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HHMI Unveils Scientific Program and Recruitment Strategy for the Janelia Farm Research Campus

Summary

HHMI is conducting an international search for creative scientists from a variety of disciplines who will work together at Janelia Farm to develop the next generation of tools to drive biological discovery.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced today that it is commencing recruitment for scientific group leaders for its Janelia Farm Research Campus, which is currently being constructed in Ashburn, Virginia.

The Institute has also identified two broad areas of scientific inquiry that are well suited to Janelia Farm: The identification of general principles that govern how information is processed by neuronal circuits; and the development of imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis.

As HHMI's first freestanding campus, Janelia Farm will provide a setting in which small research groups can explore fundamental biomedical questions in a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary culture. The $500 million campus will open in late 2006.

“The Institute's core belief is that scientists who demonstrate creativity and imagination can make lasting contributions to benefit humanity when they are given flexible, long-term support and the freedom to explore,” said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech.

In the first phase of recruitment, HHMI will employ an open international competition to identify scientific group leaders in the fields of biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics and physics. When the campus is fully operational, there will be 20 to 30 group leaders and a permanent research staff of about 300 scientists.

“We are looking for scientists who are passionate in their pursuit of answers to particularly difficult problems in basic scientific and technical research,” said Gerald M. Rubin, director of the Janelia Farm Research Campus and vice president at HHMI. “In return, our scientists will have unparalleled freedom and resources to explore those problems.”

We are looking for scientists who are passionate in their pursuit of answers to particularly difficult problems in basic scientific and technical research.

Gerald M. Rubin

HHMI will accept applications from researchers at any career stage. Although the Institute has chosen to focus on research in particular areas, “we will consider applications from exceptionally talented individuals working outside these defined areas,” Rubin said. The applications will be reviewed by groups of existing HHMI researchers, supplemented with physicists, engineers, and computer scientists, as needed. HHMI anticipates holding a second open application process during 2005-2006.

The Concept

The plan for Janelia Farm grew out of an acknowledgment by HHMI leadership that while most biomedical problems are handled well in a university setting, there are some that might be better addressed in a place where small groups of researchers with different skills can work together without the barriers typically encountered at a university. Development of new tools to facilitate biological discovery, for example, can require diverse expertise. But at universities, scientists from different fields are often compartmentalized, and demands placed on researchers by their departments may restrict collaboration outside those walls.

In developing the concept for the campus, Rubin, Cech, and David A. Clayton, vice president and chief scientific officer at HHMI, and their advisers sought to create an environment where researchers from a variety of disciplines will work together on tough biological questions that can't be answered in the three to five years that most federally funded grants cover. Currently, there is no well-equipped laboratory facility in the world where a group of scientists can come together, each bringing some members of their research group, to work for periods ranging from a few weeks to several years.

“There are advantages to scientists spending time at Janelia and then moving on," adds Cech. "For example, when they move back to academia, they'll be ambassadors for the frontier technology developed at Janelia. We want to spread the instruments and computational tools created at Janelia around the world, and these alumni of Janelia Farm will provide one mechanism for dissemination.”

Researchers at Janelia Farm will be freed from most of the administrative, grant writing, and teaching duties that consume time at a university. This will allow them to be hands-on scientists who will be able to spend the bulk of their days working at the bench or engaging in collaborative discussions.

In planning Janelia Farm, HHMI carefully studied the structure and scientific culture of other important research models at both academic and for-profit biomedical laboratories, including the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England and AT&T;'s Bell Laboratories in the United States. Though the two labs were different in many ways, they did have several things in common. Both institutions kept research groups small, and principal investigators worked at the lab bench. The single sponsor provided all funding—applying for outside grants was not allowed—and good support services and infrastructure were in place. Notably, said Rubin, both institutions evaluated their own people rather than rely on expert opinions from outsiders.

Defining the Scientific Programs

The research programs at Janelia Farm are a natural extension of HHMI's commitment to offering creative scientists freedom from constraints that limit their ability to do groundbreaking research. The Janelia Farm campus and its scientific program will closely complement HHMI's longstanding investigator program. That program currently consists of more than 300 researchers at 64 universities throughout the United States, who have the freedom and flexibility to push the bounds of knowledge in some of the most important areas of biomedical research.

In considering research areas that would benefit from the unique intellectual atmosphere at Janelia Farm, Rubin, Cech and Clayton had definite ideas based on their own personal experiences as researchers and on their vantage points as HHMI's scientific leaders. “We had strong opinions on the directions we should go,” said Cech, “but we also knew that we could improve upon those ideas by tapping into the knowledge of our colleagues.”

