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Open laboratory spaces in Weill Hall.

Weill Hall: 10 years as a hub for life sciences research

A decade ago, Cornell University opened the doors of a pioneering new building, a home for innovative and collaborative life sciences research. The $162 million, 265,000-square-foot Weill Hall, named in recognition of Joan and Sanford ’55 Weill’s support for the life sciences, promised a new era with its open laboratory spaces, an abundance of natural light, state-of-the-art science infrastructure, a business incubator and a two-acre lower level for specialized facilities and services.

More importantly, the building would house two new entities – the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology and the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering. Both programs boosted fundamental research in the life sciences, which was part of the vision set in motion by Provost Carolyn “Biddy” Martin (2000-08) and the Life Sciences Task Force, and was carried forward by her successor, Provost Kent Fuchs (2009-14). The Weill Institute helped establish a greater presence for the university in the study of basic cell biology; and the Meinig School better integrated the life sciences with engineering and the physical sciences, which was a priority for Fuchs.

"Discovery and application go hand in hand, and together we can do much more."

Michael Kotlikoff, Cornell University provost

When Weill Hall opened in 2009, Scott Emr, director of the Weill Institute, predicted: “The next 10 years will be an awesome period of discovery in the biomedical sciences.” A key to that prediction was the interdisciplinary collaborations that would be nurtured in the building.

“It was really the first of its kind on the Cornell campus – a building into which you would bring programs, and they would be central to many, many departments,” said Paula Cohen, the associate vice provost for life sciences, professor of genetics and director of the Center for Reproductive Genomics in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. “You can have a center in name only, where you have faculty at many departments, but there’s no physical structure. Or you can do what they did at Weill Hall, and that is recruit people who come from many different departments. Both models have worked well here, but Weill Hall has achieved a presence on campus that promotes integrated life sciences in a more physical sense,” Cohen said.

Paula Cohen, associate vice provost for life sciences.

A pivot toward broader collaborations

Since his appointment in 2015, Provost Michael Kotlikoff has continued Fuchs’ momentum while also working to widen the scope of collaboration to further connect Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell Tech in New York City with the Ithaca campus.

“Ten years ago, we weren’t talking about academic integration to the extent we are now, and leveraging our colleagues at the medical school and building programs across the boundaries of Cornell Tech and the medical college, and I think that’s a critical component,” Kotlikoff said. “Today, because of the explosion of genomic data, fundamental mechanistic discoveries in model systems like yeast, drosophila and mice lead seamlessly to applications for human disease. And we are seeing increasing collaborations among the Meinig School, Weill Institute, other campus scientists and our Weill Cornell Medicine colleagues. Discovery and application go hand in hand, and together we can do much more.”

"The faculty who were recruited to the Weill Institute are exceptionally collaborative. I think that speaks to the sort of integrated science Cornell has always been good at."

Paula Cohen

To that end, most faculty in Weill Hall actively collaborate with colleagues across campus and at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“We have faculty who do basic science research that they are thinking of in terms of diseases, and that connection makes their results more translatable,” said Marjolein van der Meulen, the James M. and Marsha McCormick Director of Biomedical Engineering and the Swanson Professor of Biomedical Engineering.

For example, biomedical engineering professor Claudia Fischbach-Teschl uses engineering strategies to develop model systems that better reproduce how tumors exist in the body – results she validates through patient samples from Weill Cornell Medicine. She also is co-director of The Cornell Center on the Physics of Cancer Metabolism with Lewis Cantley, Ph.D. ’75, the Meyer Director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. The Cornell Center on the Physics of Cancer Metabolism “is really an intercampus radical collaboration,” Fischbach-Teschl said.

“The arrival of a large cohort of biomedical engineering faculty over the past 15 years has signaled a huge uptick in collaborations across the campus, with these faculty serving as the instigators of major multi-investigator interactions and grants,” Cohen said.

Scott Emr, right, and one of his graduate students, Jeff Jorgensen, examine a new yeast mutant that Jorgensen isolated in their lab on the fourth floor of Weill Hall.

Similarly, Weill Institute is now home to 12 institute faculty, whose appointments cover six departments. Members of the institute are all emerging leaders in their fields, a tribute to Emr’s vision and leadership and the collaborative and intense scientific environment that he has created, Kotlikoff said.

“The faculty who were recruited to the Weill Institute are exceptionally collaborative,” Cohen said. “I think that speaks to the sort of integrated science Cornell has always been good at.”

Design promotes connections

One significant feature of Weill Hall is its open lab spaces; they run along the outer edges of the building on one side of each floor, and bring in lots of natural light. There are no walls between one researcher’s lab and the next.

“The idea was that this would be far more collaborative, rather than building walls that separate students and postdocs from lab to lab,” Emr said. “And that has been a total success, because neighboring labs do a huge amount of collaborative work together.”

The proximity means that students and postdoctoral researchers interact; what may start with borrowing reagents or equipment can lead to conversations about projects and research strategies, all of which build relationships, Emr said.

