Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Stem Cell Star Rebuffs the Golden State

All the finest stem cell researchers in the world are booking flights to California, lured by the $3 billion the state plans to spend on behalf of their efforts, right?

That's the conventional wisdom. But in at least one dramatic case, it is definitely wrong.

The story involves 35-year-old Mick Bhatia and the University of California, Davis, a $500,000 salary and an research budget of $2 million.

Bhatia is currently director of the stem cell biology group at the Robarts Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario. He soon will be scientific director of Canada's first stem cell research center, which is under construction at McMaster University.

What he won't be is director of a stem cell research center at UC Davis, which courted him for nine months with blandishments such as a base yearly salary of more than $500,000 along with the annual research budget of $2 million.

The details of the wooing were disclosed by reporter Carolyn Abraham of the The Globe and Mail of Toronto, which circulates nationwide in Canada. "Canadian Stem Cell Star Shuns U.S. Riches" read the headline on the story Tuesday.

The UC Davis offer was so generous, the newspaper reported, that Bhatia said, "I kept thinking they mixed up my name with someone else. It was overwhelming."

Abraham reported, "Three times he flew down to investigate the university and the town, scoping houses and schools for his two young children. His wife, Christina, cruised images on the Internet, being nine months pregnant with their third child and unable to fly.

"Dr. Bhatia even went so far as to sign and seal the offer. 'I put it in the FedEx envelope intending to send it off in the morning,' he said. But after a sleepless night, 'I couldn't do it.'

"He and his wife wanted to stay close to their families, and a pang of patriotism struck after their baby was born shortly after Canada Day. 'I like Canada,' the Toronto-born Dr. Bhatia said. 'I was educated here.'

"He also feared the position in California would force him to be more administrator than scientist. His duties would have included fundraising and providing input on designing the center and how it should operate.

"'If we spend a lot of time thinking about how shiny the hallways are and the square footage, we won't get very far figuring out how these cells work,' he said."

Abraham said that at McMaster Bhatia will have $10 million (Canadian) to start up research at the institute, plus $4 million for equipment and another $3- to $4-million in funding through Canada Research Chair positions.

How big was the Bhatia hire? John Kelton, vice-president of McMaster's health sciences faculty, said, "It's like getting a Wayne Gretzky or a baseball star."

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