If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Biological Chemistry

Hhmi's Janelia Farm Sets Scientific Focus

Interdisciplinary institute is recruiting chemists to probe brain function, develop new imaging tools

by Amanda Yarnell
October 11, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 41

Credit: Raphael Viñoly Architects
Janelia Farm is being built on a 281-acre piece of land along the Potomac River. This artist's conception shows its glass-walled lab and office space.
Credit: Raphael Viñoly Architects
Janelia Farm is being built on a 281-acre piece of land along the Potomac River. This artist's conception shows its glass-walled lab and office space.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute - a nonprofit philanthropy that supports biomedical research - has settled on the scientific focus of Janelia Farm, its new $500 million freestanding research campus in northern Virginia. It's now recruiting some of the 300 biologists, chemists, physicists, computer scientists, and engineers who will work together at Janelia to determine how the healthy brain works and to develop new imaging tools.

"We are looking for scientists who are really passionate about working on these problems in this kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary environment," says Gerald M. Rubin, an HHMI investigator and University of California, Berkeley, biologist who will head the facility. "Our scientists will have unparalleled freedom and resources to explore those problems." He wants to fill Janelia—which will officially open its doors in the fall of 2006--with creative and risk-taking scientists who have all kinds of expertise, like a scientific Noah's Ark.

HHMI is best known for its investigator program, which generously funds the work of more than 300 scientists at 66 university campuses. With a firm belief in giving talented researchers the resources and flexibility to follow their scientific noses, HHMI has always prided itself on funding "people, not projects." And its model has proven successful: HHMI investigators have won Nobel Prizes in five of the past six years.

Credit: Paul Fetters For HHMI
Credit: Paul Fetters For HHMI

But HHMI--which currently has an endowment topping $11 billion--has decided that its investigator population has grown large enough. So the institute decided to try something different: build a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary research institute of its own.

At Janelia Farm, "we want to tackle risky problems that are difficult to address in existing research settings," Rubin says. After holding a series of discussion groups to identify high-risk, high-reward research areas, HHMI settled on two, both of which require collaborative, interdisciplinary teams.

The first is the identification of the general principles that govern the processing of information by groups of neurons in the brain. Janelia Farm scientists will attempt to understand in complete anatomical and mechanistic detail how the brain controls a complex task such as eating, walking, courtship, or learning. These studies will likely be carried out in flies, fish, mice, or other animal models.

Janelia's second goal will be to develop new imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis. The design of new tools for functional imaging in living systems at single-cell resolution is of particular interest, Rubin says.

Rather than an about-face, Rubin sees HHMI's ambitious project as an extension of the organization's long-term mission "to free creative scientists from the constraints that limit their ability to do groundbreaking research." Researchers at Janelia Farm won't be burdened with grant writing or teaching responsibilities, he notes. And perhaps most important, "scientists won't be saddled with the pressure to be true to their disciplines," Rubin says.

Instead, collaboration and interdisciplinarity will be actively encouraged. Rubin hopes Janelia will follow in the footsteps of AT&T's Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J.--which brought us the laser and the transistor--and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, whose researchers cracked the structure of DNA and developed a way to sequence it.

AS AT BELL LABS and the MRC lab, research at Janelia will be funded internally at a generous level. Groups will be kept small--fewer than six people each--and will self-organize into larger collaborative teams as needed. Whether young hires or established scientists, group leaders will be active bench scientists. Staff turnover will be high, and tenure won't be awarded. Staff will be evaluated internally, judged on their originality, creativity, collegiality, and perceived potential, not on how many papers they publish or their short-term productivity.

Eventually, Janelia Farm will be home to about two dozen group leaders and a research staff of 300, including graduate students, postdocs, and "fellows"--independent researchers who will work with one or two other scientists. The campus will also host visiting scientists and research teams who want to make use of Janelia Farm's facilities.

"Success in these areas is not guaranteed, and it will take a good deal of intellectual courage, but the impact could be enormous," Rubin says. He notes that Janelia Farm isn't limiting its search to chemists currently working in these areas, but those who will be hired are the creative thinkers who buy into these problems.



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.