West Campus emphasizing collaboration

When the co-founders of Y-Hack Charles Jin ’16, Mike Wu ’16 and Frank Wu ’16 were considering where at Yale they could host a 24-hour hack-a-thon for a projected few hundred competitors, West Campus was the last place on their minds. But after an unanticipated 1000-plus undergraduates from across the country and Canada signed up for the coding competition, the three discovered that the only place at Yale available and large enough to accommodate them all was 410 West Campus Dr.

West Campus is a fitting home for Y-Hack beyond offering room for the competition — when the coders arrive this Friday evening, they will compete in a location that has reflected Y-Hack’s same spirit of innovation and collaboration. Six years after Yale purchased the 136-acre facility from Bayer Pharmaceuticals for $109 million, West Campus has become a hub for interdisciplinary conversation and teamwork that is helping to strengthen the spirit of collaborative science research at Yale.

“It’s like an artist’s colony,” said Farren Isaacs, researcher at the Systems Biology Institute on West Campus. “You have a bunch of people from different perspectives infusing their own creativity into their labs, their institutes and West Campus-wide culture.”

According to Scott Strobel, vice president for West Campus planning and program development, while each of the six institutes — Chemical Biology, Cancer Biology, Nanobiology, Systems Biology, Microbial Diversity and Energy Sciences — is focused on a particular research topic, the members of those institutes span the gamut of scientific disciplines. Strobel said that the close proximity of researchers to others from different backgrounds within each institute, and of different institutes to each other, is facilitating interdisciplinary work that has become characteristic of the research conducted at West Campus.

Isaacs, who said his research is by nature interdisciplinary, credits the academic diversity at the West Campus institutes for facilitating his most recent research on rewiring the genome of E. coli to make it more disease-resistant. Collaborating on that project were faculty from Yale College and the School of Medicine, all of whom worked together at the Systems Biology Institute.

“In many ways, the sciences are all coalescing right now,” Isaacs said. “We’re seeing advances in biology leveraging advances in physics, chemistry, engineering and so on. West Campus is the hub for that, [and] that’s the kind of environment that a lab like mine thrives in.”

After the selection of Andre Levchenko this summer as the director of the Systems Biology Institute, one last West Campus directorship remains to be filled at the Microbial Diversity Institute. As with the hiring of all other institute faculty at West Campus, Strobel said, an advisory committee of academically diverse members from the institute will conduct the search with a committee of members from the applicant’s home department. Unlike search committees in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, whose members hail from a single academic background, search committees at West Campus are comprised of members from numerous departments.

Strobel said that the process of conducting these searches has fostered stronger connections between committee members in different fields of study. The result of these connections, he said, has been “cutting-edge” work from faculty members who might not otherwise have cause to interact together on research.

Collaborations are being facilitated within institutes as well. Levchenko said that Systems Biology faculty members are working with developers on upcoming renovations to the institute that will make the institute more spacious and attractive, producing labs that are more conducive to interdisciplinary research.

“Essentially, you feel that this place is wired from the outset so that everything you want to have is more or less available to you,” Levchenko said. “You are only limited [here] by your imagination.”

Although the Yale School of Nursing is not affiliated with the institutes or their search committees, School of Nursing Dean Margaret Grey said that her school has benefitted from the “interdisciplinary culture” of West Campus after moving into its newly renovated West Campus space this fall.

Grey cited nursing researchers’ closeness on West Campus to facilities like the Yale Center for Genome Analysis, and other researchers in labs from a variety of scientific disciplines, as critical to conducting collaborative research at her school. She hopes that the connections West Campus has made available to YSN will attract potential applicants and encourage Yale undergraduates to explore “the west side of town,” which is home to a nascent arts and cultural community as well.

When YSN was first considering the move, Grey said the administration told her she would be “crazy” to turn the offer down.

“It’s the opportunity to bring all these pieces together in the service of science and growing inter-professional relationships,” Grey added. “And that’s just absolutely exciting.”

Shuttles connecting Yale, West Campus and the West Haven train station run three times an hour.

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