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Jennifer Hoffman examines the individual atoms of quantum materials at UBC's Quantum Matter Institute in Vancouver on July 29, 2015.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

A highly touted U.S. scientist who was courted by the University of British Columbia with a multimillion-dollar federal research chair is leaving her position there after spending less than a year in Canada.

UBC confirmed on Monday that Jennifer Hoffman, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Quantum Materials, has decided to return to her former home base at Harvard University.

Her abrupt departure refocuses attention on a program launched by the Harper government that ties significant amounts of government funding to individual superstar researchers, and is a reminder that others who were brought to Canada as part of the same program could just as easily walk away.

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Dr. Hoffman referred questions about her leaving to the university's director of public affairs but, in an e-mail to colleagues, she stressed that her choice was motivated by personal reasons.

"The international transition has been significantly harder than my family anticipated, and we are looking forward to returning to our home community and culture," she wrote. Dr. Hoffman is married and has three young children who moved with her last year from Cambridge, Mass.

The development comes as a blow to UBC's recently named Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute, which was the primary beneficiary of Dr. Hoffman's $10-million research chair.

The money would have covered Dr. Hoffman's salary for seven years as well as paid for her research team and other costs. The remainder will now be available to fund future chairs.

It was partly on the strength of Dr. Hoffman's coming to UBC that the institute was awarded an additional $66.5-million in federal funding last June. Earlier this month, Dr. Blusson, a UBC alumnus and Canadian diamond pioneer, donated an additional $11-million.

Dr. Hoffman was a specialist in creating exotic materials atom by atom for research that could eventually lead to a new wave of powerful quantum electronic devices.

"She was a strong person being added to an already incredibly strong group," said John Hepburn, UBC's vice president of research. He added that the university was still proceeding with four new hires it had committed to when it won Dr. Hoffman's chair.

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Her departure comes as 25 other researchers who hold similarly well-funded chairs in universities across the country meet in Ottawa for their annual summit. On Monday, they heard from federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan who is in the midst of a comprehensive review of all aspects of the government's science funding apparatus.

Ted Hewitt, chair of the steering committee that runs the excellence research chair program said "the government of Canada regrets Dr. Hoffman's departure and wishes her well in her future career."

He added that the fact that Dr. Hoffman chose to come to UBC initially is an indication that "the program is competitive and attractive to the world's best researchers."

Like UBC, many universities have built critical mass around their chairs and secured additional funding for scientists and infrastructure. However, as the seven-year, non-renewable window expires on the first round of chairs next year, it remains to be seen how many of them will manage to retain the superstars they attracted.

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