Tomorrow, Cornell will hold the dedication ceremony for Weill Hall — the $162 million addition to the biology quad. At 265,000 square feet, with space for up to 500 researchers and a two-acre basement, the four-story, gleaming white building designed by architect Richard Meier ’57 is now one of the largest life science research facilities in the state, according to the University.
Weill Hall represents a major milestone within Cornell’s New Life Sciences Initiative (NLSI). The building provides access to state of the art research labs, conferences rooms and a new business development center. It houses the recently established Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, miomedical engineering (BME), and select faculty from biological statistics, computational biology, and nutritional sciences. Weill was established to emphasize interdisciplinary collaboration, and as Prof. Scott Emr, director of the Weill Institute states, “it's designed in a very open way to enhance communication between scientists and professors.”
Previously, the BME department was scattered across at least seven different buildings on campus. Weill will allow them to come together as a department, with full access to previously unavailable state of the art technology. One example of this is the new undergraduate teaching lab, which serves five of the six BME undergraduate courses. Prof. Michael Shuler, director of BME, said he would “argue that it is quite possible that the undergraduate laboratory is the best in the country.”
The department is dedicated to understanding “how molecules affect cells, cells affect organs and tissues, how organs and tissues affect physiological systems, and to be able to cross those scales in a quantitative way,” said Shuler. Also, being in Weill offers them the opportunity to further serve as the “intellectual link between the physical sciences, engineering, basic biology, and medical sciences.”
Weill also serves as the home for the recently established Weill Institute, which focuses on research involving cell signaling and regulation. Emr heads the institute, which currently contains six faculty members, four of whom were recently hired. Prof. Marcus Smolka, Weill Institute, was previously working in a cancer institute in San Diego with Emr, and left for Cornell when Emr began recruiting for the institute. Prof. Chris Fromme, Weill Institute, also joined the institute after Emr recruited him.
The institute’s research projects range from studying proteins in signaling pathways in yeast to cellular structure. With an emphasis on collaboration, each of the faculty members of the institute specializes in a different area. The group currently aims to hire two computational biologists.
A Center for Collaboration
The planning for Weill began roughly ten years ago. The building would serve as both a physical and intellectual nexus for previously scattered departments in the life sciences. Throughout the country, collaboration across fields has accelerated research in the life sciences. At Cornell the movement began with the Genomic initiative. University faculty and administration collaborated on how they could advance research in the life sciences. They discussed the implications of the life sciences and how Cornell could effectively teach the sciences in the 21st century. In 2002 this spawned the NLSI.
Continuing the goals of the Genomics Initiative, the NLSI seeks to build strength in fundamental biology at Cornell through integration of fields, to recruit and finance talented individuals with interdisciplinary interests from undergraduates to faculty, and to provide core facilities with the latest technology. According to the University, the NLSI is a $650 million investment.
Weill’s design attempts to foster such collaboration. Weill labs feature long, open rooms with shared equipment and flexible walls. Each floor has a lounge and conference room, encouraging scientists to converse. “It’s just a comfortable place to talk about science,” Emr said. Weill’s cafeteria was strategically located at the center of the biology quad, and Weill connects to other buildings such as the Biotechnology Building by underground tunnels.
“[Weill] offers an opportunity to strengthen these types of collaborations and linkages,” said Schuler. “One of the things that this building does have is really, probably the best lecture rooms on campus, in terms of the ability to do video casting, electronic casting, with other locations, for example, the medical school.
“We’ve been having two retreats a year with people from the department of surgery from the medical school. The next retreat, we’ll try to do electronically, using the lecture room [in Weill] and the room down at the medical college.”
Fromme has already started collaboration with a post doctoral in Emr’s lab.
A faculty hire himself under the Genomics Initiative, Prof. Stephen Kresovich became Vice Provost for Life Sciences in 2005. In this position he has promoted and administered the New Life Sciences Initiative. Cornell’s emphasis on collaboration, core facilities and advanced technology has proven beneficial to Kresovich’s research in comparative and population genetics of sorghum and maize. His work involves understanding and characterizing the diversity in a grain’s genome and how regions of chromosomes change under different selective pressures and how they relate to phenotypes — the observable attributes of an organism.
Kresovich sees the initiative as a “grand experiment” to be evaluated 20 to 30 years in the future. He thinks Weill will act as a catalyst in this initiative. However, he said “the community needs to strategize on how to use that building.”
