Morphogenalia

First Impressions

It has now been around six weeks since my lab move – about the right time to reflect and form some first impressions. The move of the lab itself went much more smoothly than I was anticipating. This was in large part down to the team spirit and hard work of lab members preparing for the move. It turns out that packing up a lab in a institute that’s closing is great for team building and camaraderie. In addition, the efficiency and professionalism of the moving company meant that each of our boxes was delivered to the right bench in the new building almost without mistake, easing the process of unpacking. We were also fortunate that our move was at the end of the whole transition period. Many of the snags and quirks encountered by labs that had moved earlier than us had been ironed out by the time we moved. As a consequence, we were able to restart lab work within days of the move and now, six weeks in, it feels as if we’re almost back to normal. I hope I haven’t spoken too soon – there’s always the possibility something will go wrong – but so far so good.

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The lab – up and running in Midland Road

One of the oddities of research is that whether someone moves buildings, organisations, or countries, the research stays the same. We’d be doing the same experiments and asking the same questions wherever we were. This provides a sense of familiarity and security, despite the change in surroundings. We’ve definitely appreciated this since our new environment is very different from what we were used to. In Mill Hill, my lab was split between several relatively small rooms, located on different floors, in a building that had both the charm and flaws of pre-WWII architecture. There was a warmth and sense of history to the building, but, lack of air conditioning meant the summers could be stifling and if the wind blew in the wrong direction when it rained, the windows leaked. These are problems we don’t have in Midland Road. The scale and modernity of the building could hardly be a greater contrast to our old accommodation. Nevertheless, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it hasn’t felt intimidating or unmanageable. I think the general sense of goodwill amongst our colleagues and the feeling that we’re all going through this together has helped us settle in.

On the other hand, the increased size of the institute – almost double the number of scientists we were used to at Mill Hill – is very noticeable. One result is that there are almost twice the number of seminars, with many more internal talks. As well the developmental biology, immunology, neuroscience we’re used to, we’re being exposed to new topics ranging from cancer genomics to the yeast cell cycle. Adding to this, we’re in the middle of a recruiting new group leaders and so there 2-3 job seminars a week at the moment too. All of this is very stimulating and informative, but the number of hours in the day hasn’t doubled. I still need to find the time to do my job and not spend the whole day sitting in the auditorium, trying to get the right balance is a challenge. I still need to work out which are the most useful seminar series to attend and which of the internal meetings I skip without consequence. This will take me a few more months.

Another change I’ve noticed is the effect that the location of my office has. In Mill Hill my office was in the corner of my main lab. This meant that several times a day I walked through the lab, seeing people as they worked at the bench or at their desks. In addition, the door to my office was normally open so I would often hear and join in conversations. I had a good sense of what was happening in the lab – or at least I thought I did. And sometimes the spontaneous conversations that resulted led to new ideas, clarified existing questions or solved a problem. It also meant I was an obvious part of the lab, connected to and participating in its daily life. The arrangement in Midland Road is different. The desks are now located adjacent to, but outside, the labs and although my office is only a few metres down the corridor, it is separate. This means I’m no longer as in touch with the day-to-day detail of life in the lab as I was before. I’m beginning to miss the involvement. I no longer know when someone has an interesting or unexpected result and I don’t hear about the little difficulties someone might be having getting a thing to work. The weekly group meetings and individual meetings keep me in touch with progress and allow me to contribute ideas and suggestions but it’s not the same as hearing it in real time unfolding in the lab. I have a feeling that this will have a major effect on the dynamics of interactions within the group. I’ll be watching this with interest, because, although I might feel left out, the new arrangement might be disinhibiting for the rest of the lab. I’m also wondering whether there are different ways to have the informal and productive interactions that I’m beginning to miss and whether other group leaders have similar thoughts to me.

