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It takes a rare researcher to pursue big questions with creativity and focus. But HHMI recently found seven such scientists.
In June, HHMI announced the selection of seven group leaders for its Janelia Farm Research Campus. Slated to open next year in Ashburn, Virginia, Janelia Farm is HHMI's first freestanding research community. The $500 million campus will bring together small research groups in a highly collaborative environment to tackle fundamental biomedical problems that linger unsolved in traditional research settings.
“HHMI always has sought to support the most original, creative science,” says Janelia Farm Director Gerald M. Rubin, also a vice president at HHMI. “Janelia Farm extends this effort, opening a new frontier for the Institute.” Rubin calls the campus a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for science to build something new.
"Yes, there's some risk the experiment will fail, and we'll have to readjust. But if we're successful, we'll create a different way of doing biomedical research."
Janelia Farm's first set of group leaders have diverse backgrounds, from mathematics and physics to computational biology and genetics. Their wide-ranging interests include mathematical theories of brain design, gene and genome function and structure, the neural circuits behind specific behavior, and image analysis.
Together, these group leaders will launch an ambitious agenda. Janelia Farm will pursue two basic, and intertwined, goals: identifying the general principles that allow neural circuits to process information and developing imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis. Put simply, Janelia Farm scientists will develop new ways to peer inside a working brain, revealing brain anatomy and function in unprecedented detail.
To do that, each group leader will head a small team of up to six scientists. These interdisciplinary teams will work side by side, breaking down big scientific questions into smaller steps. When new toolsfrom specialized microscopes to specific computer programsare needed, they (and support staff) will simply build them.
Group leader Nikolaus Grigorieff, currently an HHMI investigator at Brandeis University, calls Janelia Farm “a great adventure.” Grigorieff develops cellular image-processing techniques based on electron microscopy. “To win grant funding in academics, you generally have to propose research that's practically guaranteed to be successful, and that can be boring,” says Grigorieff. “But at Janelia, we're going to be given resources and time, with the trust that we'll have good ideas. That's very different.” While at Janelia Farm, Grigorieff plans to collaborate with neurobiologists, perfecting imaging techniques to spotlight activity at brain synapses.
Group leaders are roughly equivalent to academic professors in that they're intellectually independent and direct a research team of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and technicians. But that's where the similarities end. Unlike their academic peers, Janelia Farm group leaders will not teach, write grant proposals, or do administrative tasks. Instead, they will devote their full attention to research, with minimal distractions.
In return, Janelia Farm group leaders agree to spend 75 percent of their professional time focused on research at the campus. In their remaining time, leaders can attend conferences, review for journals, give outside seminars, and pursue other scientific activities. Group leaders also may use part of this time to consult for industry, in accordance with HHMI policies.