In Kresovich’s opinion, the breadth of Weill’s capabilities and the link it fosters between the life, physical and computational sciences makes the building stand apart from those of other academic institutions. Beyond its role as an intellectual center, he commended Weill’s aesthetics. Opening Meier’s website, Kresovich scrolled through several of the architect’s other buildings, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Weill Hall is the first lab building he has designed. “Everyone should find a reason to go into the building,” Kresovich said.
When asked about the future of the New Life Sciences Initiative, Kresovich replied, grinning, “Always plans,” and proceeded to read a sizeable list of ideas from a book marked confidential that he hopes will “build the future of life sciences across six colleges that do life sciences in a high quality fashion.”
The Tools of the Trade
In addition to new researchers, the Weill Hall website boasts “state of the art” equipment, shared among multiple labs. The researchers of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology will use these tools to image cells and study protein structure.
The ImageXpress Automated Acquisition and Analysis System, funded by the Weill Institute, analyzes the shapes and structures, or morphology, of cells and locates certain proteins within the cell. This machine will be placed in the lab of Fenghua Hu, a recently hired research scientist at Weill Institute. Hu, who studies the regeneration and degeneration of nerve cells, will use the ImageXpress machine to understand protein localization within axons— the part of neurons that transmit electrical impulses from one cell to another.
Another tool being used to study the morphology of cells is the spinning disk confocal microscope. Unlike other light microscopes, which flood the entire specimen with light before capturing an image, the spinning disk confocal microscope creates an image of its specimen by scanning it with light one point at a time. This use of “point illumination” creates a much more focused image of the specimen.
In addition to this microscope, an entire room with five high-powered microscopes, managed by the biomedical engineering department, will be placed in the basement of Weill. According to the University, this room has been built with a vibration-resistant floor, in order to prevent vibrations from interfering with the work of the sensitive imaging equipment.
Fromme and Prof. Yuxin Mao, Weill Institue, use protein X-ray crystallography to study protein structure. In the X-ray crystallography technique, scientists shoot beams of X-rays through a solidified, regular array of proteins: a crystal. As the X-rays pass through the crystal, they are deflected by the atoms, and this pattern of deflection helps scientists determine the arrangement of atoms or molecules within the crystal. A clear pattern of deflection relies on a large, extremely well ordered crystal; however, creating an ordered protein crystal that does not fall apart is difficult, since the bonds that hold these extremely large molecules in a crystal are often very weak.
The Phoenix Liquid Handling System, funded by Weill Institute, is a robot that automates the process of protein crystallization and is much more efficient in creating stable protein crystals. This machine is now in Fromme’s lab, and will primarily be used by Fromme and Mao, who both study the structure of proteins involved in cell signaling pathways — a cascade of molecular activations that allow messages to travel from the cell’s surface to the nucleus within to signal transcription.
A mass spectrometer machine will be used in the lab of Prof. Marcus Smolka, Weill Institute. This machine accelerates particles through a magnetic field, and calculates their mass and charge based on how far they are deflected from their original trajectories. If the particles are very heavy, the magnetic force will not be able to push them very far. On the other hand, if the particles are very light, the force will push them extremely far off their course. If the scientist knows the mass and the charge of the substance, they can determine its chemical composition, because mass and charge are identifying characteristics of molecules and atoms. Smolka uses this technique to study protein phosphorylation, where a small molecule containing phosphorous and oxygen is added to a protein in order to activate it.
Funding Weill Hall
Much of Weill Hall’s $162 million in funding came from private individual donations and from the State of New York. The single largest contribution came from Sanford Weill ’55 and his wife Joan, the building and its flagship institute’s namesake.
According to Kresovich, no companies or interest groups have funded the effort. “The University as whole including the Weill Institutions wants transparency in funding. Of course people want you to do great research and educate people, but we must do so in a fashion that’s ethical and consistent with vision of the university,” he said.
Major funding sources for research projects in Weill include the National Institute of Health, the Department of Energy, and philanthropic foundations associated with biomedical research.
The State University of New York (SUNY) recently experienced a $70 million budget cut, impacting many areas of research in the life sciences throughout the state and here at Cornell. How deeply Weill Hall will be impacted by this cut remains uncertain. “We’re all concerned about the SUNY schools. There are faculty members in the building associated with SUNY schools, people in the Weill Institute — everybody is impacted,” said Kresovich. “We’re optimistic. We’ve recruited a great group of people. Everyone going into Weill is fairly new and they’re all really great scientists who are really aggressive in competing for funding and we expect to do well.”
— Chris Bentley, Elizabeth Manapsal and A. Drew Muscente contributed reporting