The promise of West Campus

Nearly half a million square feet of ready-made lab space on 136 acres hold the promise of major new scientific and clinical initiatives. The watchword for West Campus is "transformative."

One of the most frequent topics of conversation in the hallways, labs and meeting rooms of the medical school over the past year has been West Campus. Faculty, staff and students want to know what’s planned for this huge addition to Yale’s physical plant.

With good reason. When Bayer HealthCare decided to close its 136-acre campus in West Haven in 2007 and sell it to Yale for $109 million, it increased the geographic footprint of the university by close to 50 percent. It also provided instant opportunities for expansion in the form of high-quality scientific space that otherwise would have taken a generation to plan and build at a far higher cost. The more than 460,000 square feet of finished laboratory space, all state of the art, make the facility very relevant to faculty at the School of Medicine and on Science Hill. In addition, the West Campus provides space for Yale’s museums, libraries and other entities to store portions of their collections and develop new programs. The space will foster important interdisciplinary collaboration within the sciences and the intermingling of the sciences with the work of our colleagues in the arts and humanities. It truly represents the opportunity of a lifetime for Yale.

So where do things stand in early 2009? Although the economic downturn sheds a new light on the situation, plans are moving forward albeit at a slightly slower pace. More than 50 Yale employees are already located on the West Campus, including 16 members of the Yale Center for High Throughput Cell Biology (HTCB), which moved in last July. The Peabody Museum and Kline Geology Laboratory are in the process of moving collections from the basement of 155 Whitney Avenue out to West Campus and expect to have between six and 12 staff members located there by the summer.

We have been guided from the beginning by President Levin’s philosophy that West Campus provides Yale an opportunity to pursue large ideas with the power to transform science, medicine, the arts and other areas of scholarship. Rather than viewing the new campus as a means to meet current research space needs and expand existing programs, we are looking at it as a place to do new things. In the areas of science and medicine, this has translated so far into planning for five new institutes, though the number could increase. Also part of the plan are three core research facilities to support work across the university in areas crucial to advancing knowledge of human biology, disease and treatment.

Currently, the new institutes launched or envisioned for West Campus are:

  • A cell biology institute, where scientists will explore new imaging technologies to understand the internal components of a cell, how they accomplish their functions and how components are transported between cellular compartments and across cellular membranes. Understanding these cellular processes provides the basis for discovering the fundamental processes of life and disease. Both the institute and the HTCB core are headed by Lasker-winning cell biologist James E. Rothman, Ph.D., who was appointed chair of the Department of Cell Biology last June.
  • A cancer biology institute, which will focus on rapidly emerging areas of basic and translational research, including cancer genetics and genomics, signal transduction and tumor immunotherapy. One of the first tasks of the newly appointed director of the Yale Cancer Center, Thomas J. Lynch, Jr. M.D., will be to recruit a leader for this institute.
  • A chemical biology institute, where scientists will explore the basic biological mechanisms of natural and synthetic products that may be further developed for clinical applications.
  • A microbial diversity institute, where researchers will work on a variety of topics ranging from basic microbiology to studies on emerging pathogens.
  • A systems biology institute devoted to the study of the innumerable complex interactions of genes, proteins and other molecules within the body.

The three core facilities now operating or proposed for West Campus are:

  • An siRNA gene knockdown core—the currently operating Yale Center for High Throughput Cell Biology (HTCB)—which offers sophisticated facilities to all Yale researchers to decipher the cellular functions of the 25,000 known protein-coding genes in the human genome. The HTCB core conducts functional screens, biological profiling and other services for Yale-affiliated clients as well as clients from the pharmaceutical industry.
  • A high-throughput gene-sequencing core, which will allow Yale researchers to sequence new genomes, carry out broad studies of gene expression and regulation, and identify and characterize disease-causing mutations throughout the human genome.
  • A chemical screening core, which will draw upon Yale’s enviable pipeline of basic biomedical research to identify potential drug targets, find and optimize small molecules that bind to them and provide a conduit for drug discovery.

Other proposals currently being considered include a mouse phenotyping program, which will take advantage of new methods in transposon-based mutagenesis to develop a functional map of the mouse genome; and space for growth of the school’s clinical practice, under the auspices of the Yale Medical Group. The location has many attractive attributes for patient care, including space that is potentially adaptable for clinical use, abundant parking and easy access off I-95 for patients traveling from towns to our west.

Other good ideas are still emerging, and a committee has been charged with reviewing new proposals as they are made. Its members are President Richard C. Levin; Provost Peter Salovey, Ph.D.; new Vice President for West Campus Michael Donoghue, Ph.D.; Deputy Provost Steven Girvin, Ph.D.; Engineering Dean T. Kyle Vanderlick, Ph.D.; and myself. Medical school faculty with ideas to put forward should direct them to me in the Dean’s Office or to Michael Donoghue for consideration.

Keep in mind that this is a project that will take decades to fully realize with future construction of additional buildings. There will be an important role for philanthropy to fuel development of this new resource. But the bottom line is that the acquisition of West Campus is a tremendous opportunity for Yale, providing the ability to develop exciting research programs. We will be able to do things that we could only ponder for the future, and we will surely accomplish things that we may not have attempted. I welcome your thoughts on the best uses of this new resource, which will help assure Yale’s future as a leader in science and medicine in the years to come.