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Skolnick resigning UB biotech center post Bioinformatics expert lands job in Georgia

Jeffrey Skolnick, the prominent scientist hailed as the "rock star" of bioinformatics research when he arrived at the University at Buffalo in 2002, is leaving UB for a job at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Skolnick has submitted a resignation letter, effective Jan. 10, and will take a position as director of a center focusing on systems-biology research.

This brings an end to Skolnick's rocky term at the UB bioinformatics center, which received more than $200 million in financial support and generated high expectations as an economic engine. "His tenure's been disappointing in the sense that [he] was trumpeted as a rock star, and there weren't many concerts to attend," said Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga.

Skolnick won praise when he was recruited 3 1/2 years ago as the center's director, but his high salary, exacting personality and a public tiff with Dell Computers wore on colleagues.

Today, officials emphasized that the life sciences initiative in Buffalo is in good hands and is strong enough to survive the loss of Skolnick.

A spokeswoman for Georgia Tech said Thursday she could not comment on Skolnick's hiring, but several sources confirmed he is taking a research post at the school.

Skolnick, whose home in Clarence's Spaulding Lake neighborhood is on the market for $1.2 million, declined to comment through an assistant.

UB spokesman Arthur H. Page said UB President John B. Simpson and Senior Vice Provost Bruce A. Holm, the center's current executive director, would not comment. Page issued a statement on behalf of UB that thanks Skolnick for his service but notes UB's life sciences mission has expanded significantly since 2002.

UB officials -- with a boost from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. -- recruited Skolnick to lead UB's bioinformatics center. The center was part of a high-tech, statewide economic-development initiative proposed by Gov. George E. Pataki.

Bioinformatics researchers use powerful supercomputers to sift through massive amounts of biological data in the hopes of, eventually, developing personally tailored medical drugs.

Skolnick was considered one of the best scientists in the field, and his hiring was considered a coup when Buffalo lured him from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

Pataki called him a "superstar," and Skolnick said he would work hard to deliver on the region's desire for the center to create new jobs and drugs.

The project soon showed signs of progress, moving into temporary offices in downtown Buffalo, recruiting top scientists, obtaining federal and state grants and producing academic papers.

But Skolnick also generated resentment among colleagues.

He sought a UB job for his wife, went through three office assistants in his first 18 months and received a $345,000 annual salary, the highest UB state salary.

In early 2004, he caused a stir when he criticized the Dell computer cluster that powered his research and switched to a new IBM supercomputer. UB officials defended Dell, which is a major partner of the university.

"I suspect, without knowing it, that that was a seminal moment in his time here. There's before the flap with Dell and after the flap with Dell," said Raymond P. Dannenhoffer, associate dean in UB's Office of Medical Computing.

UB gradually reduced Skolnick's administrative responsibilities, bringing in Norma J. Nowak as a co-director of the center and later naming Holm as executive director. Skolnick continued to conduct his research at UB, but faculty and administrators have said he was looking to leave Buffalo since early last year.

Ultimately, colleagues and local officials say, no one could live up to the expectations placed on Skolnick's shoulders. And, they say, he didn't work out in Buffalo because he's a better researcher than administrator.

"He was not a team player, clear and simple," said Jane F. Griffin, a principal research scientist at Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, a partner with UB in life sciences.

But, Griffin and others say the region's life sciences efforts will grow and thrive even without Skolnick's presence.

More than 50 scientists from UB, Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Hauptman-Woodward are working in the five research groups that make up the bioinformatics center. Hauptman-Woodward's research building has opened on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and the $63 million UB center and the Roswell Park research facility will open soon.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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