West Campus still building critical mass

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Photo by YDN.

Despite the recent addition of new amenities on Yale’s West Campus intended to better connect faculty members with each other, many researchers there still feel the site is isolated and relatively empty.

Within the past year, administrators have expanded dining options at the facility, increased the frequency of shuttles from Science Hill and added weekly lectures by faculty members. University President Richard Levin said he expects that faculty members will form better relationships as more researchers are added to the largely vacant 136-acre space.

“Where there are clusters of people working together, there is community,” Levin said. “As the numbers grow and the population becomes more dense, the community will strengthen.”

Yale has been increasing the number of faculty members at West Campus since Yale bought the complex from Bayer Healthcare four years ago to strengthen science research, medicine and engineering at the University.

About four new teams of researchers have moved into several biology research labs in the last six months on the second floor one of the buildings, said Gunter Wagner, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor who has run a biology lab on the campus for over a year. Scott Strobel, vice president of West Campus planning and development, said planning is also underway for a new Cancer Biology Institute that would bring more researchers to the facility.

But the addition of the new amenities aims to strengthen community at the campus even before the size of the faculty increases significantly.

“We have recently made considerable enhancements at West Campus in order to encourage ‘community’,” Strobel said in an email. “We hope that the West Campus community will be characterized by lively intellectual interactions involving faculty from a variety of disciplines.”

Strobel added that administrators have ordered equipment and approved renovation plans for a new gym, which is scheduled to open in 2012.

But eight faculty members and researchers interviewed said they largely only interact with colleagues in their own labs. Wagner said it will take time to establish a strong community, though he said his proximity to other researchers has allowed him to speak with scientists in fields that are not directly related to his work but still impact his research.

“The density of people working here is pretty low,” Wagner said. “It may take another year or two to have a real community.”

Still, some faculty members said the new amenities are helping researchers to more easily form relationships with each other.

Two researchers said the expanded dining plan, was launched with nearly two weeks of free food this September, was the first measure that allowed them to regularly meet faculty from the other departments. John Overton, an associate researcher who is studying genome sequencing, said before the new meal plan was implemented, his center’s researchers usually ate their own food during unscheduled breaks throughout the day, so he rarely saw staff from any other department.

Kathryn Brayer, a postdoctoral student studying biochemistry in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, added that since the addition of dining options, the lunch area was used more often than before. She added that informal lunch gatherings provide a setting suitable for faculty members to get to know each other.

“Once the ice is broken it’s easier to maintain [interactions],” Brayer said.

In another effort to make researchers more aware of their colleagues’ work, faculty members began holding weekly lectures last year to discuss their research, Brayer said. But the lectures have stalled this fall, which two researchers attributed to the fact that many of the campus’s researchers ready to present their work have already participated in the program.

Brayer added that the expanded shuttle service, which now run from the parking lot by Klein Biology Tower every 30 minutes instead of hourly, has also made life for researchers more convenient by allowing them to bypass New Haven traffic.

West Campus is located seven miles west of downtown New Haven in West Haven.

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