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How West Campus is fulfilling its dream

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Autumn


Ten years ago a campus was envisioned where researchers and scientists would share ideas and break new ground in medical research.

In early 2010, when Jesse Rinehart, Ph.D., then a young assistant professor, was setting up his lab on West Campus, the place was a ghost town. Parking was a snap. He usually found a spot right by the entrance.

These days, 1,700 people work and learn in the former pharmaceutical industrial park. Rinehart sometimes has to park a good 100 yards across campus from his lab. But as a researcher who thrives on chance encounters with colleagues—several of which have led to successful interdisciplinary projects—he couldn’t be happier.

“We who came early, we imagined that we would fill the institutes with lots of exciting researchers and students and postdocs and all sorts of other people. That’s actually happened,” says Rinehart, who is now an associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology and a member of the Systems Biology Institute at West Campus. “The buildings are almost full everywhere you go. The labs and the floors are bustling with activity. There’s just so much going on. It’s really a vision as promised.”

In the 10 years since Yale bought the entire 136-acre campus from Bayer for $109 million, West Campus has become a playground of sorts for researchers willing to work across disciplines. The vast campus increased Yale’s footprint by 40 percent, adding 17 buildings, 450,000 square feet of laboratory space, and nearly 1 million square feet of warehouses, offices, a library, a day care, and more. After years of renovation, the place now offers what its leaders call a “high collisional frequency,” prompting people to bump into one another, start talking about their research, and—ideally—work together to tackle the most complex problems in science.

Comprising seven research institutes spanning health, culture, energy and the environment, the Yale School of Nursing, multiple cores and centers with equipment to support research, a Landscape Lab for sustainability projects, and a conference center and cafeteria, West Campus now offers boundless opportunities for such collisions. The people ranging across its 136 acres come from all walks of academic life. Postdocs and PIs work in its open-plan labs. Ecologists study invasive species on the grounds. Nursing faculty conduct research in the school’s biobehavioral lab while students study genomics and precision health there, then cross to its urban farm to cultivate and learn about medicinal plants. And everyone eats lunch together.

“Nursing as a STEM discipline is a science of human health ecology, supporting humans in the context of the many factors that influence wellness and disease. So to be ensconced in a literally rich research ecosystem like that on the Yale West Campus is powerful,” says Ann E. Kurth, M.P.H., M.S.N. ’90, Ph.D., dean and Linda Koch Lorimer Professor of Nursing.

“West Campus is an opportunity to do something different—no departmental structures and associated bureaucracy, no restrictions or mandates on where your scientific curiosity leads you,” says John D. MacMicking, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator and associate professor of microbial pathogenesis and of immunobiology who recently joined the Systems Biology Institute. “It’s about bringing unlikely colleagues together to forge a common language and create a new lexicon.”

As interdisciplinary as it can be

The interdisciplinary nature of West Campus was built into Yale’s plans for the campus soon after the purchase, according to Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine (Nephrology) and dean of the School of Medicine.

“A cancer biology institute was something that we thought about the first week after the purchase,” Alpern recalls. Yale leaders were also enthusiastic early on about microbial diversity. And the campus happened to include a brand-new chemistry building.

So Yale made it happen. The Cancer Biology institute, the Microbial Sciences Institute, the Chemical Biology Institute, and the Systems Biology Institute were up and running by 2010. In 2011, three more opened in quick succession: the Nanobiology Institute in January, the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) in June, and the Energy Sciences Institute in September.

Each institute comprises a variety of researchers affiliated with various Yale departments. (The Systems Biology Institute, for example, includes faculty from biomedical engineering; ecology & evolutionary biology; immunobiology; microbial pathogenesis; physiology; genetics; molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; and physics.) Each researcher approaches the institute’s central scientific questions from points of view born of very different training. And West Campus’ open-plan renovated lab spaces mean they see a lot of one another.

“It’s about as interdisciplinary as it can frankly be,” says Scott A. Strobel, Ph.D., the Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and vice president for West Campus planning and program development. He is also a member of the Chemical Biology Institute.

Needless to say, turning an industrial pharmaceutical campus into a massive center for academic research has taken a tremendous amount of work over the years.

“There were some spaces where we literally walked in, turned on the lights, and plugged in our instruments,” Strobel recalls. “But there were some other spaces where it looked like a bomb had gone off inside. We had to rip everything out and start over.”

Take Yale’s largest building, the Collections Studies Center, for example. In this 462,000-square-foot, or over-10-acre behemoth, Bayer once churned out aspirin and Alka-Seltzer.