Note new address

It’s done. My lab has moved from our old site in Mill Hill into the brand new Francis Crick Institute, Midland Road, opposite St Pancras Station. My lab’s move also happened to complete the main phase of the migration into the new building. A process that started, almost to the day, six months ago. During the last half year, more than 1500 people from four sites spread around London have moved to Midland Road. Now all the research labs, support services, core facilities and administration have moved and we’re all located under a single brand-new roof in central London. This doesn’t mean that the transition is entirely finished, there is still some work going on at the old sites and it will be another few months until they are handed over to their new owners. But our Mill Hill passes were officially deactivated on December 23rd and emphasis is now shifting from migration and on to getting everything running normally again.

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Before and After

My lab’s move was both easier and more difficult than I was anticipating. As we were one of the last to move we benefited from watching everyone else move before us. This meant we knew what to expect and we were better prepared than some of the early movers. The major breakdown and pack-up of our Mill Hill lab was finished over an intensive few days. Everyone in the lab pitched in and it was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. It turned out to be a good exercise in building team spirit and allowed the organisation and motivational skills of several lab members to shine. The move company expertly and professionally handled the move itself and all of our equipment arrived on time, and mostly in the right place. Although microscopes are still being installed and tissue culture incubators commissioned, we were able to start molecular biology experiments within a week and activity was beginning to return to normal – before being interrupted for Christmas. All in all, it went more smoothly than I was expecting and resulted in a feeling of solidarity and goodwill within the lab.

What was more difficult and unexpected were the emotions associated with leaving Mill Hill. Being in the last phase of the move meant that most labs had left several weeks before us. The feeling of a building in decline and an awareness of an end of an era was very apparent. Having been in Mill Hill for sixteen years and knowing the history of the scientists and discoveries associated with the building, it was hard not feel a sense of loss on leaving for the last time. It’s also difficult not to worry whether our new home will be as supportive and good for us as Mill Hill has been. It’s still too early to tell what working in Midland Road will really be like and how well we will fit in. So despite the excitement about the new facilities, new colleagues and new opportunities, there is uncertainty about the future and the sentimentality for what used to be.

Fittingly, setting up the new lab coincides with the New Year, a good opportunity for new starts and turning over a new leaf. I’m looking forward to participating in and watching my lab as it re-establishes itself and settles in to the new environment. It will be interesting to see what stays the same and what changes – as a biologist interested in ideas from engineering, I see this as a good opportunity to test which features are robust to environmental perturbations and which are sensitive. More broadly, I’m curious to see how all the labs and facilities settle into the new building and how the culture and character of the institute reconfigures itself over the next months and years. The coming together of the groups from the two founding institutes – MRC-National Institute for Medical Research and the London Research Institute of CRUK – will make an interesting case study of how institutes merge and develop new scientific cultures. Not only that, but during the many years of planning for the Crick, detailed concepts and ideas were developed both for the design of the physical architecture of the building and also for how the institute will be organised and operated. I’m looking forward to seeing what works, what doesn’t; where we got things right and what we got wrong. As the military maxim goes, no plan survivesfirst contact with the enemy. I’m already intrigued to see how the labs that moved in a few months ago are adapting and altering spaces that the architects and builders left in pristine, clinical perfection. Some of the alterations are for practical reasons to make their science work but much of it reflects individual personalities and the desire of the occupants to make the labs their own. We’ll see how this extends to other aspects of institute culture and operation over the coming months and years. I’ll try to find the time to report my observations….

Oh and by the way, please note my new address: 1 Midland Road, London, NW1 1AT

Closing time

It’s now only a couple of weeks until my lab moves from our building in Mill Hill to the new Crick Institute on Midland Road. Over the last 4-5 months almost all of my colleagues have completed their moves and my group is left almost alone in the old NIMR building. The corridors, that were once full of people from early in the morning until late at night, feel cold and bare; at lunchtimes there’s just a handful of people in the canteen; and labs that used to be full of equipment are empty and deserted. Most significantly, the staff bar (fondly remembered by several generations of Mill Hill scientists) is no longer open. In many ways, being in the institute as it has emptied out and closed down will make leaving easier. There are few things more melancholy then watching the slow demise of a once bustling building and with this happening as autumn sets in and winter approaches it only accentuates the sense of an end of era.

