The Red Nessie: My visit to Janelia Farms

After following directions like “right on Helix drive, then right on Scientific lane,” one can surely expect to arrive at a scientific paradise. Stashed away in almost the countryside of Virginia like a well-kept secret, Janelia Farms, a campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is indeed a paradise for science. Entering the guarded premise evokes a heavy feeling of privilege and responsibility, given the security-operated large doors that ensure selective entry into the 689-acre compound, somewhat like an exclusive club open only to a few.

The main building is juxtaposed with a serene lake and tiny waterfalls flowing through smooth boulders, conjuring the tranquility of an English garden. On the other side of the lake sits an enigmatic sinusoidal scarlet sculpture. At night, the sculpture glows softly like a fiery dragon flowing seamlessly in the dusky skies, with its reflection flickering in the dark water of the lake, like the dragon’s beating heart. The place seems most fitting to write a sequel to Walden.

Adding to the awe, the main building appears to be made entirely of glass, and being in it feels like being in a giant snow globe. “Each piece of glass is custom-made in Belgium and comes with its own bar code,” I am told, as I get escorted inside the building. The glass windows allow visual access to the scarlet sculpture outside, as well as to contiguous lab space inside, spread across the building’s three floors, literally representing the transparency and collaborative nature of the science that happens at Janelia Farms. The generated knowledge is allowed to flow unobstructed like a brackish breeze emanating from a vast ocean, bathing everyone and everything it contacts- no walls, no barriers.

I am at Janelia Farms for a job interview, which starts with a presentation of my PhD work in a conference room called Photon. Other rooms in the building also have similar names such as Electron, Neutron, consistent with the overarching theme of the institute- uninhibited and uninterrupted immersion in science. This theme is also evident in the abundance of television screens in the hallways, constantly displaying various images and movies of the multitude of biological processes researched at Janelia Farms.

I am given a tour of the extensive fruit fly facility where hundreds of strains of transgenic flies are transferred from old vials to fresh ones by three of the six robots in the world, designed specifically to do this job, an innovation I can truly appreciate, having spent hundreds of laborious hours manually performing the same task as an undergraduate lab aide at UMASS, Amherst.

During my visit, I am most star-struck from my meeting with physicist Eric Betzig, a technical wizard, who specializes in building cutting-edge microscopes that allow visualization of dynamic biological events, intractable to microscopy until only recently. Dr. Betzig’s office is a stereotypical genius mayhem, with piles of scientific papers on the couch, on the floor, books everywhere, even more piles of papers tossed on the desk, and a plate of tossed salad sitting on top of a relatively shorter pile of papers. It is lunchtime. “Let’s go to the conference room next door,” Dr. Betzig suggests, looking around his office. I concede with a smile and follow his lead.

As we sit, I cannot help but be captivated again by the sculpture outside, getting gently dusted by some light snow, visible from the large glass wall of the conference room. This moment of captivation is broken however, by another, and arguably superior, work of art. On his thick and hefty, 17 inch, orange Dell, Dr. Betzig shares amazing movies of fluorescent cytoskeletal spikes dynamically located on the surface of cancer cells, made using a novel technique called Bessel beam plane illumination microscopy or movies of dividing bacterial cells using photo-activated localized microscopy, also called PALM, invented a few years ago by his own group. We later walk to Dr. Betzig’s laboratory, where he shows me the latest microscope his post-doc has been working on. Not just your run of the mill microscope, this instrument appears more to be a pegboard with various shaped knobs and blocks sticking out of it, a masterful sculpture in its own right.

The busy day of multiple interviews concludes with a dinner at Bob’s pub, a café/ bar/ hangout spot located on the first floor of the building, serving gourmet food and drinks all day long. As we discuss over wine and cheese, conferences, music, lab, papers and other topics related to the lives of passionate scientists, I come closer to understanding the promise of the potential of collective intelligence, given unlimited resources, modern infrastructure and financial freedom. When I look outside, I notice the scarlet sculpture, now even more effulgent against the setting sun, perhaps depicting the fire within the heart of every scientist diligently striving to understand the origins of life. I later discover that the sculpture is of a Nessie, a cryptid aquatic snake-like creature, that reveals only part of his body above water, but has an equally elaborate invisible part immersed in the water, waiting patiently to be discovered.