What can I say? This place, Janelia Farm is amazing. I traveled out here a couple weeks ago to attend a meeting for the Lasker Foundation / International Retinal Research Foundation to discuss where the scientific community is with respect to retinal vision rescue approaches. Visiting Janelia Farm really does feel like walking into an alternate universe in some respects. From the moment one passes through the gates, it is clear that the grounds are beautiful, but my mind was kinda blown when checking in to my room. I was told that the room I would be staying in at night would be on the ground floor which did not mean much to me until I walked through the door and saw this.
Honestly, there was not much time for anything other than the material covered in the scientific meetings, and a few minutes for email and such before sleep. However, had I known how beautiful this place was, a tripod would have made it into my luggage to make some more photographs, many with tighter apertures to make sure everything in the foreground and background was in sharp focus and to enable more night photography like the above images which were made from my bedroom window.
The light at just about every hour in the buildings on this campus is visually stunning. Its almost hard not to make a great photograph here as the architect, Rafael Viñoly did a masterful job designing this research building and campus. If there were more time, it would have been interesting to get some outside images and do a proper architectural photographic study of the 270m x 82m facilities. From a visual perspective the glass invites the outside in as well as the sun at all hours of daylight which, I suspect from some of the umbrellas in the labs, also brightens workstation screens.
There are two large light wells in the middle of the spare lobby spaces that house sculptures titled Building Momentum by P. Koshland and Noh Play by Rodney Carroll. They are stunning pieces both inside and out of the building that I wish I had more time to study and photograph.
Walking around the labs here felt like walking through some spaceship quietly orbiting a planet under study. The feeling in the lab space was ultra modern and inspiring, but the attractiveness of the architecture at Janelia was equally matched by how cool some of the science was that is going on. Much of the work is basic science research uncomplicated by having to focus on disease which is critically important and eventually, fundamental to success in curing diseases. While there has been a huge focus shift in science away to more applied work that leads to therapies and cures for disease, unfortunately that shift in focus has come at the expense of basic research. This loss in funding and focus from basic science will ultimately be detrimental to cures and therapies and has been complicated by reductions in public funding of science for over a decade now. Fortunately for Janelia Farm and its investigators, they are privately funded through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and can continue to fund basic research without distractions. In fact, there are so few distractions it is almost like a scientific dream. Investigators here at Janelia Farm are not even allowed to write grants which in publicly funded circles, has occupied an increasingly dominant percentage of time that takes away from the time you can focus on science.
I was most curious about some of the neural research efforts here, specifically the connectomics approaches which are truly impressive. Though, limited I think by the inability to 1) identify all of the synapses and gap junctions signifying a true accounting of all connections and 2) understanding cell class identity. That said, the resources are amazing and the data is beautiful. Having multiple electron microscopes working in parallel as well as an IT staff to handle big data management and programmers to help develop code seems like a fantasy which brings up the other phenomenal thing at Janelia, which is the number of labs that are focusing on tool development in software, physics and engineering. These efforts are also aimed at longer term significance that could not be funded under existing publicly funded scientific efforts. The disparate fields of study from chemistry to electrical engineering, computer science, physics and biology that is terribly exciting and similar to what we’ve done with tool development to study retinal and neural processing in the Marc Lab.
I can’t yet say much about the Lasker Meeting which brought me here as we will be developing the content discussed here over the next few months to come up with a coherent strategy for moving forward on retinal vision rescue approaches. That said, it was a great meeting with lots of familiar faces like Frank Werblin and John Dowling and getting some time to talk with old friends Pamela Raymond, Daniel Palanker and Matt LaVail as well as former colleagues like Brad Greger who recently moved to ASU. It was also a nice opportunity to talk with other folks like Don Zack and start up collaborative efforts, which I am very excited about.
Janelia Farm also hosts an excellent array of biological images, both current and historical including some of Ramón y Cajal’s work that show a commitment to the visual representation of the science of art, something I deeply appreciate.
Some of the art is more synthetic, reflecting much of the interdisciplinary work that goes on at Janelia. This image above for instance, of Charles Darwin on a wall of Scientific Heroes was made up from a composite of small images made from Google Image searches of terms related to their work. The image composite exhibit was created by Julie Simpson and Frank Midgley who wrote this code before coming to Janelia. The code, MacOSaiX automatically constructs photo mosaics from imagery downloaded from Flickr or Google.
I am told that while at Janelia, Frank wrote bioinformatics software which handled the analysis and storage of data from a wide range of experiments. Unfortunately on March 24th, Frank’s family, Janelia and the rest of the world lost Frank to cancer, a process he documented on Frank’s Oncoblog. My sincere condolences to Frank’s family and his colleagues at Janelia. Reading through the Oncoblog posts makes it pretty clear that Frank was beloved and touched many lives. Its also clear that our “war on cancer” declared in 1971 needs new tools and resources, not to mention a real, concerted effort to honestly invest the resources required to fund biomedical research, not just for the applied work, but for the basic research that will give us the insight into applied work. Frank’s Oncoblog mirrors experiences seen in a number of friends who have gone through that process… Some are still in this process, others have been lost. Fundamentally, our commitment to fight cancer as a nation has not been complete, but at least we have places like Janelia that are providing scientists with the tools to ask fundamental questions and build the tools that we’ll need for tough biomedical problems like cancer, blindness and other disease and pathologies that negatively impact our lives.
I truly hope this was not my last opportunity to visit Janelia Farm, but if it was… it was quite a thrill. If I do get to visit again, I am totally bringing a tripod…