For new VP, West Campus a blank canvas

Michael Donoghue is a man who likes planning ahead. If you had asked him last July, he would have told you that he would be spending the next year on sabbatical, basking in the Australian sun and pursuing research at the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain. But then came a call from Woodbridge Hall.

On the first family vacation he says he ever took, Donoghue, his wife and their two daughters were crossing a suspended bridge between two 100-foot-tall treetops in British Columbia when he heard the familiar tinkling of his cell phone. It was University President Richard Levin casually calling to offer him a new post.

“He sort of broached the subject as, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun … if we created a new position to look over West Campus planning — and wouldn’t it be fun if you did it?’ ” Donoghue recalled.

Just a few e-mails and one phone call later, he accepted the job.

A year after Yale acquired the former home of Bayer HealthCare for $109 million, Donoghue last month assumed the newly created post of vice president for West Campus planning and program development. As one of seven vice presidents who comprise Yale’s senior leadership along with Levin and Provost Peter Salovey, Donoghue is now Yale’s most senior scientist.

A professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Donoghue until this year directed the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and in that work straddled both the sciences and the arts. In an interview, Donoghue said his vision for West Campus also has two main thrusts, one scientific and the other artistic. He plans not only to cultivate research in biology and chemistry, but also to create a “collections campus” to promote collaboration with Yale’s museums, libraries and the broader humanities community on the site. That fits in with the vision Levin has already laid out.

“He has the double experience of having also been a museum director,” the president said this week of Donoghue. “As I talked to people about who could lead this effort, his name was one of the most mentioned by other scientists. He was the perfect fit.”

In three years, Levin hopes the West Campus will be up and running and overseen through regular administrative channels, making Donoghue’s position obsolete, he said.

But for now, having left the Peabody in trustworthy hands, the biologist is trudging through the necessary planning stages to bring the former Bayer site back to life. When asked about a timeline for filling up the vastly unoccupied West Campus spaces, Donoghue said the site — which once hosted as many as 3,000 corporate employees — will be inhabited in waves over the next five years.

“It’s almost eerie,” he said. “You go into these labs and it’s as if somehow the people had been vaporized. It’s just missing the people.”

But putting the people back will take a while. Donoghue emphasized that administrators must avoid getting into the mentality of “needing to urgently occupy anything.”

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Overseeing the Peabody for five and a half years might seem like a far cry from managing a 136-acre property in the middle of suburban Connecticut. But the range of uses to which Donoghue hopes to put Bayer’s former facilities extends far beyond the realm of biochemical and biomedical research. In fact, Donoghue’s work at the Peabody plays directly into many of the West Campus initiatives he will launch, especially those that involve museums and educational outreach to local schools.

The scientific arm of Donoghue’s West Campus blueprint will be divided into core facilities of which Donoghue has so far identified three: genomics, which includes DNA-sequencing; chemical screening, such as testing the effects of chemicals on biological systems; and RNA interference, which aids in pinpointing the functions of various genes.

Steve Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology, emphasized that West Campus is not merely an increase to Yale’s physical domain. Rather, the fully equipped laboratory spaces are an incredibly powerful lure for top-notch professors, post-docs and even undergraduates.

“We’re not going to do the same as before, only 10 percent more,” Girvin said. “We’re trying to make hires of people that will really change the face of science at Yale and the scale of science at Yale.”

The collections campus — currently based out of the 400,000 square foot, 40-year-old former manufacturing building — will also be organized into core facilities. For these, Donoghue envisions a high throughput digitization facility for the 3-D imaging of an entire array of objects in Yale’s collections, such as books, photographs and even specimens. He also plans on starting a shared conservation initiative for the preservation of artwork and archeological artifacts.

“Although science will be a major part of what we will do out there on West Campus, it’s not the only thing,” Donoghue said. “We have these wonderful libraries here, and we have wonderful art museums, the Peabody Museum, the Drama School [and] all sorts of other people who would like extra space and also want to do some interesting activities together.”

Barbara Shailor, deputy provost for the arts, said West Campus makes feasible “intellectually exciting” research projects that would have been impossible in downtown New Haven due to space constraints. The possibility of creating exhibits and browsable storage spaces, exploring methods of technical analysis in artwork and even restoring the dinosaurs in the Peabody collection are now in close reach, she said.

Donoghue will also push for the creation of a series of multidisciplinary research institutes, which will focus on more specific topics like cell biology and microbiology. The institutes, which would draw on the resources of the core facilities, would also attract scientists to the University and foster collaborative research efforts with current faculty.

Since taking office last month, Donoghue has already laid much of the foundation for some of his larger planning efforts. About 60,000 square feet of West Campus space have been set aside for specimens from the Peabody’s collection, which were in storage at 175 Whitney Ave., the future site of the new School of Management campus. West Campus already houses a full-time childcare center and some ongoing laboratory work.

Although he missed out on Australia, this week Donoghue has a chance to catch some Brazilian sun in São Paulo. There for an academic conference, Donoghue is doing double duty. Originally, he planned to simply present his research, but now, he’s added a few lines to his speech — to promote the West Campus.

“Everything I do is work-related,” he quipped.

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