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Stanford Report, October 22, 2003

Creative ‘cauldrons’ of research brew at new Clark Center

BY MARK SHWARTZ

First-time visitors to the James H. Clark Center often are struck by its dramatic inner courtyard: A circular granite entryway surrounded by three glass-encased buildings -- known as the East, West and South Wings -- with curved facades and sweeping staircases that create a remarkably serene atmosphere for a 146,000-square-foot sci-tech research center.

But enter one of those wings and you find yourself in a starkly different environment: floor after floor of open laboratories, each with a decidedly industrial feel.

The 146,000-square-foot research center will house 43 faculty members with an interdisciplinary bent. “Someone compared it to Noah’s Ark,” said Dr. Chris Contag, Department of Pediatrics. Photo: L.A. Cicero

These cavernous mega-labs -- unlike any on campus -- are the heart and soul of the Clark Center: Cauldrons of creativity where researchers from different disciplines have been willingly thrown together in the hope that close encounters will spark undreamed of discoveries in biology and medicine. So far, 28 of the expected 43 Clark Center faculty have moved in -- a diverse group of engineers, biologists, medical researchers and physical scientists, many of whom left their old departments -- physically, at least -- for the brave new world of Bio-X.

But will this social experiment, as Bio-X Chair Matthew Scott likes to call it, actually work? Will serendipitous encounters between scientists and engineers eventually lead to new cures, treatments and insights that might otherwise have gone undiscovered?

Chris Contag, Judith Frydman, Oussama Khatib and Alfred Spormann recently relocated to the East Wing of the Clark Center. All four come from different departments, yet all seem to have adopted the kind of camaraderie that comes from knowing that you are about to embark on a risky venture that, if successful, could redefine science and engineering for decades to come.

 

Noah's Ark

Researchers in the East Wing are typical of the intellectual diversity found throughout the Clark Center. On the first floor are faculty from the schools of Engineering and Medicine paired in three distinct research clusters -- biomedical imaging, robotics and biodesign.

"Someone compared it to Noah's Ark," said Contag, an assistant professor of pediatrics. "Each lab has two of every specialty who will reach out and populate the rest of the building."

An expert on imaging live animals, Contag is paired with Dr. Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, a professor of radiology and leading authority on noninvasive medical imaging. To an outsider, it's hard to tell where the Contag lab ends and the Gambhir lab begins. "I like this arrangement," Contag said. "We have more access to more instruments because they're all shared."

The downside, according to some graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, can be summed up in two words: noise and space. The labs can be very noisy and very cramped, they say. Others maintain that crowded conditions encourage conversations and force people from different backgrounds to intermingle.

"It's like a family," said Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, a postdoctoral scholar in the Contag lab. "Both labs are working together, trying different modalities for in vivo imaging that we hope will answer many unanswered questions."

For example, O'Connell-Rodwell envisions a day when researchers will able to use luciferase -- the protein that causes fireflies to light up -- to track stem cells in a living animal.

"You could also track the course of an infection through a live mouse," she added. "You wouldn't have to wait hours or days to analyze a specimen, and you wouldn't have to sacrifice the animal."

In addition to their lab work, Gambhir and Contag are co-directors of the Bio-X Small Animal Imaging Facility. When fully equipped, the facility will give researchers throughout Stanford unprecedented access to a variety of imaging technologies rarely found in a single lab.

Natural interactions

While the Contag-Gambhir lab is crammed with test tubes and beakers, the robotics lab on the opposite end of First Floor East is filled with futuristic engineering devices. The lab is shared by computer science Professors Oussama Khatib and Kenneth Salisbury, also a professor of surgery. Much of Khatib's work focuses on creating autonomous, human-friendly robots. He and Salisbury also share a strong interest in designing virtual surgical devices that could allow surgeons to perform long-distance operations.

"The Clark Center has turned out to be wonderful," Khatib said. "Because it is open, it allows more interactions with other groups. It comes so natural!"

Although he maintains part of his original lab in the Gates Computer Science Building, Khatib already has launched new collaborations with Clark Center colleagues.

"Putting the bioscience and engineering communities together in one building is going to produce a lot of interesting things," he predicted. "Someone even asked me how robotics could be used to model the dynamics of individual molecules. This really is exciting."

Cross-fertilization

Should Khatib have a sudden insight into protein dynamics, all he has to do is wander upstairs to the laboratory shared by Judith Frydman and Ron Kopito -- two members of the biological sciences faculty with a keen interest in how healthy proteins fold into the correct shape.

"It's good to have some cross-fertilization with people who do different things, but on the other hand, it's also good to be able talk to people who work on similar problems or approaches," Frydman said.

She is particularly excited about having her lab near other scientists working on protein folding, including chemist Vijay Pande -- founder of the popular "Folding@Home" computer project -- and structural biologist Michael Levitt. But Frydman also feels a tinge of nostalgia for the colleagues left behind when she moved out of the Gilbert Biological Sciences Building a few weeks ago.

"I really like my department. It's a pity to be physically separated from them," she said. "You can't have everything. You can't have all the interactions you used to have and the new ones, so we have formal and informal ways of keeping touch."

Like all Clark Center faculty offices, Frydman's new office is a small, rectangular room with ridged translucent glass walls -- a design that has gotten mixed reviews from its occupants.

"The office is a bit weird," she noted. "My previous office was lovely. This one is so small that without glass it would really be like a box, and with the glass it's like a fish tank."

Frydman and chemistry Professor W. E. Moerner were among the first faculty members to receive a Bio-X Interdisciplinary Initiatives grant in 2000. According to Frydman, that grant has opened up other promising avenues of research, and she strongly urged Bio-X executives to continue providing seed money for future interdisciplinary collaborations.

"There are good people in the Clark Center, so good things should come out of here," she concluded.

Evolutionary experiment

Not all Clark Center researchers are searching for a compatible lab mate à la Noah's Ark. Alfred Spormann, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, recently moved from the Terman Engineering Center to the second floor of the East Wing. Besides relocating his own lab, Spormann brought along the Stanford Biofilm Research Center -- a special facility available to all university researchers interested in studying the complex world of microbial films (aka "slime").

A biologist by training, Spormann eventually will share his lab with physicist Steve Chu, a Nobel laureate and one of the original founders of Bio-X. "Steve will be a good match," Spormann said. "I studied physics before biology, so I understand how physicists think."

Spormann said that his best Clark Center collaborations so far have occurred outside the lab -- along the balcony, for example, or inside Peet's Coffee. "If I go to a lab, I have a specific purpose," he said. "On the way I run into people I don't usually see. The layout of the Clark Center is quite inviting for those interactions."

Instead of a social experiment, Spormann compares the Clark Center to an evolutionary experiment "where organisms colonize and establish an ecosystem. At first, you depend on your neighbors, but sooner or later, you reach equilibrium. Five years from now, I will know who is doing what research, and I will have screened what's out there. When the original 'hotbed of ideas' reaches equilibrium, there will be a different feeling here."

Spormann predicted that technology will drive the Clark Center and determine its ultimate legacy. "There will be inventions made here that will be effective in five or 10 years. If people say, 'This was developed in the Clark Center,' then we'll know the experiment has been a success."

A bridge that links the east and west wings of the new Clark Center provides a comprehensive view of much of the building’s signature courtyard. Photo: L.A. Cicero