Robots, researchers settle into new home

WEST HAVEN — Last Thursday, three scientists tackled a mound of well-sealed bubble-wrap like children on Christmas morning in a race to uncover their lab’s newest resident: Twister.

Twister is just one of the numerous robots that inhabit the labs of the West Campus’ Center for High Throughput Cell Biology, the first facility of its kind for the University. HTCB is the first of three core facilities to be up and running here at the former Bayer HealthCare complex, whose sprawling laboratories are beginning to make possible research that would otherwise have been years away if Yale were instead to build facilities from scratch on central campus.

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The center, which opened July 1, uses cutting-edge technology to conduct high-volume screens on the human genome — a procedure that identifies individuals who possess a phenotype of interest — in order to analyze the relationships between genes and specific cell functions. By employing robots such as the Twister, officials here say, the center can flawlessly complete work in a single week that ordinarily would take a scientist more than two years.

“Science at the scale we’re doing it would not be possible without the automated machines,” said Adrian Poffenberger, the center’s director of informatics. “With human hands, it would require so many technicians the cost would be prohibitive.”

Not only can the automated machines work around the clock with immense precision, but the center’s researchers can also track, adjust and change their activities from anywhere in the world — even from their iPhones, Poffenberger added.

Between outfitting the HTCB labs with automatons and attracting their first clients, the center’s 16-member team has had a whirlwind six months. Though it typically takes 12 to 18 months to establish a genome-screening center, the HTCB team has established one in only half a year, said the center’s director, Lars Branden.

As the center develops and attracts more clients, it will be able to lend increasing support to scientific research at Yale — conducting large-scale genomic screens for individual labs and helping scientists refine their research questions, for instance. There is no question the center is a tremendous boon to scientists at Yale.

But its benefits reach even beyond Yale’s borders.

“The primary function of the center is to support the Yale science community,” Branden said. “But, at the same time, we will be reaching outside the boundaries of Yale.”

THE PIONEERS

Just as West Campus is new to Yale, Yale is new to the vast majority of the first 16 scientists who have moved in here.

More than half of the campus’ “pioneers” — as Michael Donoghue, the vice president for West Campus planning and development, has affectionately termed them — moved from Columbia with the center’s executive director, James Rothman ’71, who returned to his alma mater last year. Only three of the scientists had previously worked at Yale.

For Marie-Aude Guie, a HTCB research informatics scientist, the move was an opportunity to take her career to the next level. “It was a chance to take a project from its inception,” she said of setting up the new facility. “We started from scratch.”

In interviews, 10 of the pioneers said that since moving in six months ago, they have successfully acclimated to the West Campus’ unique environment. Many attributed their smooth transition to what they characterized as Branden’s larger-than-life personality.

Branden, who handpicked the HTCB team, is a firm believer in the benefits of supporting a constructive group dynamic.

“I can’t demand of people to work 24/7,” Branden said. “If you always have the whip on their backs, it’s no fun. You have to have fun.”

Indeed, he prefers to confine any cutthroat competitiveness — a characteristic he said is too often present in the world of academia — to his four cannibalistic fish. (Currently, Branden’s fish reside in a homemade fish tank he fashioned out of equipment salvaged from HTCB’s laboratories before their Spring 2008 gutting and renovation. The contraption — made from a long tube, two basketball-sized glass spheres and a water pump — separates the cannibalistic fish from their feeder fish, so as to keep the former from eating one another.)

But unlike Branden’s fish, the HTCB team lacks this eat-what-you-kill mentality, the researchers were quick to point out. In fact, they cited the team’s cohesiveness as a primary reason they have been able to flourish as such a small group in such a large space.

“I was really lucky to get into Lars’ group,” said Ashima Bhan, a senior cell culture biologist at HTCB. “I don’t have words to describe the feelings I have for my team.”

She added, “There is something about this place that keeps you attracted to it.”

This cohesiveness is markedly different from many of researchers’ previous work environments, they said.

Those interviewed who had worked at Columbia said they found the environment at HTCB more conducive to collaboration. One pioneer, Debra Smith, likened the environment at Columbia to running on a treadmill — “constantly running to keep in place.”

“It’s a smaller place — less cutthroat,” Branden said of the Center. “During these six months, we’ve had more interesting interactions with scientists at Yale than in six years at Columbia.”

THE FINANCES

As scientists on the School of Medicine campus and on Science Hill begin to hear about HCTB and its capabilities, more will utilize the center’s services, Donoghue said. In fact, the process has already started.

“Everybody is talking about it,” he said of HTCB. “They’re off to a really good start.”

As the center builds on its foundation, it is focused on establishing its financial solvency, which will depend heavily on its ability to attract clients from the pharmaceutical industry, Branden said.

The center cannot profit from clients whose projects are funded by the National Institute of Health; however, it can charge a premium to pharmaceutical companies and other corporate entities, School of Medicine Dean Richard Alpern explained. (HTCB is a non-profit entity, and any profits would go toward supporting the center.)

Looking forward, Branden projects that the center will be self-supporting within a year. To date, it has had half a dozen industry clients and 12 Yale-affiliated clients, of whom 10 received free screens, Branden said.

These free screens were awarded to the 10 best screen proposals the center received in response to a mass e-mail message issued as part of a larger marketing campaign advertising the center’s capabilities. (Labs typically charge $150,000 to $350,000 per screen.)

While the e-mail was sent to more than 9,000 Yale researchers, it generated just 35 responses, which Branden attributed to the complexity of putting together a viable screen proposal within the contest’s two-week time frame.

THE FUTURE

Indeed, the pioneers have come a long way since they moved on to West Campus six months ago. But in the interviews, many of them acknowledged that at times they miss the interactions that come with working in a more populated place.

“It’s the price you pay for being the first ones out here,” said Jason Ignatius, an automation integration specialist at the center.

Smith said she often misses the little things — bouncing ideas off colleagues in different fields and borrowing odds and ends from them, for instance.

“I sort of miss neighbor labs,” she said. “Sometimes you run out of something. Here, you can’t just go next door and borrow it.”

For this reason, the HTCB team said they are looking forward to more people moving on to West Campus. When a critical mass assembles at the new site, the researchers will no longer need to shuttle back and forth between the two campuses as frequently — or bring their lunches from home, for that matter.

Indeed, many lamented the lack of eating options either on West Campus or within walking distance and recommended the site open a cafeteria. (Bayer left behind a fully functional cafeteria on the site, but it has been closed since the pharmaceutical company moved out.)

But opening the cafeteria on West Campus will not be practical until the site’s population reaches 500 people, Donoghue said. Still, he added that administrators are considering opening a “Grab-and-Go” facility in the near future that would provide sandwiches and coffee.

In the meantime, the pioneers will continue making the West Campus their home. After all, there are benefits to working in a place with a 10-acre-to-person ratio, as Michael Richo, one of the pioneers, put it.

“I keep joking I’m going to bring my golf clubs in the spring,” he said.

For part one, “A new campus springs to life,” click here. For part three, see Thursday’s News.

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