Behind Glass and Steel, a World of Discovery
Brainpower at Work At Janelia Farm Campus

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

The sound of bulldozers and circular saws still lingers as workers put the final touches on the new Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, a 760,000-square-foot facility that promises to generate some of the most important work ever conducted on the human mind.

Inside, dozens of young scientists are already at work, their desks growing cluttered with vials and data sheets, their white boards filling with complex equations. And since they began arriving in August, the researchers have already left their mark. The campus, part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has produced its first breakthrough: the completion of the photoactivated localization microscope or PALM, a device so powerful that its user can see individual proteins inside cells.

The elegant glass-and-steel building, with fine Italian furnishings and lounges overlooking manmade ponds, seems more like a stylish resort than a research center. It is cloistered on three sides by forest and sits on a bank of the Potomac River, the rural vistas visible through the structure's floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

But that is precisely the point, said Gerald M. Rubin, director of the campus and a genetics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

"This is the ivory tower," he said, employing a term usually used to deride the isolation of the academic world. "We're taking very talented people and trying to free them from the distractions of life and put them into a contemplative setting."

Eventually, 400 scientists studying the workings of the brain or developing the imaging technology needed to support that research will be housed at the $500 million building. About 100 of those will be visiting researchers housed in apartments and guest rooms on the campus.

The new microscope notwithstanding, the scientists selected for Janelia Farm will be engaged in the most high-risk work, the kind of "blue-sky, long-range research" that often doesn't receive funding because it takes many decades to yield results, Rubin said.

Janelia Farm is the first and only research campus of the nonprofit Howard Hughes institute, one of the world's largest science philanthropies. It is the first center of its kind in Loudoun County.

Though the campus opened in late summer, its relationship with the county began years ago. Officials selected Loudoun because of its proximity to Dulles International Airport and Chevy Chase, Md., where the Hughes institute has its headquarters.

Since 2003, the Hughes institute has been donating about $1 million a year to the Loudoun County school system for science education. The schools have used the money to give scholarships to graduating seniors, provide training to middle school science teachers and fund the Loudoun Academy of Science at Dominion High School in Sterling. Institute officials also provided guidance for the teacher training and the development of the academy's curriculum.

Part of the institute's mission is to offer a more integrated view of science education, which traditionally is taught as a series of rigidly separated subjects, such as physics, chemistry and earth science. The Loudoun science academy has followed that approach: A lesson on earthquakes, for example, might encompass all three of those disciplines, said academy Director George Wolfe.

"We hope to do more in conjunction with Janelia, if nothing else, to draw on the expertise of their scientists when we have research questions," Wolfe said.

Janelia will be an experiment in itself. A museum-like structure, it contains one of the largest installations of structural glass in the country. Most of the laboratories and offices are walled with glass to encourage interaction, Rubin said. The well-stocked dining hall and pub are designed to foster "unstructured, unscheduled collisions" that could lead to great discoveries about the inner workings of the mind, Rubin said.

The building was designed by Rafael Viñoly, a New York-based architect best known for his work on the Tokyo International Forum in Japan and for various U.S. universities.

The design was dictated in part by legal restrictions on the property. The 669-acre parcel is bound by a scenic easement, which means no structure on the property can mar the view of Sugarloaf Mountain across the river from the still-standing Janelia manor house.

So Viñoly designed it as a "landscape building," meaning that the low-slung structure is virtually invisible from the manor house atop the hill. The effect is heightened by the "green roof," planted with about 30 species of grass that offer insulation from sun and rain.

Janelia Farm will hold an open house Oct. 7, and more than 3,000 people have already signed up for the tour. Tickets are free, but space is limited and reservations are required. For more information, visit and click on Open House Oct. 7.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company