Despite the economic downturn, Yale is gearing up this semester to fill the 434,000 square feet of laboratory space on West Campus.

Renovations are underway to prepare laboratories for a new microbial diversity research institute, a genomics core facility and a small molecule screening facility, said Michael Donoghue, the vice president for West Campus planning and program development. The renovations come after months of planning and several key faculty hires, including Nancy Moran and Howard Ochman, two professors at the University of Arizona who accepted offers to lead the new microbial institute’s development in late spring.

“This is a watershed moment for the West Campus,” Donoghue said. “There’s been huge progress since last spring. We are now preparing the space, and some faculty and their labs are starting to move out to the West Campus.”

Moran and Ochman will be the first faculty to situate their entire laboratory operations on West Campus, Donoghue explained.

West Campus expansion in the sciences will be centered around five research institutes and three core facilities. The new institute, which will be up and running by January, will focus its research on microbial diversity, combining evolution, genomics and microbial processes in a way that is, as Ochman put it, “a step beyond anything that is available anywhere else.”

The two professors said they both recognized there would be challenges associated with being pioneers on West Campus, most significantly the difficulty of attracting undergraduates to work in the labs. West Campus is located in West Haven, some seven miles from the edge of Yale campus — a 15-minute drive.

Still, they expressed enthusiasm at the prospects of their new jobs.

“I did have doubts at first, but now that I see all the great new stuff that is moving forward so fast,” Moran said, “I’m feeling really great about it.”

Ochman added that they will try to encourage people “to move out there pretty rapidly,” possibly hiring additional faculty as early as next spring.

Moran and Ochman, who are married to each other, are not the first prominent directors to be hired to work at West Campus. James Rothman, who heads the cell biology core facility, was hired in June 2008, and Thomas Lynch, the director of both the new Yale Cancer Center and West Campus’s cancer biology institute, came on board in April this year.

But Donoghue emphasized that both Rothman and Lynch are still straddling the New Haven-West Haven divide, with offices and laboratories on both the medical campus and the West Campus.

The first core facility, the Center for High Throughput Cell Biology, has been operating for more than a year and the other two — a genomics facility and a small molecule screening facility — have directors and will be ready to go by Christmas, Donoghue said.

Yale purchased the 136-acre property from the pharmaceutical company Bayer HealthCare for a paltry $109 million in 2007, and has spent the months since then planning how both the sciences and arts, such as the University Art Gallery and the Peabody Museum of Natural History, can profit from the space and facilities.

Substantial progress has been made on the arts side, too, Donoghue said.

The Peabody has moved approximately 1.6 million of its specimens out of the overflow at 175 Whitney and the Kline Geology Laboratory into one of the larger warehouse-like buildings on West Campus. The art gallery has begun several major conservation projects, including the restoration of period rooms that will eventually be put on display.

The remaining four science institutes will focus on cancer biology, cell biology, systems biology and chemical biology.