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South from the roof of NIMR

The last few weeks have trigger some bouts of nostalgia and reminiscences. There are many things I will miss about Mill Hill. Looking out of the windows of my lab (on the top floor of the institute) we have spectacular views across North London. Looking South you can see the City and Canary Wharf. In recent years the Shard and the Walkie Talkie tower have become new features on the skyline. In the other direction, looking West, there is Wembley and in the far distance Heathrow. Our position, perched high on a hill, makes it one of the best spots in London to see fireworks. On Bonfire night we could climb out the windows to stand on the roof (which we would never do of course, since it was against safety rules) and see a panorama of half-a-dozen displays spread out before us, from the large professional one at Alexander Palace to the back garden and local sports club variety.

But what I remember most is the people that have been through the lab. There’s a well-known quote that you can never step in same river twice. Research labs definitely exemplify this. Students, post-docs, and often times research assistants too, come and go, only staying for a few years before moving on. If I think about the current members of my group, all have been in my lab less than 5 years and most have only 1 or 2 years experience of Mill Hill. As people leave the lab to further their careers, new members join. This means the lab is always in a dynamic equilibrium of constantly changing people, a situation that seems entirely fitting for a group studying biology. The continually varying makeup of labs has a significant effect on the culture of the work environment. Friends of mine who have successful careers in more conventional organisations get promoted into increasingly senior positions. On a day-to-day basis they mostly interact with people in the layers of organisation just above and below them in seniority. More often than not these people are of fairly similar ages and experience and increase as their careers progress. By contrast in a research lab, although I get older, most of the people in my group remain in their 20s and 30s. It makes for a refreshing and lively experience but I do wonder whether it puts me at risk of Peter Pan Syndrome, never really growing up.

A satisfying consequence of the constant turnover of people in the lab is that there is a diaspora of past lab-members spread across the world. From Japan to America, in faculty positions, post-docs or other professions ranging from journal editor to tech transfer manager there’s a growing number of people that have passed through the lab. Although I see and communicate regularly with many of them, my memories of most remain associated with Mill Hill and their time in the lab. I can recall specific discussions or particularly important lab meetings and I often think of a certain bench or desk as belonging to a certain person for a long time after they’ve left and someone new is occupying it. Our move out of Mill Hill will break these links and it will be a sad day for me when I finally leave. As Peter Pan said, “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”

 

Now Hiring

This week is a big week at The Crick. We have the official opening ceremony on Wednesday at which our new building will be shown off to visiting royals, dignitaries and the press. Then on Thursday, at midnight, applications close in our first round of group leader recruitment. Although this will happen with less pomp and pageantry then the festivities on Wednesday it is, to many of us, a much more significant event. Buildings – the laboratories, offices and facilities – are of course important for an institute. I’ve written in a previous blog about the thinking and effort that went to the design of our new building and I’m eager to move in. But, in the end, research institutes are people, not bricks and mortar. No matter how fancy or sophisticated a building, what determines whether an institute is a success or failure is the researchers who occupy it.

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That’s why I’m more excited about the group leader recruitment than I am about Wednesday’s formalities. Hiring new group leaders is always a complicated process and with this being the first recruitments at The Crick there’s added attention and pressure on us. We’re trying to find people with the potential to make substantial and significant contributions in their fields of research. They will need intelligence, creativity, ambition and a scientific plan. Indeed one of the long term aims of The Crick is to train and develop future science leaders. This is important, not least because when I think about the most successful research institutes around the world one of first things that comes to mind, second only to scientific discoveries, are the people that have trained there and what they’ve gone on to achieve. Making the right hiring decisions now is, I hope, the first step on this road for The Crick.

