New Hughes Biomed Lab Modeled on Old Bell Labs

By Lepkowski, Wil | Research-Technology Management, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

New Hughes Biomed Lab Modeled on Old Bell Labs


Lepkowski, Wil, Research-Technology Management


The richly endowed and much admired Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland (HHMI) is putting final touches on an "alternative research laboratory" at an idyllic site along the Potomac River in Ashburn, Virginia, 40 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. The place is called Janelia Farm, after the historic farm that it was originally.

Janelia opens in October, and the biomedical research world will be watching it with a collective eyebrow raised to see if Janelia's idea of blending engineering, mathematics, and the physical and biomedical sciences in one place pans out.

Janelia Farms research, though basic, will have a strong double focus. The first will be how neurons and their circuits process information through techniques based on imaging, electrophysiology and computation. The second will be development of the technology of imaging and computational methods for image analysis. Even so, Janelia is leaving room for other types of projects, based on new ideas that might pop up in a researcher's head in the middle of the night.

Janelia will offer 300 resident researchers, plus 24 group leaders with no special descriptive title, scores of visiting scientists, and clusters of post-doctoral and graduate students the chance to live for chunks of time amounting to five years. That's the kind of investigatory life most scientists dream of. It means freedom from teaching and other academic distractions, a striking semi-rural environment, selection of research projects without the administrative hassle and paperwork typical of university settings, colleagues considered tops in their fields, and plenty of time and room to gather, talk, dream, and collaborate.

Research and collaboration is the key. Even the upper staff is expected to do bench work.

Bell Labs Reincarnated

HHMI may be calling Janelia "alternative" and it may or may not turn out that way. But industrial researchers will recognize its portrayal as an attempted reincarnation of the old Bell Telephone Laboratories as it functioned in its glory days, when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company ran it. Janelia's founders boast that the similarity is no coincidence. They studied the management design of Bell Labs closely, along with another, unrelated, facility famed in its own right, England's Laboratory for Molecular Biology.

The LBM, operated by the UK's Medical Research Council, was run strictly to do basic research. Its researchers invented the science of molecular biology beginning with Frederick Sanger's Nobel Prize work on sequencing proteins and Watson and Crick's discovery of the DNA basis of the genetic code. Its heyday ended around 1980 when the government reorganized the MRC and the old system was discarded.

Bell Labs was famed from its establishment in 1925 to well into the 1980s, when AT&T was forced under federal order to split off its regional telephone companies. AT&T ultimately gave up Bell Labs when a decade later it spun off its manufacturing arm, Western Electric, which in turn was renamed Lucent Corp.

What both facilities had in common was strong internal funding, an intense collaborative spirit based on small teams, fundamental understanding, lots of talk, and open doors. Researchers from various fields could easily visit one another, and interdisciplinary interplay formed the basic structure of the labs.

The difference was that LMB's product was basic knowledge while Bell Labs' singular aim was products and systems for the delivery and evolution of a national communications system. What they had in common was the exploration of basic knowledge and understanding, an accent on young brains, and regular turnover, since most younger researchers were expected to find their way eventually into other research organizations and academic teaching and research.

It is HHMI's belief that such a spirit does not exist to a sufficient degree at American universities. …

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