The Weill Institute also has a lounge space where students and researchers meet for lunch and coffee. “It increases these spontaneous discussions and interactions, which often then fuel new research directions, new ideas,” said Jan Lammerding, an associate professor with joint appointments in the Meinig School and Weill Institute. Lammerding currently has six projects with other researchers in the building.

In vivo imaging of a mouse brain, showing microaglia (yellow), neurons (green) and blood vessels (blue).

Designed specifically as a research building, Weill Hall has five temperature-controlled support rooms for every lab area. Developmental biology researcher Chun Han has a fruit fly collection that must be maintained at 67 degrees Fahrenheit, while fellow institute faculty member Chris Fromme ’99, who has a joint appointment in molecular biology and genetics, requires a constant 65 degrees for his protein crystallography work. Researchers from across campus make use of the machinery and store their samples in these support rooms, further promoting research interactions.

Open space helps recruiting

When Haiyuan Yu, a faculty member at the Weill Institute and Department of Computational Biology (formerly the Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology), was hired in 2010, he had been considering several other offers.

“I chose this place because of this position in this building, the unique setup in the institute among a group of experts with diverse backgrounds from many different departments,” he said.

Having his own wet lab also was a big draw for the computational and network systems biologist. Some of his work involves understanding how a particular protein interacts with other proteins to form complexes and pathways.

Yu now is moving into an entirely new research area – proteomics – thanks to interactions with colleagues in the open labs, in the institute and across campus. He learned about proteomics technologies from molecular biologist Marcus Smolka, whose lab is next to Yu’s; and Yu assists Smolka with biostatistics and computational biology.

Yu and his colleagues now are developing novel experimental approaches and computational algorithms, using mass spectrometry to study complex interactions between thousands of proteins within the whole cell.

“I completely got into this new area,” Yu said. “I’m being invited to give talks [on mass spectrometry and proteomics], and that’s all because of the institute and being close to Marcus and other people.”

World-class imaging

Chris Schaffer, left, and Nozomi Nishimura, in reflection, are associate professors in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering.

Nozomi Nishimura and Chris Schaffer, both associate professors in the Meinig School, co-lead a research lab in Weill Hall’s lower level. There, Nishimura develops tools for optical imaging – such as multiphoton microscopy – and conducts research on the brain, central nervous system and heart. The basement contains a low-vibration space constructed on separate floor plates that optimizes the area for the instruments and lasers used in imaging research.

Nishimura’s lab is part of a cluster of cutting-edge labs of imaging technology developers who share approaches and expertise for creating the next generation of optical tools for biomedical studies. Adjacent to Nishimura’s and Schaffer’s lab, the core imaging facilities draw researchers from across campus and non-Cornell users.

"The flexibility of the staff makes it possible for us to do experiments that I think would be difficult in other places."

Nozomi Nishimura

The building’s below-ground level also holds controlled environment chambers for plant research and a vivarium. Nishimura says proximity to the vivarium and its staff has been invaluable for in vivo imaging.

“The flexibility of the staff makes it possible for us to do experiments that I think would be difficult in other places,” she said.

Having the imaging core facilities right in Weill Hall has been elemental, said Fischbach-Teschl, because her work involves viewing and analyzing cell culture experiments. “We just have to take samples one floor down rather than walking across campus, where you risk contamination,” she said. In addition, her students get immediate access to imaging experts and training outside her own expertise.

Growing life sciences startups

Along with the Departments of Nutritional Sciences and of Computational Biology, Weill Hall is also home to a business incubator, the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences, which opened in 2011. Since then, 22 startups have been accepted into the center.

The four lab complexes are currently packed with 12 companies, with many more vying for space at the facility, which has been recognized as among the top business incubators in the U.S.

“One of the reasons [for the interest] is the success record that we’ve established in maturing young companies to a point where they get investment,” said Lou Walcer, director of the McGovern Center.

So far, roughly $65 million in equity investment has been raised by resident clients since the inception of the program.

Inside the low-vibration imaging lab in Weill Hall’s basement.

Success, with an eye on the future

“We’ve very much achieved what we set out to do,” Cohen said, looking back on the past decade. “That doesn’t mean we can sit back and say, ‘OK, we’re done.’ Science is a moving target, so we need to move with the target.”

The expanding frontiers of computational biology and increased bridging with Cornell Tech are areas ripe for continued development. “Even a card-carrying wet-bench biologist like myself will say we cannot move forward without core growth in computational science,” Cohen said. Creating a space for the former Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology in Weill Hall was a first step in that direction. Now, the new, expanding Department of Computational Biology will further advance that development.

Cornell intends to create more cross-disciplinary, collaborative programs, many within and at intersections with the life sciences. The provost’s Radical Collaboration Drives Discovery initiative includes task forces on genome biology, digital agriculture, information sciences and immunology. “Both the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering and the Weill Institute have become very much the benchmarks for how we do [this],” Cohen said.

And Weill Hall is “at the heart of what Cornell has always done with its interactions,” she added. “I think the building really epitomizes our approach to collaborative science, with its faculty being some of the more collaborative folks on campus. There’s a feeling that the building is a meeting place, the heart of the life sciences on campus.”

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Jeff Tyson