David Stern became a scientist because he enjoyed working in the laboratory. As the evolutionary biologist was rising through the academic ranks at Princeton University, he realized he was spending less time on the thing he loved best – doing his own experiments in the lab.
At Princeton, he was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, and had generous research funding. But he was finding it difficult to scratch out one hour working in the lab each day. “I would do 30 minutes of lab work in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening. That was all I could manage,” he says. “To get even that much time, I’d have to give up certain things, such as answering email promptly.”
Stern and structural biologist Tamir Gonen, who was an HHMI early career scientist at the University of Washington, are Janelia Farm’s newest group leaders, along with Michael Reiser, a Janelia Farm fellow who was promoted to group leader this year. Gonen and Stern will anchor two new research programs: structural biology (with a focus on cryo-electron microscopy), and the evolution and development of the nervous system. In the last 18 months, Janelia Farm has recruited two group leaders, four fellows and four junior fellows. (See list of names and brief research descriptions below).
Stern says the demands of running a lab of 12 people, combined with teaching and administrative duties, simply became too much. In an effort to get back into the lab on a regular basis, he took a sabbatical at Princeton last year. During that one-year break, he threw himself into lab work -- doing experiments and building new hardware that his group used to study the evolution and development of the nervous system in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. “The most important things I realized during that time were that I missed doing research with my own hands and that my efforts in the lab could make a difference in advancing our work,” he said.
“I reached a stage where I thought to myself, ‘Either I get back to the lab now or I will never be able to get back.'”
So when the opportunity presented itself to make a fresh start at HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, Stern wasted no time in deciding to move south – even though that meant uprooting his family and giving up tenure at Princeton. He knew that at Janelia Farm, he’d be spending less time on the administrative duties, teaching and grant writing that were consuming his days at Princeton.
“At Janelia Farm, scientists have the time and resources to actually do their own research – not just manage it,” said executive director Gerald M. Rubin. “One of the problems we see in academia is that scientists are forced to become full-time managers, instead of spending their time focusing on their science. Janelia Farm offers an alternative.”
Stern said Janelia Farm also appeals to him because he will be able to focus on the evolution of behavior, a relatively new area of inquiry for his lab. “I started this work about three years ago when I became an HHMI investigator,” he says. “The work has been challenging and fascinating. I thought it would be wonderful if I could do this work close to other labs that are struggling with the same sort of challenges in studying behavior.”
All Janelia Farm group leaders, fellows and junior fellows are actively engaged in research. They work in small teams that cross disciplinary boundaries to address the research center’s two broad scientific goals: discovering the basic rules and mechanisms of the brain’s information-processing systems, and developing biological and computational techniques for creating and interpreting biological images.
Group leaders direct research groups of two to six lab members and receive an initial appointment of six years. Fellows are independent researchers who lead labs with up to two additional members, and receive five-year appointments. Junior fellows are postdoctoral fellows who develop their own research programs and are appointed for a period of up to three years with a possible two-year renewal.
Restless in Seattle
In Seattle, Tamir Gonen was feeling the same sort of intellectual restlessness as Stern. He had first visited Janelia Farm in 2008, when he gave a talk at an HHMI science meeting for the Institute’s early career scientists. Gonen, an expert in cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), is considered a rising star in a scientific field that is exploding.
Cryo-EM is a technique that permits scientists to visualize large, dynamic molecules. Researchers first freeze the molecular complexes in supercold liquids that rapidly imprison the specimen in ice and preserve its native structure. Using an electron microscope with a low-intensity beam to avoid damaging the molecules, scientists can then obtain images of the thousands of complexes being studied. They use sophisticated computerized image analysis to produce a detailed, three-dimensional map of biological structure of the molecules. Gonen is using cryo-EM to do structural studies of membrane proteins such as aquaporins, which are membrane channels that form specialized pores for water. His lab is interested in how such channels are built and how they are regulated.
The equipment required for such experiments is costly and requires a diverse blend of scientific expertise to run. “I had a fairly large ‘show’ in Seattle,” he says. “I had expensive equipment to maintain and that meant that I needed a lot of grants. And, while my lab was very well funded, the administrative part was incredibly taxing. I would write, on average, 12 non-competitive reports per year, some of which were 12 pages long. ” On top of that, Gonen had significant teaching duties – his “Introduction to Biochemistry” class had 650 undergraduates.
