Open for business: inside the Francis Crick Institute
After years of meticulous planning and design, in late 2016 the Queen officially opened the brand new Francis Crick Institute in London, the biggest biomedical research facility in Europe under one roof. Bringing scientists together from different disciplines to tackle the pressing health concerns of the 21st century, the new institute is now home to 1,250 scientists and a further 250 support staff. Here, we take a glimpse behind its doors and meet some of its new inhabitants.
The Francis Crick Institute is huge, but it’s also beautiful: sweeping curved roofs cover an imposing structure of glass, steel and concrete, with a frontage whose vast cathedral-like stained glass windows refract a rainbow of colours into the high-tech atrium. Inside, things only get more impressive. Standing in the entrance area feels like stepping into the space between two ocean-going liners; the five above-ground floors (a further four lie below) rise up on either side, joined by walkways floating across the gulf of the atrium. But walk up the central spiral staircase, or ride the high-tech lifts, and the impression of grandeur disappears. Collaboration spaces and work pods featuring comfy sofas and coffee machines give each floor a far more intimate feel. The labs and offices, laid out on either side of the atrium, are open-plan, with sight-lines extending across the whole breadth of the building, but they house familiar equipment, and are already gathering the reassuring clutter of scientific workspaces the world over.
Beyond the grand exterior, what is life like at the Crick? Talking to the new inhabitants gives a flavour for how it feels to work in this amazing building. Whilst there are some of the inevitable teething problems that are to be expected when settling into a brand new facility – there are issues with the glassware washing and ultrapure water, and the category 3 labs have yet to be commissioned – things are running remarkably well given that the last groups moved from their legacy institutes [CRUK’s London Research Institute (LRI) and the MRC National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR)] less than six months ago.
Laboratory operations and infrastructure
"I manage the teams doing all behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps the science going – glass-washing, media, the freezer farm, the fly facility, and the equipment care team. If we’re doing it right, you shouldn’t see very much of us! Much of our activity is in the basement, and we need to find a way of getting out more and mixing with the scientists, not just formulating on our own. I was involved in designing the facilities here; mostly they’re working as we planned, which is really satisfying. It’s been amazing seeing it from zero when it was a building site through to this complete institute now."
—Jo Payne: Head of Laboratory Infrastructure
"Being here is how I imagine being in a spaceship would feel, especially the basement – you see all the offices made out of glass, and past that there are the big NMR machines, it’s like something out of a film. I’m quite new and I do find the scientists a bit intimidating, but they’re all really friendly."
—Emily Lau – lab ops
"It’s pretty awe-inspiring coming to work here. My main job is to keep the flies alive, but I’ve started injecting DNA constructs into them now as well, which I’m finding really interesting. The lab can be used by everyone working with flies, so there are about 60 scientists coming in and out, and it’s a really friendly atmosphere."
—Grace Davies – fly facility technician
The Crick was designed in concert with its future occupants, and the strategies for encouraging collaboration and mingling of the scientists are working well. All the offices are deliberately small, so everyone, including Director Sir Paul Nurse, meets in the communal areas. Monica Rodrigo, a staff scientist in Professor Steve West’s group, thinks the Crick’s layout is changing how individual labs function: “On each floor there are booths and LCD screens so you can have impromptu meetings. Steve doesn’t have meetings in his office any more, he just goes to a booth,” she says.
Dr Narin Hengrung, a postdoc with Dr Steve Gamblin, agrees: “The NIMR in Mill Hill had very small and cut-off labs, and they were very crowded,” he says. “Here, the views and openness make it feel like you can wander over to another lab and see what they’re up to.” He’s looking forward to finding out what everyone else is doing: “Peter Cherepanov’s lab works on something very similar to what I’m trying to do, so it’s really nice to have their expertise next to us. I don’t know what most of the other people on the floor do yet but that will come – it’s still early days.”
Professor Caetano Reis e Sousa on his work to understand how the immune system senses pathogen invasion and tissue damage.
Esther Wershof, who’s doing a PhD in Dr Paul Bates’s lab, loves the fact that “Even the big boss has a tiny office you can see into, and there’s no feeling of hierarchy. If I have an idea,” she says, “I feel I can just talk to whoever I like. I’m doing a mini-project at the moment just because I bumped into somebody in the collaboration space and we realised we had common interests.”
There’s still some degree of nostalgia for the legacy labs, especially from those coming from the labs in Mill Hill and the LRI’s Clare Hall in Hertfordshire, which were far more rural. But they are also enjoying the compensatory benefits from their new central London location: “There are more talks and high profile people coming here than we ever had at Mill Hill,” says Narin, “And lots of people go to talks at places like Imperial, where we’d never have gone before.” And the Camley Street Nature Reserve, only a short walk away, also offers some solace – the West lab can be found eating lunch there on sunny days.
What makes everyone most happy, however, is being able to access the rich opportunities offered by the Crick’s state-of-the-art core scientific resources. With 14 in-house state-of-the-art science technology platforms, including electron and light microscopy, structural biology, next generation sequencing, mass spectrometry, bioinformatics and biostatistics, metabolomics and peptide chemistry, all run by permanent scientists who are acknowledged experts in their fields, the Crick is tremendously fortunate. As Monica endorses: “Not everyone can be an expert in everything. Now, if you have an idea for, for example, a screen, you don’t have to figure out how you’re going to do it on your own; you can talk to someone in the screening facility. That really accelerates research because you just deal with the results and look at what’s interesting.”
Dr Kathy Niakan reflects on the painstaking work that goes on in a world-leading human stem cell lab.
It’s too early to demonstrate the impact of the Crick, but all the ingredients for success are in place: great people, amazing facilities, and a collaborative, non-hierarchical ethos are already making the institute one of the most attractive places in the world for top-class medical researchers looking to push the boundaries of knowledge. Esther, whose mathematical background makes her an exemplar of the Crick’s multidisciplinary appeal, summarises the general sentiment: “I feel hugely lucky to be here – I can’t think of anywhere better to work,” she says. “For a young researcher, to be surrounded by really good scientists is a mixture of daunting and inspiring – I come in every day and I think ‘I’d better earn my place!’”
In this article
Postdoctoral researcher, Francis Crick Institute
Principal Laboratory Research Scientist, Francis Crick Institute
PhD student, Francis Crick Institute
This story is part of Pioneering Research 2016/17, our annual research publication.
Pioneering Research is packed with features celebrating the many achievements for CRUK and for researchers in our community over the last year, and the work we are doing right now as we implement our research strategy.
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