But there’s also a much more straightforward reason why I’m interested in the recruitment. Hiring new group leaders is an opportunity to find new colleagues with whom to interact and collaborate. The Crick, similar to the MRC-NIMR and LRI-CRUK – the two institutes that merged to form the Crick, is organised into small independent research groups. Each of us has our own programme of research but shares space and equipment with neighbouring groups. Having a new lab move in is a refreshing experience, bringing new people, new ideas and expertise. When I’m sitting in recruitment seminars and interviews I often find myself thinking what it would be like if this person was in the lab next to me. I’m looking for someone who will be collegiate, open and interactive. Someone who will make me think about a problem in a different way and broaden my knowledge. One of the hopes with this round of recruitment is that we can find people who will strengthen the institute’s interdisciplinarity as well as deepen our current areas of research. I’m looking forward to seeing who has applied and what they might bring to the institute.

It sometimes seems that the criteria we set out for new group leaders are so varied and demanding that no one will meet them. I remember my own search for a group leader position and wondering which if any of the requirements I satisfied. However, I’ve realised from experience that many of the skills can be learned along the way. Most of the group leaders I’ve seen develop successful careers have grown into the role rather than started fully formed. In the early years I relied on colleagues for advice on things such as managing people, when to apply for grants, how to attract students and post-docs. Gradually over time I picked up the skills and gained confidence. One of the advantages of an institute such as The Crick is that there is readily available peer support for new group leaders with plenty of people able to offer advice and to provide mentoring. This means that, for those of us already in The Crick, the real work starts once we’ve made our hiring decisions and the new people arrive. Now that construction is complete, we can start the crucial job of assembling and building the institute by recruiting and nurturing new group leaders.

 

Thoughts from 30,000 feet

It’s 10pm on a Saturday night as I write this and I’m on a flight from London to Boston. I’m heading to the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts where I will be spending the week teaching on an advanced study course, aimed at graduate students and post-docs in my field. I’ve participated in this course for the last five or so years and it’s something I’ve grown to look forward to every year [Link]. In part this is because I always find it stimulating and inspiring experience. Like all courses at Woods Hole it’s intense, the participants are always engaged and committed, they will pull all-nighters to work on their projects and then still want to ask questions and discuss details when you lecture the following morning.

On top of this, the other faculty who teach on the course are leaders in the field and spending a week with them catching up, discussing science, exchanging ideas is both motivating and enormously enjoyable. There’s something about the face to face social time that produces open discussion and leads to new ideas. The environment of Woods Hole is particularly good at encouraging this: we all stay in the same halls, eat together and spend most of our waking hours in each-others company. And because the course has a particular theme, it gives everyone a common focus. While electronic communication, whether email or Skype, is great for maintaining friendships and collaborations, it doesn’t come close to replacing this kind of interaction.

The other reason I look forward to returning to Woods Hole every year is because October is the perfect time to be visiting this part of the world. The summer season is over, the trees are on the turn and there’s a morning chill in the air. Many of the houses are holiday homes and these are shuttered for the winter, it all adds up to a dignified but austere look to the place.

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The trip reminds me what a great job I have that allows me to travel and see the world like this. It’s not the first or last trip I’ll make in a year that has taken me from India to LA and places in between. International travel wasn’t something I had realised would be a feature of a career in research. I hadn’t travelled much before leaving university and the opportunity to travel wasn’t mentioned when science careers were discussed in school – in fact I imagined a scientist’s career to be a lifetime spent in a lab working away in some corner of academe. Perhaps this has changed over my lifetime – today there seems to be a wider appreciation that research is an international endeavour. But I’m still not sure we highlight this aspect of research enough when we talk about career choices. This is a shame because it is something many people look for in a job and I can’t think of another career where it would have been so easy for me to visit so much of the world, live and work abroad and have friends and colleagues in so many places.

