As our portfolio has grown, so has our process for nurturing an idea into a game-changing resource. Each project is rooted in scientific discovery and technical proof-of-principle arising from Janelia laboratories or the Janelia Visitor Program. For example, the development of GCaMP3 in Loren Looger’s laboratory provided the starting point and intellectual seed for the GENIE project. Once there is sufficient multi-lab interest and the technical feasibility of an approach has sufficient justification, we will provide funds to transition the effort from an individual lab to a Small Project. These efforts can continue for up to three years, if the products of the project are attainable in this time period, with the limited resources that a Small Project provides. The Fly Descending Interneuron and Larval Olympiad Projects are examples of this approach.
Some Small Projects successfully incubate in this stage for several years, indicating promise with additional time to perfect a technology or process. MouseLight is an example of a project that remained in the incubator phase to optimize the microscope and data pipelines and has recently expanded to a Large Project. At any given time, we have a number of Smaller Projects that may scale up once the techniques have matured. One current example is the Fly Functional Connectome Project, led by Allan Wong, whose aim is to use optogenetics to excite neurons and trace the postsynaptic targets across the majority of the fly brain.
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, with a management team structure for successfully scaling this work while promoting collaboration. Program and Project scientists implement the overall scientific plans for the projects, facilitate 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 set the scientific direction.
Janelia Lab Heads who participate on 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, the connections between Labs and Project Teams are porous, with individuals combining in productive ways for maximum scientific impact.
Together, our teams pose some of biology’s most fundamental questions. How do healthy nervous systems develop? How do they function? To find the answers, we need diverse skill sets from many sciences, close collaboration, and patience – a combination that’s difficult to find in conventional academic or commercial settings. At Janelia, we bring a purposeful philosophy and structure to the pursuit of team science – generating results that benefit the broader research community.