Conference center may mark turning point for West Campus

When the West Campus inaugurated its newly renovated $4 million conference center — a sparkling new cafeteria and gathering space — on Wednesday afternoon, it represented for many a turning point for the sprawling 136-acre complex.

Yale, which bought the West Haven facility from Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 2007, envisioned the campus as a new hub for science research at Yale. Soon after, the recession slowed progress on expensive lab renovations and faculty recruitment. Looking back on the early days of West Campus, faculty described the space as “desolate” and lacking an intellectual environment.

Nevertheless, growth is accelerating: While the facility is only at 25 percent capacity, administrators anticipate that West Campus will be full in approximately five years. Within the next few, extensive renovations will have modernized all West Campus research institutes. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place next week for new digitization and conservation spaces for Yale’s art galleries and museums, and next fall the School of Nursing will relocate to a renovated space on the campus. Faculty say they were attracted by the opportunity to mold the growing hub up scientific research.

“The question we would get at the very beginning is ‘This looks like a great place, but I don’t really want to be here by myself,’” said Vice President for West Campus planning and program development Scott Strobel. “I think we have reached the point now where people aren’t asking that question anymore.”

 

BUILDING FROM NOTHING

Strobel, who assumed leadership of West Campus in early 2011, said young faculty recruits were drawn to the campus by the potential to help shape the growing facility. Two of three junior professors interviewed said they were actively engaged in their institute’s recruitment process. Physiology professor Erdem Karatekin said he feels like faculty are being “listened to” in defining the future of West Campus.

When cell biology professor Jesse Rinehart GRD ’04 established his lab at West Campus in July 2010, there was very little activity in the sprawling complex. He said the research facility was “quiet,” far removed from the activity at the Yale School of Medicine seven miles down the road. But he said he was intrigued by the possibility of helping to influence the young campus.

“It happens all the time, everywhere across the country that a department will reinvent itself, that a hiring process will bring in new people, but I really can’t tell you if it’s ever happened at a place like Yale, at a top-tier institution, where an entire campus and an entire collection of research programs were brought online and bring an entirely new research direction to a University,” he said. “That was exciting to me.”

Financial incentives have also helped draw researchers to the West Campus. Professor of cell biology Malaiyalam Mariappan said that of the handful of institutions he considered, Yale offered him the most generous package. Still, the promise of a vibrant intellectual environment on the West Campus was the most important factor in his decision to come to Yale last year.

A $25 million gift to the West Campus in the fall of 2011 established the Energy Sciences Institute. Searches are currently under way for a director of the institute and junior faculty, and renovations to research spaces are forthcoming, said Strobel.

But for some, the promise of a growing research hub is not enough.

No number of faculty recruits will shorten the seven-mile ride to central campus. While Yale shuttles transport community members back and forth from central campus every half hour, the commute makes it difficult to attend many of the seminars that take place back in New Haven, Mariappan said.

Rinehart said potential faculty recruits still ask about the isolation from other areas of campus, though it does not typically emerge as a major concern. Karatekin suspects at least one of the faculty searches the West Campus lost last year was because of location.

“He ended up going to London,” he said. “I think probably because it was London versus the West Campus.”

 

A TURNING POINT?

According to Strobel, the new conference center — which has been in use for the past few months — has “entirely changed the vibe” of West Campus and marks a turning point for the complex. The space fosters a sense of community among professors, who socialize over meals or games of pool, and allows prospective faculty and students to envision themselves enjoying the space as well.

The center serves as a much -needed gathering place for the community, Rinehart said. More broadly, West Campus has transformed since he arrived almost three years ago.

“We have a critical mass today — a vibrant community that is productive and growing — I think we’ve done it,” he said.

But some members of the West Campus community, like cell biology research scientist David Baddeley, doubt West Campus has reached its tipping point. Members still return to the main campus for many of the seminars and lectures, a sign that the West Campus still lacks the significance to draw talks away from the main campus. More faculty and more laboratories are needed for the facility to reach its critical mass, he said.

President-elect Peter Salovey helped cut the ribbon on Wednesday afternoon. Karatekin said he was pleasantly surprised to see the administrator make the journey down to West Haven.

“I think there was a message there, and the message was that the West Campus is important,” he said

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