Inside the Building Made of Glass

Inside the Building Made of Glass

Currently there are more construction workers and maintenance workers than scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Ashburn-based Janelia Farm Research Campus, but over the next month that will change.

In October the 681-acre, $500 million campus will open bringing in scientists from all over the world to focus on two main areas of biomedical research: discovering how the brain processes information and developing technology for understanding biological images.

"We will be looking at long-range problems," Gerry Rubin, director of Janelia Farm and vice president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said. "This is information that may be relevant 30 or 40 years out."

Two years ago, people first began arriving at Janelia Farm's 147,000-square-foot main building and there are more than 50 scientists and 50 administrative and support staff already on campus. They, however, are only a fraction of the scientists Rubin expects to eventually work at Janelia Farm.

"By January we expect to have around 150 scientists," he said. "The plan is to ramp up over the next three to four years and reach full size by 2010."

At its capacity, there will be 24 group leaders and about 20 fellows, with about 250 permanent researchers and 100 visiting scientists.

Rubin said the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is looking to hire the best researchers in a variety of scientific fields, typically people who are ambitious, talented people who set their sights very high and are driven to succeed.

"We want you to bet your career on your ideas," he said. "And we're giving them the money to do it. To someone who wants nothing more than to do [research], that is irresistible."

Janelia Farm will be competing with the top scientific universities, including MIT, Stanford and University of California, Berkley, but Rubin said the campus’ style will help the facility to be competitive. Scientists will not have to worry about publishing or fund-raising as they would at a traditional university.

JANELIA FARM'S approach to research will also draw top scientists, Rubin said. The campus is focused on cooperative research and wants scientists to constantly be communicating with each other about ideas and projects.

In order to accomplish that, everything the scientists need is housed on the 681 acres that make up Janelia Farm. The campus has 21 studio apartments and 32 two-bedroom apartments on the property. Inside the main building are several auditoriums, a library and a full cafeteria and a pub, where scientists can meet over a beer or play pool and discuss their research. Along the walls of the pub are white boards, so the scientists can sketch out their ideas as they socialize. A hotel for visiting scientists is directly across from the main building, but can be accessed by underground tunnels.

"We wanted to create an entire village all in one building," Rubin said.

Janelia Farm also provides a day-care facility for children up to 5 years old so that its families do not have to worry about child care.

"There is an equal number of women getting Ph.D.s as men, but they drop out because of family issues," Rubin said. "We want to do what we can to be supportive of our female scientists and prove that institutes can be family friendly."

IN COMING YEARS, the family at Janelia Farm will be getting even larger as the campus establishes its graduate program in collaboration with the University of Chicago and Cambridge University in England. Students applying to the program will spend their first year at one of Janelia Farm's partner schools before coming to the Ashburn campus to complete their research. Although the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has worked with universities before, this is the first time it will actually be partnering in this fashion.

"Graduate students are in a very interesting stage of their careers," Rubin said. "They are very open-minded. They are very enthusiastic. They can really contribute and their education can really be enriched in our environment."

The program is currently accepting applications for the program and admitted students will head to either Chicago or Cambridge for the 2007-2008 school year. They will begin arriving in Ashburn in the fall of 2008, giving Janelia Farm's scientists plenty of time to begin their research over the next couple of years.

"The scientists are used to working with graduate students in other universities," Rubin said.

Rubin said that Chicago and Cambridge were chosen as the program's partners because of the broad range of curriculum they offer, mirroring the broad range of topics scientists at Janelia Farm will be researching.

THE BIGGEST PART of creating a collaborative environment is the building itself. It is made almost entirely of glass, one of the largest installations of glass in the country, from its hallways to its lobby to its laboratories.

"Scientists really want [labs] to feel like it is a space for them," Robert McGhee, Howard Hughes Medical Institute's architect, said. "Everything will be accessible to the scientist."

All office space and labs within the building is clustered so that scientists are near their support staff and administrators, McGhee said.

"It's like having a little house you work in," he said. "It's a very congenial place, very different than being spread out like they were in the past."

The reasoning behind the interconnecting hallways, glass walls and laid-back meeting spaces is to encourage casual contact between the scientists, McGhee said.

"So much of what you see is about how we make people run into each other," he said. "Nothing's private. The layout puts interaction out as a public commodity. It is part of a series of communication steps."

The building was also created as part of the landscape, McGhee said, and was built into the slope of a hill along the Potomac River. The result of the design is that every floor of the three-story building is on the ground level, giving scientists the option of walking outside onto open terraces.

"You can't solve the problems [the scientists are researching] in a small group," McGhee said. "They have to have that large group feel."