The valuable advice received from HHMI investigators, members of the Janelia Farm scientific advisory committee, and personal contacts in the research community helped Rubin, Cech and Clayton refine their ideas and narrow the potential research areas for Janelia Farm.

For additional advice, HHMI conducted five scientific workshops to consult a wide range of researchers, whose experience was both within and outside the bounds of HHMI's traditional fields of expertise. In 2004, HHMI hosted these workshops, two of which were jointly hosted by the Max-Planck Society. More than 200 researchers from around the world lent their expertise during the workshops. The participants were challenged with the task of recommending research areas that could have high potential impact, yet were not being addressed adequately elsewhere.

To help attendees think beyond typical short-term project timelines, Rubin challenged them with what he calls the “thousand-person-year problem.” He instructed them to “imagine you were given the resources to assemble a group of 100 people and to support that group for 10 years. The rules are that the problem has to be really important, but you must make a convincing case that you have at least a 20 percent chance of solving it.”

That challenge yielded candid advice on the pros and cons, obstacles and opportunities of numerous research areas, including imaging, neurobiology, membrane proteins, biophysics, nanotechnology, x-ray crystallography, and a host of other topics. The workshops proved useful, not only in identifying scientific opportunities, but perhaps more importantly, in distinguishing research areas that might benefit from the Janelia Farm environment from those that could be pursued equally well in existing academic research programs. “One of the tests I proposed for these workshops is what a geneticist would call a `deletion test,'” said Rubin, “If Janelia Farm did not exist, would a particular research question be answered in a similar timeframe? If the answer was `no,' then that might be a question worth considering at Janelia Farm.”

Two broad research categories emerged as the consensus favorites for the initial research focus at Janelia Farm: To identify the general principles that govern information processing by groups of neurons; and the development of imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis.

One of the major goals of the neural circuit project is to understand in complete anatomical and functional detail the neurobiological architecture of a moderately complex behavior, such as eating, walking, courtship, or learning. The studies would be undertaken in several different animal models, such as flies, fish and mice. By its very nature, such an undertaking requires a nucleus of interdisciplinary researchers - neuroscientists, chemists, instrument developers, and computer scientists. “This kind of project is attractive to HHMI because it will inform researchers about many different aspects of nervous-system organization,” said Rubin.

One of the goals of the imaging program is to develop new imaging technologies that will enable research in many different areas of scientific investigation. “The consensus among scientists advising HHMI was that imaging with subcellular resolution is an area that has a high potential impact, but is not being well funded or well addressed in current research environments,” said Rubin. There is an opportunity for Janelia Farm to contribute significantly to the larger research community through programs that facilitate the development of tools to improve functional imaging in living systems. Whether at the level of the synapse or the whole organism, there is a need for better probes, new and innovative imaging techniques, methods for storing and analyzing the enormous amounts of data generated, and imaginative application of these technologies to large, unsolved problems in biology.

“Both of these programs are what I would call high-risk, high-reward areas of research,” said Rubin. “Success in these areas is not guaranteed, and it will take a good deal of intellectual courage, but the impact could be enormous.”

Campus Design and Architecture

Janelia Farm will be built on a 281-acre parcel of land that lies along the Potomac River near Leesburg, Virginia. HHMI acquired Janelia Farm in 2000, shortly after Tom Cech joined the Institute as its president.

The campus design by internationally renowned architect Rafael Viñoly makes the most of an environmentally sensitive and historically significant site. The Janelia Farm complex—which includes a “landscape” laboratory building, conference housing and apartments for visiting scientists—blends into the natural surroundings of the site and features highly flexible laboratory space that can be adapted easily to meet changing research needs. All aspects of the technologically advanced research center—the programs, the people, the design of the buildings and infrastructure—will stimulate the multi-disciplinary, team-driven research needed to advance medical science.

The initial construction will provide the laboratories to accommodate a permanent research staff of 300 as well as visiting researchers, core scientific support staff and administration. All told, Janelia Farm will include about 760,000 square feet of space, housing the research laboratories and support areas, a conference center and short term housing for more than 100 visitors.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute was established in 1953 by the aviator-industrialist. HHMI's principal mission is conducting basic biomedical research, which it carries out in collaboration with more than 64 universities, medical centers and other research institutions throughout the United States. Its more than 300 investigators, along with a scientific staff of more than 3,000, work at these institutions in Hughes laboratories. The Institute also has a philanthropic grants program that is strengthening science education and training, from elementary school through graduate and medical school. It also supports the work of biomedical researchers in many countries around the globe.

HHMI is one of the largest philanthropies in the world, with an endowment of more than $12 billion. Its headquarters are located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

Scientist Profile

Janelia, Executive Director
Janelia Research Campus
Genetics, Neuroscience

For More Information

Jim Keeley
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