Despite being a successful, well-funded scientist with academic tenure, Gonen admits he felt stuck. “One of the things I realized about a year ago,” he says, “is that I knew where my research was going in Seattle. I knew what I likely would be doing in two or three years’ time. At the same time, I was finding it very difficult to get any work – other than administrative stuff – done.“
Gonen’s decision to move to Janelia Farm was motivated by his realization that if he wanted to do his own experiments in the lab again, it was now or never. “I reached a stage where I thought to myself, ‘Either I get back to the lab now or I will never be able to get back,” he says. “I don’t really know yet what I’ll be doing at Janelia—and I find that exhilarating.”
Rubin notes that recruitment of new scientists continues, and researchers from a variety of disciplines -- including biochemists, biologists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, neurobiologists and physicists – can apply for laboratory head positions through a current competition that closes December 15, 2011. Applications in the current competition for junior fellow positions (an independent postdoctoral position) close December 1. Further information is available at http://www.janelia.org/professional-opportunities/research-positions
Tamir Gonen uses molecular electron microscopy to study structures of large protein complexes that function as molecular machines. His research relates to two fundamental questions in cell biology: How do cells interact with each other and with their environment? And how do they obtain the nutrients essential for cell survival?
Michael Reiser studies sensory mechanisms that drive innate behaviors in the fruit fly, such as the ability to sense gravity and visual motion. His research group uses the molecular genetic toolkit of the fly to uncover the functional organization of neural circuits that orchestrate behaviors.
David Stern and his research group are trying to identify the genes and, ultimately, the individual nucleotides that have generated phenotypic diversity in fruit flies. Stern believes that a thorough understanding of the molecular basis for diversity may lead to a revised view of how developmental mechanisms influence evolution.
Meng Cui is interested in developing robust turnkey tools for biomedical imaging. The advance of optical technologies has revolutionized a broad range of biomedical research fields. During the past two decades, novel optical imaging techniques have been developed to provide unprecedented resolution, sensitivity, and speed. However, the optical penetration depth in tissues remains very limited. Cui is collaborating with other scientists to develop tools that biologists can use to see deeper inside tissues.
Adam Hantman seeks to understand how the central nervous system uses proprioceptive sensory information to inform and optimize circuits involved in motor control. Every movement we generate creates sensory consequences; sensory inputs which enable the nervous system to produce coordinated movements. Hantman’s lab investigates how one particularly important sense, proprioception, is processed along its path from the periphery to the motor control centers.
Viren Jain is working to develop a map of the network of connections in the brain. Nerve cells in the brain extend long projections that twist and turn to form an intricate mesh. The points of contact between nerve cells, called synapses, are where the cells relay chemical signals to communicate with one another. Obtaining a map of the network of connections in the brain, or connectome, will be important to understanding complex brain functions, such as learning and memory, and even how certain diseases arise.
Na Ji is developing imaging tools capable of peering deep inside animals' brains to better comprehend the circuits responsible for how this organ functions. When light travels through the brain to form a focus, the various cells and tissues bend light in different and unpredictable ways. The result is a blurry image, which becomes more blurry as the depth of the tissue increases. Her research focuses on improving the speed and resolution of in vivo brain imaging, and applying the resulting techniques to existing problems in neurobiology.
Parvez Ahammad is focusing on improving current methods and developing new approaches to tackle one of the fundamental challenges in neuroscience: linking specific behaviors with specific neural activity in defined circuits.
Stephen Huston is a neuroscientist who has worked on the neural basis of flexible sensory-motor transformation in the fruit fly Drosophila. He is continuing work on understanding how the outputs of the visual system are transformed into motor actions.
Stefan Pulver is working to uncover the fundamental operating principles of the neural circuitry that controls locomotion in Drosophila larvae. He plans to study motor networks in the Drosophila larval locomotor system.
Koen Vervaeke has been exploring how networks of neurons can produce both synchronizing and desynchronizing behavior by means of electrical synapses. At Janelia Farm, he will study the role of specific inhibitory neurons in attention.