Project Teams are tackling experimentally challenging problems that cannot be reasonably addressed by individual investigators.
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 large-scale approaches that are unlikely to be accomplished by any single laboratory. We are also interested in developing the novel imaging and image analysis methods that will be needed to understand 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 were launched: Fly Light, Fly EM, and Fly Olympiad. Team projects provide a unique mechanism for tackling experimentally challenging problems that cannot be reasonably approached by individual laboratories. Think large-scale neuroscience or cell biology with a genome science flavor. We currently have six ongoing projects and a staff of ~60 people who are focused on understanding the adult fly brain, the fly larval nervous system (Larval Olympiad), developing better genetically encoded action potential sensors (GENIE), and studying molecular interactions in single cells (Transcription Imaging Consortium).
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 discovery 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 composed of a program manager and project scientists specific for implementing projects on a larger scale. Stephen Plaza, the program manager, guides and mentors the project scientists, helps facilitate project communication across the organization, develops operational models for the projects, and generates cross-functional bridges between diverse disciplines. Project scientists implement the overall scientific plans for the projects, oversee daily operations, 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 several cases the boundary between an individual Janelia lab’s research and the work of the project team is porous; we see this as a positive attribute that reflects the strong commitment of the steering committee members.
In the next few years the Project Teams aim to produce a neuronal atlas of the Drosophila brain, create novel sensors for monitoring nervous system function, and study single molecule interactions in cells with cutting-edge imaging technology. Solving problems like these requires a diverse skill set from many sciences and close collaboration, attributes that are difficult to achieve in an academic setting. The basic nature of the research makes it unattractive for for-profit enterprises. Janelia Farm Research Campus aspires to fill this gap using strategies like the Project Teams.