Typically, newly-minted Ph.D.s casting about for a postdoc position find the best advisor they can, then pick up a project in his or her lab, pad the resume with a couple of publications, and move on to the next postdoc or a permanent position. It's a perfectly sensible strategy that has served many people well.
Don't call Julie H. Simpson (pictured left) sensible. When she left Berkeley with a Ph.D. in genetics, she had her own idea--she wanted to develop a library of fruit fly lines that would allow her to map specific behaviors to disruptions in subsets of the animal's neural network. She would use a transcription factor to activate or block neural activity in different subsets of neurons, then observe behavioral changes in the adult flies. Membrane-targeted green fluorescent protein would allow her to use imaging to track the physical location of the neuron subsets.
The idea received rave reviews from potential postdoctoral mentors, but it had one serious shortcoming--it would take years to pay off because she would have to build the library and develop the tools to produce it herself. There would be few publications in the meantime, and that can be a death knell for early-career scientists.
Simpson began her postdoc with Barry Ganetzky, professor of medical genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 2002 and has spent the past three years developing her project. But she was spared the pain of trying to find an academic position without any new publications. Through colleagues, she began to hear talk of a new research facility called Janelia Farm, being developed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Neural circuits were rumored to be one of the topics of focus. "I was crossing my fingers," Simpson recalls. It proved to be a perfect match. In June, Simpson was named one of seven group leaders at the facility, which will open its doors in Loudoun County, Virginia, in the summer of 2006.
The ambitious project paid off for Simpson, but is such a long-range research project right for every postdoc? Probably not -- or at least that's Ganetzky's opinion. "I'm not sure I would in every instance advise a postdoc to embark on that path. Sometimes, it's better to wait until you have a more secure position to tackle a project like that. But Julie didn't ask for my advice. Under those circumstances, my role was not to tell her she was crazy for doing it, but provide the best input I could to help her achieve her goals," he says.
The Farm System
Janelia Farm will be a research facility dedicated to basic medical science. Initially, it will have two core research agendas: the study of how information is processed in neuronal circuits, and the development of imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis. Scheduled to be at full capacity in the fall of 2009, Janelia Farm is slated to have 24 group leaders--each overseeing two to six researchers--and other scientific fellows for a total of about 180 working scientists, as well as up to 100 visiting scientists.
The facility complements the HHMI Investigators program. The Institute was charged with funding innovative, long-range research, but HHMI Investigators in traditional academic settings often feel pressures that steer them toward conservative paths, says Gerry Rubin, who is vice president of HHMI and the director of Janelia Farm. "They're worried about tenure, about getting promoted. They might say: 'My Hughes grant lets me do something innovative and hot, but maybe my department won't promote me without a lot of publications.'" Janelia Farm addresses that by funding all research internally, with the expectation that all research will be cross-disciplinary and innovative.
HHMI Investigators face another problem: innovative research programs are usually cross-disciplinary in nature, and universities are notoriously difficult environments in which to pursue cross-disciplinary projects. The problem again stems from evaluations. Administrators often want to know who was the driving force behind a collaboration. "That tends to send a message, and the message is: if you are early in your career and you want to succeed in that environment, don't collaborate with senior colleagues or one another," says Rubin.
Janelia Farm is designed for cross-disciplinary research--in fact, it almost mandates it. It will have no departments and no tenure. When it comes time for evaluations at the end of the 6-year term, group leaders will undergo a review to determine eligibility for continued funding, during which they will be rewarded for having helped other researchers with their work "even if it didn't lead to their name on a paper," Rubin says.
A Culture of Teamwork
Janelia Farm's lack of concern over publications made it a perfect match for Simpson. She regards herself as lucky, having made a leap of faith that her ambitious project would pay off in the long run. Her idea grew out of her graduate work with Corey Goodman at Berkeley, in which she studied neuronal wiring in fruit fly embryos. She found the networks to be carefully wired, and defects, when they occurred, were sometimes quite subtle. She began to wonder what impact these defects might have on the behavior of flies when they reached adulthood.
To investigate the question, she decided that she would map the neural circuit responsible for motor control to subsets of neurons. She would observe them for behavior abnormalities. She would then use microscopic imaging to pinpoint the involved subset of neurons--a feat she would make possible by using a fluorescent protein as a marker during the generation of the mutants.
Simpson laid much of the groundwork during her postdoc with Ganetzky but, as predicted, she had no publications to show for it. Just as she was thinking about looking for a job, she found out about Janelia Farm. She applied and was invited, along with 13 other candidates, to give a seminar and answer questions about her proposed research.
The audience included prominent HHMI fellows, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and six Nobel laureates. "She could defend her ideas. She did well under questioning," Rubin recalls. She did so well, in fact, that she was the youngest of the seven group leaders hired, and the only one of eight postdocs in the invited group to receive an offer.
Simpson struggled to decide between Janelia Farm and pursuing a more traditional academic position. In the end, it was the Farm's devotion to collaboration that swayed her. She recalls frequent conversations at Berkeley with a member of her department she ran into at a nearby coffee shop. "We had great discussions about techniques and stuff that was tangential to our research. Janelia has that built into the culture," Simpson says.
As unusual as it sounds if you're coming from academia, Janelia Farm's culture isn't really new. Rubin likens it to Bell Labs in its prime and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge--regarded as the most successful ventures in solid state physics and molecular biology research, respectively. "It's the same rules--no outside funding, no lifetime tenure. These models have worked before, but only if you provide the money internally," says Rubin. Bell Labs and Cambridge Laboratory live on, but they have changed their models--Bell was forced to add outside funding when it lost its telephone monopoly in the 1980s, and Cambridge added tenure, along with other administrative changes. "We had an opportunity to do something we thought to be of value," says Rubin, "to [resuscitate] a proven model that had gone away."
Like those programs, Janelia will be stocked with unusual people, and Rubin thinks that Simpson's intellectual courage makes her a perfect match. In choosing a postdoctoral project that would likely produce no publications, "she said: 'If there are some consequences and it's a hassle to get a job, I'm willing to take those consequences to do what I want to do.' That's the sort of personality type that will be attracted to Janelia Farm and thrive there," says Rubin.