next… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

In a major case of academic poaching involving crosstown rivals, USC has lured away two prominent neuroscientists from UCLA with a promise to expand their internationally renowned lab that uses brain imaging techniques to study Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, autism and other disorders.

Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson will move to the USC Keck School of Medicine campus next fall, along with scores of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staffers who now work at UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, known as LONI. In establishing a new institute at the USC campus in Boyle Heights, they will also move substantial government and private grants that fund the lab's $12-million annual budget as well as some of the highly sophisticated equipment used to investigate the brain's inner workings.

The new hires mark another chapter in a long Los Angeles rivalry in sports and, increasingly, in academic prestige. It also raises concerns about the ability of financially strapped public universities to fend off raids from deep-pocketed private colleges like USC.

DISCUSSION: Chat with reporters at 9 a.m.

Toga and Thompson said they do not think their departure from UC signifies a brain drain from the 10-campus University of California system, which has grappled with budget cuts over the last four years. They said USC has pursued them for years with offers of larger facilities, additional financial resources and the chance to hire more researchers. They also were impressed with how quickly private universities can make changes compared with state schools.

Scientists around the country said the move would further elevate USC, which recently has hired away professors and researchers from Caltech, Harvard and other prestigious institutions.

"It's a feather in USC's cap," said Dr. Bruce Rosen, director of a biomedical imaging center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He described the Toga-Thompson group as perhaps the world's premier lab when it comes to finding insights about the brain in massive amounts of data from scans and genetic tests.

The ability to expand at USC "seemed far greater than the opportunities" to do so at UCLA, said Toga, 60, the lab's director. Their new Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics will have its own customized building and will also have space at a USC facility at Marina del Rey.

The scientists did not divulge details of their new salaries and research funding but said they did not seek a counteroffer. "We did not want to play that game," said Toga, who told UCLA officials of his plans Thursday.

According to a UC website of employee compensation, Toga was paid $1.06 million in 2011, including basic salary and extra money for research work. Thompson was listed at $421,150.

Thompson, 41, said that the main reason for the move was scientific, not financial, especially considering the opportunity to create an institute that blends engineering and medicine.

"USC has stepped up to the plate to do this," Thompson said. "We've been incredibly impressed by the vision and sheer common sense of the people we've worked with and with the efficiency and the ease of getting things done."

Toga said he did not want to disparage UCLA but said private schools "are often a little quicker on their feet."

The move "will invigorate our activities considerably," he said.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block praised the accomplishments of the LONI scientists and expressed disappointment at their exit.

"I want to stress, though, that the exceptional drive and ingenuity of our faculty, staff and students and the quality of our research infrastructure ensures our continued strength, especially in the field of neuroscience," he said in a statement. "The departure of one lab will not diminish our impact."

John Mazziotta, UCLA's neurology chairman and executive vice dean of its medical school, said he had known for months that Toga was talking to USC and other universities but that Toga had never divulged specifics to allow UCLA to make a counteroffer.

Mazziotta said he will try to retain eight of the faculty at the LONI lab, which he said will continue to operate along with about 100 other campus labs involved in various aspects of neurology and neuroscience.

"It's definitely a loss," he said. "I'd prefer this not to happen for sure. But UCLA still has unbelievable depth and range" in the discipline. Mazziotta said it would be wrong to portray the move as linked to state funding cuts because labs like this rely mainly on outside grants, clinical revenues and donations, not state tax dollars.

But public universities around the nation find it increasingly difficult to retain faculty targeted for recruitment by better-funded private schools, said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

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