Building collaboration

Stanford’s Clark Center began a trend of creating spaces where collaboration can flourish.

An open layout and exposed walkways make it easy for residents of Stanford's Clark Center to interact and collaborate.
Video Credit Eric Koziol

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In 2003 when the new biosciences research building, the James H. Clark Center, opened on the Stanford campus, it was with much fanfare about the building’s open architecture and unusual mix of disciplines represented within. Unlike traditional research buildings that keep disciplines separate, this building was intended to inspire chance encounters between residents from a mix of disciplines and allow creative science to flourish.

It was also quite a gamble.

“It was not obvious that it was going to work,” says Matthew Scott, then director of Stanford Bio-X, the interdisciplinary institute for which the building would serve as a hub.

Map showing the Clark Center building between Medicine, Sciences and Engineering areas of campus.

A location at the intersection of the schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities & Sciences creates a central meeting spot for collaboration. Video Credit Eric Koziol

More than 10 years later the Clark Center is now considered a model for inspiring collaboration and producing revolutionary science. A way of manipulating neurons using light was born out of collaborations in the Clark Center, as was a way of quickly and inexpensively sequencing minuscule quantities of DNA and of observing neurons firing in real time.

“The turning point was when we went from me trying to persuade people to move into the building to turning people away,” says Scott, who is now president of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The building’s exposed walkways and meeting spaces, central location on campus and excellent cafe were held up by the National Academies in a 2014 report as examples of what it takes to encourage what is sometimes called “convergence” science – bringing disciplines together to tackle scientific challenges – and people have visited from around the world hoping to bring some of the Clark Center energy to their own building plans.

In recent years, research buildings with a similarly interdisciplinary intent have opened at the University of Colorado, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, MIT and Georgia Tech, among others, and on the Stanford campus the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building (known as Y2E2) opened in 2007. Y2E2 houses the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and faculty from multiple departments and schools who mingle in the skywalks, patios and tunnels that connect the physical structures.

Recently, the concept for a new research facility to house Stanford ChEM-H and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute was approved by the Stanford Board of Trustees, and demolition has started on the structure currently located on the site. When the facility opens in 2018, it will be the latest to embrace the mixing of disciplines that has already proven so scientifically fruitful.

“This building is a physical manifestation of Stanford’s commitment to breaking down barriers between disciplines,” says Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research. “Given the success of the Clark Center, we felt that it was important to continue that approach to housing our university-wide interdisciplinary research institutes.”

Good neighbors

Video by Eric Koziol

Most scientific research buildings compartmentalize people from the same disciplines: geneticists on one floor, biochemists on another, engineers in a building across campus.

This approach at academic institutions has helped build strong disciplines, Arvin says, and despite the value of interdisciplinary research, strong disciplines still matter. “It is important to start with solid expertise in a field and bring that knowledge to interdisciplinary work,” she says. “The intersections of disciplines are places where new ideas emerge and innovative research happens.”

The Clark Center, which was made possible by a gift from James H. Clark, was intended to cultivate those intersections by taking people from multiple disciplines and organizing them by shared interests. “I like to think of us as a Noah’s Ark, with two from each discipline,” says Carla Shatz, the David Starr Jordan Director of Stanford Bio-X, who moved from Harvard to take the helm of Bio-X in 2007.

Shatz, who is also the Sapp Family Provostial Professor, says that around the time Bio-X was forming and the idea for the Clark Center emerged, the larger scientific community was starting to realize that working across disciplines made sense.

“The difference is that there was already an environment of collaboration across interdisciplinary borders at Stanford that allowed it to happen much earlier here,” she says.

Faculty from multiple areas of basic science, medicine and engineering were in unusually close proximity on Stanford’s small campus and had organically started collaborating. Bio-X and then the Clark Center provided a focus for that energy, and created programs to expand it including seed grants, graduate fellowships, summer research experiences for undergraduates and symposia.

Although the Clark Center was a natural extension of the kinds of collaborations that were already taking off, the concept of blending disciplines in a building was still a stretch for many faculty members. Some worried that without being immersed in their own discipline, their research might falter. They might lose touch.

William Newsome was one of the early arrivals in the Clark Center; he is also the Vincent V. C. Woo Director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, which is looking to recreate its atmosphere.

“I was very interested in moving in because I liked the adventure of it,” says Newsome, who is also the Harman Family Provostial Professor and a professor of neurobiology. But he also had his doubts. “I was skeptical that the social engineering would have the nonlinear beneficial effects they wanted. If those came, then that would be a bonus."

Newsome became part of a four-person neuroengineering group that included Professors Krishna Shenoy, an electrical engineer; Kwabena Boahen, a bioengineer; and Tirin Moore, a neurobiologist.

“Krishna and Kwabena attract engineers to our area, and having that mixture of outlooks has been really good. I would never have had that experience if I'd stayed on the second floor of Fairchild [where the Neurobiology Department is located].”

Other Clark Center neighborhoods have focused on computational biology, robotics, genomics and tissue engineering, among others.