Today, 300,000 of its square feet house the collections of the Peabody Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Yale Center for British Art. It houses the IPCH, where conservators huddle over priceless works of art visible to hallway onlookers through generous windows. Nearby are labs of the Energy Sciences Institute’s chemists, physicists, geologists, and engineers, as well as the hulking microscopes and spectrometers of the Materials Characterization Core.

In a sunny, open-plan common space where pill-pressing machines once stood, a scattering of tables and chairs stands ready to host conversations amongst the experts here.

“It’s like going into a large mall—when you talk, somebody’s going to hear. But that’s a good thing,” says Christopher Incarvito, Ph.D., director of research operations and technology at West Campus.

Renovations in this and other buildings across West Campus called for open laboratory floor plans, intriguing machinery in full view of passersby, smaller offices, and spaces that put students and faculty in closer proximity, according to Incarvito.

“People in general are more densely packed without a lot of walls. That’s all that it takes—that and a place to write, a place to express yourself, a place to eat, and of course the willingness of scholars to come together,” Incarvito says.

Something about being next door to somebody

This structure worked beautifully for Rinehart and Farren Isaacs, Ph.D., both of whom are part of the Systems Biology Institute. They met shortly after Isaacs joined the Institute in 2010.

At the time, Rinehart, a molecular biologist, was wrestling with a problem: how to get bacteria to scale up the synthesis of a particular type of protein.

“We had the product, we had the cellular machinery. We just didn’t have a ‘factory,’ ” Rinehart recalls. “It was an engineering technique that was showing a lot of promise, but there were a lot of challenges that nobody really had an answer to.”

Along came Isaacs, an expert in synthetic biology. “If I’m being perfectly honest, an entire field that I was almost ignorant of,” Rinehart says. They got to talking.

Isaacs was working on a genetically engineered bacterium. It turned out to work perfectly with the approach Rinehart’s lab was using. It was “sheer luck,” Rinehart says.

Right away, he recalls, “we were making dream molecules at scale, at purity, exactly as we had designed. It was this exact blend of two technologies from two different planets coming together in the same place.” Within two years, the collaborators had published in Science and Nature.

“If I had not been at West Campus in systems biology working right next door to Farren, I don’t think we would have realized what we’ve realized as collaborators,” Rinehart says. “The design of the space, the location, the composition—it really matters. There’s just something about being right next door to somebody.” [For more on their collaboration, see “A Fab Lab Collab.”]

Over lunch and the computer

Two more planned elements of West Campus nurture its magical chance encounters, according to Strobel: the cores and the cafeteria.

The cores concentrate shared equipment. Like neighbors who agree to share a lawn mower, West Campus scientists share expensive tools that they might otherwise have kept to themselves. As they congregate at a microscope, spectroscope, or supercomputer, they talk to one another.

As for the cafeteria, it’s a cheerful, busy place whose employees are famously warm. It’s been completely renovated from its predecessor, which did not encourage patrons to linger. The West Campus cafeteria is the only place to eat lunch on campus, and that’s on purpose, Strobel says.

“They’re going to be drawn there for lunch, and as a result, there’s going to be the opportunity for these kinds of conversations to occur,” he says.

The cafeteria is part of a conference center that holds departmental retreats and seminars from throughout Yale. When faculty present their work, West Campus researchers can amble over and listen. Rinehart loves that.

“You’re constantly getting exposed to all these different fields,” Rinehart says. “We intersect so deeply with chemistry, with physics, with medicine, with basic biology, with evolution. You’re hitting these major categories in depth and breadth that’s just not typically seen on the other major centers on campus.”

A decade after its purchase, the transformation of West Campus is almost complete, according to Strobel. The science is humming, and the campus plays host to many additional thought-provoking activities: conferences of the Yale Women Faculty Forum; architecture students’ class on building a prefab house; agricultural experiments; summer camps; art installations; and police retreats, among many others. In the future, West Campus leaders plan to weave in faculty from more fields at Yale.

“Our goal is to be able to engage and support the mission of as many schools and departments as we can,” Strobel says.

Reflecting on how the place has changed, Strobel recalls buying lunch at the campus’ old Bayer-legacy cafeteria, Grab’n’Go, shortly after his appointment as vice president. The difference between then and now could stand in for the entire campus.

“Calling it the Grab’n’Go literally was the worst possible signal: come in, grab an old yucky sandwich, pay for it, and eat it at your desk. Two people would come in and grab a sandwich and leave, and it’s like, ‘This is the dreariest, saddest place. Is this ever going to be anything more than it is?’

“And now, the place is alive. It’s just really exciting. It’s been so fun to watch that transformation.”

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