Collaborative projects brewing one year later at Clark Center

L.A. Cicero clark_trio

From left, Dr. Todd Brinton, a chief fellow in cardiovascular medicine; Dr. Paul Yock, the Martha Meir Weiland Professor in the School of Medicine; and Dr. Joseph Wu, a clinical instructor in radiology, meet in the hallway that connects their labs in the James H. Clark Center.

Dr. Paul Yock was stumped last summer. In the previous months, he had been working with pigs to replace heart cells that had died during a heart attack. He would inject the pigs with stem cells that he hoped would go to the injured spot and generate new tissue. The strategy seemed promising, but there was a hurdle: He had no way of tracking whether the injected stem cells actually went to the damaged areas and started functioning as pumping heart cells.

The Martha Meir Weiland Professor in the School of Medicine, Yock was about to experience firsthand the benefits of having a lab in the James H. Clark Center, the year-old building that Stanford administrators believe will encourage novel collaborations across disciplines and lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

Yock learned that a scientist in the neighboring lab, who had recently relocated from the University of California-Los Angeles, was an expert in different methods of tracking cardiac cells in mice to see where they go following injection. Only a few years ago, that scientist—Dr. Joseph Wu, a clinical instructor in radiology—would likely have been clustered with all of the other radiologists in another building apart from Yock. But now Wu can be found in a lab in the Clark Center specializing in molecular imaging, under the direction of radiology Professor Sam Gambhir.

For the last few months Wu has worked with Yock lab member Dr. Todd Brinton, a chief fellow in cardiovascular medicine, and they have constructed a method using a radioactive signal to follow injected stem cells and see if they turn into functioning cardiac muscle cells. Wu said their technique is working great so far in mice, and they are soon going to test it in larger animals, followed by studies in humans.

"We completely changed our approach based on the techniques the Gambhir lab has," said Yock, who is also a professor of bioengineering. "It absolutely would not have happened if they were not next door."

As the Clark Center marks its first anniversary, scientists around the country are watching to see whether it succeeds in fostering hundreds of collaborations like the one that Yock and Wu achieved. At the dedication ceremony last year for the new building, speakers talked about how it embodied "transparency," "anarchy," "flow" and "openness"—with its walls of glass and flexible work spaces. Indeed, the $138 million building is ground zero for the university's Bio-X initiative, which aims to usher in a new era in science by bridging the gulfs between medicine, engineering and other scientific disciplines. About 40 of the more than 250 faculty involved in Bio-X, with about 450 of their coworkers, are based in the new building.

"Clark Center is the future of modern science," said David Schwartz, a professor of genetics and chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was attending a conference in the building in October. "The people who designed this place really got it."

Schwartz has been involved in developing a new building to house his university's Genome Sciences Training Program, which he directs, and he views the Clark Center as a model for their plans. "Modern biology is created by an intellectually diverse group of researchers who really benefit from being within 'coffee distance' from each other," he said, adding that the center's open spaces and reliance on mobile, wheeled laboratory benches encourage interdisciplinary research. "Add beautiful form and location, and you have created a boiling marketplace for discovery," he said.

Already, one year into the Clark Center experiment, there are signs of unusual collaborations, though scientists warn that it could be years before such interdisciplinary relationships bear fruit.

Still, take chemist Tom Wandless, an assistant professor (research) of molecular pharmacology, who says that his new office in the center has led to a host of conversations that would probably never have happened if he were still in his old spot in the chemistry building on campus. "None of my immediate neighbors shared my interests at the interface of chemistry and biology," he said. "Now I am surrounded by people who do biology, and that's what I am interested in—using chemistry to make an impact on the world of biology."

Wandless said he must appear more accessible in his glass office, as he now has an average of one person per month approaching him with a project idea. He also said he has been introduced to faculty in the new Department of Bioengineering. "The bottom line is that I know a lot more about bioengineering than I ever thought I would have," he said. "I never had any interaction with that community at all before." He added that the department's first new faculty member will be engineering proteins, a new area of interest for Wandless, so he predicts more overlap in the coming years.

The sharing of ideas doesn't just take place in the labs and offices but in the center's third-floor Peet's café and its ground-floor cafeteria, LINX, which has long communal tables to promote conversation between strangers.

"I run into people at Peet's all the time," remarked Karlene Cimprich, an assistant professor of molecular pharmacology and yearlong resident of the Clark Center. In fact, her regular 9:30 a.m. coffee run has led to a joint venture with Aaron Straight, an assistant professor of biochemistry, who goes over to Clark for coffee from his lab in the Beckman Center. The two of them struck up a conversation one morning while waiting in line for their caffeine fix and discovered that they both were trying to solve the same puzzle. Although they were coming at the problem from very different angles, they share the goal of attempting to extract a molecule consisting of DNA with bound proteins out of a liquid solution.

Now Cimprich and Straight have joined forces, and she credits the collaboration to the new building. Her old lab was in the Center for Clinical Sciences Research building, a site that would not necessarily have drawn Straight for a visit. "He's on the fourth floor of the Beckman Center in a different department than my own, and I wouldn't really run into him otherwise," she said.

Bio-X program chair Matthew Scott, a professor of developmental biology, said there are a number of such anecdotes of new interdisciplinary partnerships taking off based on sharing a centrifuge or running into one another in the restroom. "I eat at LINX several times a week, and the thing I find that is working—almost too well—is that when I go, I meet up with so many people that sometimes it is hard to make it to the food," he said.

Scott is cautious about declaring Clark Center an earth-shattering success. "In terms of our students going out and changing the world due to their interdisciplinary training, it's really too early to tell yet," he said, "but the building is wonderfully conducive to team formation. Many people find the Clark Center exciting and inspiring … and an excellent source of good food. Clark Center events, core facilities and shared space, along with grants programs that stimulate work by diverse teams, will continue to strengthen the Bio-X community." There's no question that the building is sparking some intriguing interdisciplinary work.

Clark Center's newest resident, for instance, is Wing Wong, a professor of statistics and of health research and policy, who brought his lab here from Harvard University this summer. Although Wong's formal training is in mathematics, he has immersed himself in biology in recent years. His presence in the building offers a resource to biologists who are increasingly caught in a flood of information.

"Statisticians are used to dealing with lots and lots of data," Wong said, "and we are finally at a stage in biology, with all of the genome sequencing information available, to use our tools to answer some biology questions." Wong has several projects developing with biologists, including Scott.

"At Harvard," Wong noted, "these experiments were mostly done in the labs of our collaborators. With the move to the Clark Center and with the access to biology groups all around us, we now have a chance to conduct some of these experiments in our own laboratory." Wong said he expects the proximity to biology researchers will speed up the development of new research methods and, in turn, lead to biological discoveries.

As for Stanford's future, Scott said that with the logistics of creating the building now completed, the goal is to reach beyond the neighbor-to-neighbor interactions and establish stronger lines of communication with researchers throughout the university. "We'll be working on bringing together people from around campus to use the facilities in the Clark Center and to create a greater fluidity in the use of space," he said. "The building was designed to be an open-door kind of place.

"The whole goal here," he added, "is to stimulate the bubbling up of exciting new collaborations from the 60 or so departments all over campus that make up the Bio-X program."