At Yale Science Building, a move-in as big as the research to come
Anna Marie Pyle may not wield a nail gun or run a crane, but she’s painstakingly followed the progress of nearly every girder and glass panel for her laboratory’s new home just the same.
It’s been a captivating process to watch, she says, and now she and hundreds of Yale researchers and students are poised to generate a tsunami of new science from the cutting-edge facilities at the Yale Science Building (YSB). Located in the footprint of the former J.W. Gibbs Laboratory building on Science Hill, YSB offers faculty and students seven stories and 280,300 square feet of newly finished space in which to answer some of the most important scientific questions of the 21st century.
But first the researchers have to get into the place — prompting the Great Yale Science Building Move-In of 2019.
It has gone on for nearly a month already. Old labs are being decommissioned; new labs are powering up; ongoing experiments are being carefully tweaked so they can be paused and resumed later.
“It represents the first time in the basic biosciences that we have state-of-the-art facilities for all of our faculty, with the express purpose of making breakthroughs for decades to come in a space that is reliable and innovative,” said Pyle, Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and chair of the YSB building committee. “We’ll have a critical mass of people who share the same research tools and interests, which will lead to better science.”
A tour of YSB — mid-move — highlights both the daunting logistics involved in getting the building up to speed and the monumental scientific potential baked into the building’s design.
New neighbors — and more of them
Construction of YSB began in 2017, after the demolition of Gibbs. Its high-tech interiors and structural features are the design work of the firm Stantec, located in Hamden, Conn.; architectural icon Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects of New Haven designed the façade and public spaces.
Among the many features of the building are its cryo-electron microscopy suite, an insectary, greenhouses, growth chambers for plants and tissue culture, and a nearly 500-seat lecture hall. Outside the building, a new pavilion outfitted for food services, along with landscaped terraces and seating areas, connect YSB with other nearby Science Hill facilities. YSB will be home to the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB), as well as part of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, the Quantitative Biology Institute, and certain physics labs.
“It’s great to have new neighbors, and more of them,” said Vivian Irish, professor and chair of MCDB and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology — and the first scientist to move her lab into the new building. “Science is intensely social, with people sharing ideas and collaborating.”
Irish and her seven-person team are on the fourth floor at YSB. Nearly three weeks after the initial move, they were still getting their bearings while also starting up their experiments, which are focused on the genetic mechanisms of plant development.
A whiteboard in the hallway outside Irish’s office lists items still to be sorted through: temperature controls, cabinets, lights that need to be moved, blackout curtains to be installed before the microscopes are unpacked, shelving, trash cans. But a spirit of momentum also prevails, as evidenced by the “Welcome! Plants Rule!” message that greets visitors.
Down the hall, beyond a set of extra doors, is a series of specialized labs and equipment rooms that many of the researchers will use. Technicians continue to install, calibrate, and prepare some of the tech, including conducting a “burn-in” of lighting in the growth chambers and “reach-in” rooms where experiments will occur.
“The spaces for growing plants are fantastic,” Irish said. “Before, they were scattered around Science Hill — upstairs, downstairs in the basement, in other buildings. This is really a culture shift for us.”
She turns a corner near an elevator, where there is a couch, chair, and a TV screen. “That wasn’t here yesterday,” Irish said. “Things just keep showing up.”
Getting a move on
Similar scenes play out on every floor.
On the third floor, Multi-Tech Services Company technician Gene Frolich is helping to install centrifuges in one lab, while other technicians about 30 feet away are installing a chemical synthesizer to be used for research on RNA and DNA.
Nearby, research specialist Olga Fedorova and research associate Sarah Fergione are unpacking supplies and setting up workstations at lab benches in the Anna Marie Pyle lab. “We’re on schedule,” Fedorova said cheerfully. “It’s actually been pretty efficient. People in our lab packed themselves up as much as they could in advance.”
On the concourse level, workers have carefully placed a selection of specimens from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History — including a triceratops skull, a pteranodon in a glass case, and a xiphactinus hanging from the ceiling — in the lobby of the O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall.
Inside the lecture hall, up in the glassed-in booth at the back of the room, a technician is putting finishing touches on the lecture hall’s sophisticated AV system. “I’m configuring components,” he explained. His to-do list includes everything from the keyboard and mouse control for the podium to elements of the tracking system for the edge-blended projection screens. The lecture hall also has videoconferencing capabilities and a full cinema system with surround sound.
This level also features the computational dry lab workstations and adjacent wet bench labs of the Quantitative Biology Institute and atomic molecular optical physics lab.
YSB is designed with sustainability in mind, as well, according to Yale officials. The building has an energy-use target that is 50% lower than the average for a Yale laboratory. It utilizes chilled beam technology, a tightly regulated ventilation system, comfort zones that are relaxed when spaces are not occupied, and a higher level of automation that will be monitored for performance. Each occupant at YSB will receive links to a video, webpage, and user manuals regarding YSB’s sustainability features.
One of the more serene spots on the site is the Schamis Terrace that looks out to Whitney Avenue. The terrace, which already has hosted a number of visitors, has planter boxes with small trees and other plantings, and long wooden benches.
On the fourth floor, postdoctoral associates Qingqing Wang and Wei Liu are doing some science amid the hubbub. Both are working at their lab benches, where Wang is closely examining a tray of tiny Arabidopsis plants. Wang and Liu work in the lab of MCDB assistant professor Joshua Gendron.
“We still need a cabinet to be fixed, but I started a simple experiment today,” Liu said, as he steps over to a protein and DNA imager, so as not to disturb Wang. “I like this place. The most exciting part for me is that we’ll all be together, sharing things and discussing things.”
Inspiration by design
Faculty members say it is this casual co-mingling of colleagues that is YSB’s secret strength. They say it will spark insights and innovation that ultimately make their way into scientific breakthroughs.
For example, Pyle’s lab will be next to the lab of Ron Breaker, a Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology whose research looks at the functionality of RNA molecules — which relates to Pyle’s research focus. Down the hall will be Yong Xiong, whose lab investigates cellular DNA repair pathways and does structural and biochemical studies of HIV suppression by host antiviral factors and viral immune evasion.
“We’re all structural biologists. For me, that means we’ll all be bumping into each other at lunch and sharing ideas,” Pyle said. “All of our tools will be right at hand and there will be a flow of people through the building from other departments.”
Irish noted that YSB’s labs are designed as open labs, to allow for a greater interaction among scientists. There are more common spaces throughout the building, as well.
“I’m already seeing it play out,” she said. “We’re starting to have our meetings in this building, and even at impromptu events more people are attending and brainstorming. And, of course, Josh (Gendron) comes by every afternoon with M&Ms for a daily science chat.
“I had a colleague from the University of Wisconsin visit earlier this week,” Irish added. “He was just drooling over all the capabilities we now have here.”