Project Teams are bringing together complementary research interests and capabilities to address experimentally challenging questions in neuroscience.
A major unsolved problem in biology is to understand how nervous systems store and process information. The brain is the most complex operational collection of molecules that we currently know. Researchers at Janelia are attempting to unravel the function of the brain, betting that its operational principles are largely conserved during evolution and thus can be discovered by studying genetically tractable organisms such as mice and flies. This is a huge undertaking requiring novel approaches and large-scale efforts that are unlikely to be applied in any single laboratory. We are also pursuing projects focused on developing the novel imaging and image analysis methods that will be needed to fully explore and characterize complex biological systems.
In the Fall of 2008 the Janelia Project Teams concept was born and a few months later the first three team projects, focused on studying neuroanatomy, function, and behavior of the fruitfly, were launched. Think large-scale neuroscience or cell biology with a genome science flavor. We currently have six ongoing projects and a staff of ~50 people, with studies building on the initial fly projects to apply similar tools to the mouse brain develop better genetically encoded neural activity indicators and effectors (GENIE), study molecular interactions in single cells (Transcription Imaging Consortium), and characterize gene expression in functionally-distinct cell types (Neuroseq).
Each project is rooted in scientific discovery and technical proof-of-principle arising from Janelia laboratories and the Janelia visiting scientist program. For example, the development of GCaMP3 in Loren Looger’s laboratory provided the starting point and proof of concept for the GENIE project. The scale and organization of Project Teams create a management challenge different from those of a traditional laboratory environment. A successful project team requires a larger scale operation, close scientific collaboration, and communication across diverse scientific disciplines. We have structured the Project Teams like small start-up companies within Janelia and created a management team structure for implementing projects on a larger scale. Project scientists implement the overall scientific plans for the projects, implement technology and protocol improvements, and supervise a staff of researchers who carry out the experiments. Each project has a steering committee (equivalent to a combined board of directors and scientific advisory committee) to help lead the projects. The Janelia lab heads who make up these committees supply additional resources to the projects in the form of intellectual capital and direct laboratory effort. It is not uncommon for postdoctoral fellows or other staff from the labs of steering committee members to work directly on project goals. In many cases, there are no hard boundaries between an individual Janelia lab’s research and the work of the project team; they combine in productive ways for maximum scientific impact.
Reaching scientific goals like those addressed by our team projects requires a diverse skill set from many sciences and close collaboration, attributes that are difficult to achieve in an academic setting. Much of our research asks fundamental questions about how healthy nervous systems develop and function, making it unattractive for for-profit enterprises. Janelia Research Campus is employing unconventional strategies, including team science, to fill this gap.