Putting Janelia on the Map

When Janelia Farm opened in 2006, it was not uncommon for perplexed taxi drivers to circle the roads in Ashburn, Virginia, looking for the campus.

The drivers—sometimes ferrying scientists from nearby Dulles Airport—relied on GPS for navigation, and Janelia Farm wasn’t yet on the map.

A similar problem confronted Janelia Farm’s founding director Gerald M. Rubin, who was navigating a very different landscape: How could he put Janelia on the scientific map?

The first step was to place a premium on highly interdisciplinary, collaborative research performed by small teams of scientists. Furthermore, Janelia’s scientists needed to demonstrate that they could think big—way beyond the three- to five-year timeline of traditional grant cycles.

For Janelia’s founders—including Rubin, former HHMI president Thomas R. Cech, and David A. Clayton, who was then HHMI’s vice president for science development—a focus on small, collaborative labs was part of a clear vision of what would differentiate Janelia from other research institutes. Their ideas were drawn largely from close study of the conditions that permitted scientists to thrive at research hothouses such as Bell Labs and the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

Fast-forward to 2011, and Janelia Farm looks very much the intellectual hub its founders envisioned. Collaborations at Janelia have yielded several new microscopy technologies that have expanded the power of super-resolution optical imaging; new research tools to visualize how the brains of the fruit fly and mouse are wired; computer algorithms to search for evolutionarily related genetic sequences; and software to manipulate large data files from imaging studies and to assemble sophisticated three-dimensional representations of neural circuitry.

To position Janelia for those kinds of successes, Rubin began by asking what worked best.

“We also asked what was missing,” says Rubin. “We saw that many top scientists were managing science, not doing science. We saw that although everyone recognized the importance of doing interdisciplinary research, the departmental structure of many universities was inhibiting it. And lastly, we saw that hardly anyone was doing long-range research anymore.”

The Janelia credo attracted the attention of several high-profile scientists in 2005 and 2006. Physicist Eric Betzig and geneticist Julie H. Simpson joined Janelia’s first entering class—as did HHMI investigators Sean R. Eddy and Karel Svoboda as well as Berkeley computer scientist Eugene W. Myers, all of whom gave up tenure to pursue their passions. They helped solidify a committed team that quickly shaped Janelia’s culture—both intellectually and socially.

More than 250 scientists now call Janelia home—including 50 lab heads who anchor the research program, 100 visiting scientists from 15 countries, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students.

Led by these scientists, new programs are emerging, such as Janelia’s diverse “project teams,” which complement its two broad scientific areas of interest.

Initiated in 2008, project teams have become a vital part of Janelia’s collaborative environment because they foster teamwork on tough scientific problems, such as developing new fluorescent sensors that aid imaging of neuronal activity in vivo. The projects require the collaboration of multiple Janelia lab heads and outside visiting scientists to pursue a goal that is larger than the ability of any one (or two) lab groups.

Janelia was not built to tackle short-term goals. Traditional measures of institutional success—number of papers published, grants received—carry little weight or are irrelevant at Janelia, Rubin explains.

“The long-term measure of success is the impact of the science that comes out,” he says. “The appropriate measure at five years is whether we have been able to attract the right scientists to come to Janelia Farm.”

What seems to animate Rubin most is the road ahead. In the past year, highly collaborative scientific workshops proved instrumental in surfacing three new disciplines to broaden Janelia’s research program: structural biology (with a focus on cryo-electron microscopy), the evolution and development of the nervous system, and neuronal cell biology.

Two recent recruits from within the HHMI community will anchor two of those nascent programs. Evolutionary biologist David L. Stern, who was an HHMI investigator at Princeton University, saw Janelia as “an incredible opportunity to rethink the direction of my research.” Also, at Princeton, he found it difficult to scratch out one hour in the lab each day—despite generous funding. At Janelia, he’s excited to be working in the lab “most of the day” with his own hands, helping to move his group closer to understanding the evolution of behavior.

Structural biologist and biochemist Tamir Gonen, who was an HHMI early career scientist at the University of Washington, likewise seized the chance to spend more time doing structural studies of membrane proteins in his lab at Janelia. “One of the things I realized about a year ago,” Gonen says, “was that I knew where my research was going in Seattle. I knew what I likely would be doing in two or three years’ time. I don’t really know yet what new and exciting directions my research will follow at Janelia—and I find that exhilarating.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Fetters