Arts & Entertainment

HHMI

Should you be driving from Sterling to Leesburg on Route 7, you are more than likely to miss the new 689-acre campus that is now the location of the Howard Hughes Medical Center’s Janelia Farm research campus. The elegant glass-in laboratory complex has been nestled into the hilly landscapes so that it is barely visible from the road.

It promises to be a world-class biological center, where resident Nobel prize-winners join with promising younger scientists to explore the frontiers of research in the mechanisms of the brain. Biologists, physicists, chemists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians will be working with the most advanced computing and imaging technology available to peer into the brains for fruit flies, roundworms and mice as a step toward understanding how the human brain functions.

Last Saturday, its doors were opened to 4500 Loudoun residents who were invited to tour the building and attend lectures by top resident scientists. It was quite a gathering!

Residents of the county who can frequently be heard complaining about developers and grid-lock on the roads—how urban sprawl is replacing its treasured rural ambience—were enthusiastically exploring the laboratories, and admiring the stunning architecture of the building. Every resident in the county received a printed invitation to the free event by mail and asked to pre-register. Interest was so high that registration was closed with many still wanting to come…

They were divided into small groups and taken through the laboratory complex, still largely empty as the scientific personnel are being assembled. They were shown videos about planned research as they moved through the three-floor building and then offered the chance to listen to lectures by top scientists already in residence—by 2009 it will have a permanent research staff of around 250 people.

Planning of the new facility and construction of the $500 million research campus had taken six years. The construction itself is unique for its use of panels of structural glass. Despite the fact that the building is nearly 1,000 feet long, with 371,000 square feet of space for laboratories, scientific support, administrative and conference facilities, the building is curved. Groups of work locations surround terrace gardens and overlook unobstructed views of Maryland’s Sugarloaf Mountains. The effect is to merge the indoor and outdoor space visually. Visitors were told that the design was intended to give the scientists a beautiful environment in which to work. The internal design of the laboratory space allows for flexibility so that groups can come together or work individually. The emphasis is on fostering creativity.

The tour guides and lecturers emphasized the commitment by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to foster creativity not only by giving scientists a happy work environment and the best laboratory equipment available, but by allowing them to pursue long-term research goals with having to worry about coming up with impressive short-term results or wasting time writing grant requests in order to support their work. They are encouraged to take risks in order to extend the frontiers of science, even if the final result is to discard initially promising hypotheses.

HHMI is reaching out to the Loudoun Community in significant ways. They have established the Loudoun Academy of Science in partnership with the Loudoun Public School, funded with a $ million annual grant. Sixty-five entering level freshman are selected for the four-year program each year and attend special advanced science classes run by the Academy on a part-time basis along with their regular high school classes. HHMI awards two $7,000 scholarships each year to graduating students from each of the ten Loudoun High Schools, to help those who qualify academically and need the financial aid to pursue a career in science. The Institute also offers summer school institutes for middle-school science teachers.

Visitors were formed into small groups that were led by students from the Academy who explained the work already in progress at the laboratory or planned as the staff increases. They were aided by audio-visual materials projected on small screens at the various work locations. Justin Alexander is a sophomore at Broad Runs HS in Ashburn. He attends the Academy and is presently involved in a project to study the ecology of insect life buried within a growth—known as a gall—that is common on goldenrod plants.

He explained that there are hundreds of tiny insects who live in the galls, along with wasps who prey on them. His class group has 500 goldenrods to work with. First they find and open the galls, and then they count the insect population inside them. The students work together but then each writes a separate report on what they have found and the conclusions which he or she draw from the experiment. He said that he loves being at the Academy and working on this project.

As they piled into busses at the end of the two-hour tour, people were bubbling with enthusiasm for the experience of witnessing the birth of new science first-hand.