Know your neighbors

Video by Eric Koziol

Both Newsome and Paul Yock, who directs the Biodesign program that is part of Bio-X and is housed in the Clark Center, say that the Clark Center’s size and layout have been critical. Labs are arranged in groups of two to four faculty members with shared interests. “At that size there’s enough diversity to give different perspectives, but you can develop close relationships and mentor each other’s students,” Newsome says..

Yock, who is also the Martha Meier Weiland Professor in the School of Medicine and a professor of bioengineering, says there’s a right size that builds meaningful relationships. “You want to mix people up,” he says. “That much mixing in a relatively small community is really functional.”

Its role in building relationships has been a critical part of how the Clark Center’s effects spread outward to the community. Its physical location on campus is in the center of a Venn diagram of schools and departments, and creates bridges between disciplines that have been separate. Even if faculty members aren’t both in the Clark Center, relationships formed there can facilitate their meeting.

“If I’m sitting in the Clark Center and I have a question about chemistry, I can go upstairs and ask a chemist who I have a relationship with. She may say, ‘Well, we don’t do that but I can tell you who does,’” Scott says. “You are easing the discovery process of potential collaborators.”

Chaitan Khosla, director of Stanford ChEM-H (Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health), sees the physical building as a nucleus for faculty interactions. “Having a physical epicenter has enabled Bio-X to pull together the largest diaspora of investigators in the history of Stanford,” he says. “The physical location is what draws a community.”

The value of space

Video by Eric Koziol

Anecdotal evidence of the Clark Center’s success is easy to come by – faculty will talk about new research directions and influences from their neighbors – but quantifying those outcomes is more challenging.

“Stanford is a unique university in the sense that it has conducted a variety of experimental efforts in interdisciplinary research, and it is actually interested in learning how those experiments went,” says Daniel McFarland, a professor of education who studies the nature of collaboration.

In an attempt to understand the influence of Stanford’s interdisciplinary programs, including the Clark Center, McFarland examined the number of Bio-X faculty connections in joint papers, grants and shared mentoring of students from 2000 to 2014. The resulting plot of connected faculty members grows ever denser over the years, starting as a loose web and ending in what looks like a tangled knot of relationships.

McFarland points to the many programs run by Bio-X as contributing to those increased connections, but says the Clark Center itself has served an important role.

“The Clark Center, with its open labs, long dining tables and coffee shop, promotes impromptu meetings and organic means of collaboration,” McFarland says. “Couple that with a team science culture and the sharing of postdocs and graduate students across labs, and you have a pretty vibrant context for doing interdisciplinary research.”

Those increased connections are in part what the designers of Y2E2 hoped to inspire in their design. That building opened in 2007 and makes up one of the cornerstones of the new Science and Engineering Quad, which itself is a mirror of Stanford's original Main Quad. The interior spaces are designed around a series of atria.

“The atria are important from architectural and building energy use points of view, but are also a way of organizing people in interdisciplinary thematic ways according to our focus on water, oceans, food security and energy,” says Jeffrey Koseff, the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the William Alden Campbell & Martha Campbell Professor in the School of Engineering. “Faculty were grouped by the types of problems they work on, not their discipline, and we’ve tried to maintain that over the years.”

Planning for serendipity

Map showing new research facility across from the Clark Center

Located across the street from the Clark Center, the new research facility will expand the interdisciplinary hub at the intersection of medicine, engineering and basic sciences.

Architectural render of new research facility open atrium

The research facility's open interior and exposed courtyards encourage impromptu meetings.

As Newsome and Khosla plan their new research facility, they are looking to capture some of what has made the Clark Center so productive. That includes getting the mix of faculty right and planning ahead for the future use of the space.

“These buildings shouldn’t just get built, and then we decide who goes where,” says Arvin, who is also the Lucile Salter Packard Professor of Pediatrics and a professor of microbiology and immunology. “They need to be built by thinking about the interdisciplinary purposes and involving faculty leadership of these programs from the beginning. Fortunately, Stanford’s architect and lands and building staff understand and are committed to this approach.”

Newsome says among the features they plan to replicate are the sizes of the neighborhoods. “Getting the scale right is a big deal,” he says. They’ll also have shared core facilities and equipment that will bring people in from other buildings, which Newsome says the Clark Center has done well. Located across the street from the Clark Center, their new facility will strengthen the already potent draw to that part of campus.

In addition to campus-wide collaborations, Newsome and Khosla envision new scientific relationships between members of their institutes, at the interface of neuroscience and chemistry. “I really do believe the future of neuroscience is going to be collaborative,” Newsome says. “Being co-located with ChEM-H will bring neuroscientists in contact with chemists who are interested in biological applications.”

Khosla also sees an interdisciplinary building as critical for training the kind of young scientists he thinks will be needed to solve problems in health and medicine.

“Training the next generation of scientists is going to require having engineers and clinicians and biologists and chemists to be next to each other, training students intermixed with each other’s students,” says Khosla, who is also the Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor in the School of Engineering and a professor of chemical engineering and of chemistry.

“Some of this will be serendipity,” says Newsome. “I anticipate some things won’t work, but other surprising things will happen.”

And on the value of food as a lure, the new facility has that covered too. It’s going to have a pub – the only one on that side of campus.