Of course there are downsides to this. The days of airline travel being glamorous, if they ever existed, are long gone. There are many evenings when I would happily swap a hotel room for the chance to spend the evening at home and in my own bed. And I know I would love for my best friends to live at the end of the road, rather than on another continent. But until we find a way of interacting with our fellow human beings that is as good as meeting them face to face, I am going to sit back, relax and look forward to spending a week in a beautiful part of the world.

The Three Billion Dollar Question

In the last few weeks, two technology companies have announced major investment in – and huge ambitions for- medical research. Microsoft hit the headlines with their proposal to “solve the problem of cancer” within ten years. Simultaneously the Chan-Zuckerberg foundation, led by the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his physician wife, Priscilla Chan, promised to invest $3 billion over ten years in basic research with the goal of helping cure, prevent and manage all diseases within their children’s lifetime. These are big, bold and ambitious goals – and seemingly large sums of money.

I’ve been reflecting on these announcements and what struck me was the amount of money being committed to these projects is similar to the research spend of my own institute, the Crick. The $3 billion pledged from the Chan- Zuckerberg foundation is certainly a headline grabbing number, but that amounts to $300m a year over the proposed ten years of the project. Compare that to our yearly budget of around £120 million, which equates to a little under $200 million per year, at current exchange rates. We too have an ambitious strategy [Read it here].

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Our aims include supporting research that will advance biomedical knowledge and clinical practice but we haven’t committed to curing, preventing disease or eradicating cancer within a specific timeframe. Instead our strategy focuses on advancing knowledge, ensuring that new understanding is used to improve health and wealth, and training future generations of scientists to continue the process. So is our strategy too modest? By not promising to make the lame walk or revive the dead, are we setting our sights too low?

I don’t think so, because biology poses fundamentally different challenges from the ones engineers and technology companies are generally used to dealing with. Firstly, many health and medical problems are not simply about the lack of a technical, therapeutic solutions. Many are inextricably linked to economic and societal problems. At their root is often poverty and disadvantage. In the developing world this is perhaps most obvious. Modern drugs are expensive, often involve extended courses of treatment, preventative measures require concerted government action, vaccines need refrigeration and so on. These are difficult to provide in poor countries where government and public institutions are weak. In rich countries, inequalities in wealth result in health problems concentrating in disadvantaged sectors of society. Smoking and obesity rates, major contributors to poor health, are highest in lower income groups resulting in a striking gradient of life expectancy, with the richer living substantially longer and in better health than the poorer. Investing in medical research won’t change this.

Secondly, biology has the habit of fighting against anything we try to do. Twenty years ago, when I was a graduate student, there was much excitement about designer drugs, principally kinase inhibitors, directly targeting the cause of specific cancers. There has certainly been significant progress in this area and notable successes. But in many cases these only provide limited periods of remission before evading mutations arise, allowing the tumour to resume its relentless course. Indeed studying the effect of these natural selection-like events in tumours has become a fruitful research field and new understanding has the potential to offer insight into how to design better therapeutic regimes. Likewise, the rise of antimicrobial resistance offers a salutary lesson on how evolution can make powerless previously potent therapies. These examples, and many more, mean that the biomedical researchers have learnt to respect the ability of biology to confound even our smartest and most dedicated efforts. Natural selection is a powerful and inescapable force, it is insidious and inexorable. This may be difficult to appreciate if you come from an engineering field where technology has progressed amazingly rapidly, and where any problem encountered can be overcome with imagination and enough computing power. However, technology problems tend not to fight back. In biological systems, evolution generates feedback that leads to complexity, resulting in the whole being greater, and much more difficult to understand, than the sum of the parts. Problems are never permanently solved. At best you win the battle and learn to fight the next one a little better.

Office surprise

I’ve started preparing for my move from Mill Hill to Midland Road (this is the street address and the name used in-house to refer to the new Crick building). One of the tasks I’ve been doing is clearing out my office: identifying the things that need to move with me, boxing up items I want to archive and disposing of accumulated detritus. Unsurprisingly, the last category is the largest. It’s taken me longer than I expected. I don’t have a big office – it can accommodate three people for a meeting, as long as everyone knows each other pretty well and we agree the order that people want to enter and exit the office before we start. Nevertheless it has a lot of shelves and I seem to have collected a lot of stuff over the last 15 years, much of which I’d forgotten about until it was rediscovered  in a box file, or under a pile of other bits and pieces. I found several Secret Santa presents that I’d be given over the years, these includehedgehogd a small cuddly toy in the shape of a hedgehog, a coffee mug with a hedgehog on it and a box that had contained a cupcake shaped like a hedgehog – apparently I’m either very easy or very difficult to buy for. In addition, I found boxes of CDs, DVDs, 3.5” hard disks, Jaz drives and various other now obsolete data storage formats. I’m sure there are several papers’ worth of results on these, if only we still had the means to read them. There was also a whole shelf of reprints of papers I’ve authored, spanning from 1993 until sometime in the mid 2000s, which was the point I decided that, since no one requested reprints anymore, I would stop ordering them. Like 3.5” hard disks, reprints feel like historic objects, I’m fairly certain the graduate students in my lab, more used to reading a paper on their phone than in an actual journal, wouldn’t know what they were or why they were used.

Another reason for the large quantity of stuff cluttering up my office is that when I joined NIMR I brought notes, data and assorted files with me from both my PhD and post-doc. And part of the reason it has taken longer than I expected to clear my office is that I’ve been distracted by looking through these and reminiscing. One of the things I found was a yellowing fax containing the referees’ comments for the first paper on which I was an author. Back in the day, before online manuscript handling systems and emailed notifications, editorial decisions and referees comments used to arrive on the office fax, which in my case was shared between half-a-dozen labs on the same floor. Whoever happened to be in the office when the fax arrived would bring it through to the relevant lab, after having had a quick read. Consequently the good or bad news would spread quickly around the floor. I remember very clearly getting this particular fax. I also very clearly remember the day, about six months before, when we got the initial experimental results that led to the paper. At the time, I was a fairly new graduate student and was working closely with an experienced post-doc. We were trying to identify a gene with a particular function, by testing a set of what we thought were likely candidates. This involved exposing the experimental assay to photographic film, then developing the film to see if we could detect a positive signal. (I still have some of these photographic films in one of the boxfiles I found on a top shelf.) To get a good signal on the film we usually had to wait overnight, but we were always impatient, so our routine was to set up the experiment in the evening, go to the pub for an hour to two then come back and develop the film. If the film was held up to the light at just the right angle you could get a hint of whether the result was going to be positive or negative. We would then re-expose the experiment and confirm the result the next day. After a few weeks of doing this and getting only negative results I was becoming somewhat disillusioned.  Neverless although I was tempted to stay in the pub that evening, I was conscientious enough to go back to the lab and develop the film. I remember angling the film to the fluorescent strip light, squinting at it, expecting another negative result and seeing the unmistakable smudge of a positive signal. I was elated. I don’t remember if we went back to the pub or not that night, but I do remember developing the experiment again the next day and seeing the clear and distinct positive signal.

It was the first time I had experienced that ‘Aha’ feeling of seeing a result and knowing it explained something that hadn’t been known before. I’ve heard this called a ‘dopamine moment’ to describe the pleasure and excitement generated in the brain. It was certainly memorable and it motivated an intense few months of further experiments that culminated in the faxed referees’ comments from the journal editor. There have been a few similarly exciting results in the subsequent 20 years. Unfortunately, they are rarer than I’d like, but then again, if they were more frequent I guess they wouldn’t be so enjoyable. These days they don’t come from peering at underdeveloped films but more likely from a graph of data plotted on my screen, or someone sticking their head around the office door and saying “I think I’ve got an interesting result….”. And now, with the date of our move getting closer and our attention increasingly focused on the practicalities of packing up and relocating, I’m looking forward to the first dopamine moment in Midland Road. I hope its not too long in the future.