On 1st April, the researchers at our London Research Institute formally became employees of The Francis Crick Institute – a groundbreaking multimillion pound research project towards which Cancer Research UK is contributing £160m. Although the researchers won’t physically move to the new building until 2016, the countdown has now begun. Here, Dr Barry Thompson shares his thoughts on the impending move.
For the last 7 years, my laboratory at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute (LRI) in Holborn has studied the tissues that line the body’s organs – so-called epithelial tissues.
We’re particularly interested in how they normally develop, and how they can form tumours – something we study in fruit flies, and in mouse and human tissues.
Our major effort has been working out the roles of many of the key molecules that control in how cells in these tissues grow and divide.
But in March 2016, we move to the new Francis Crick Institute at Brill Place, St Pancras.
A wonderful scientific environment
This is only a year away, so excitement is building.
A huge amount of work has already gone into planning the new labs, which look like they will be a wonderful scientific environment, with all the very best scientific equipment and resources we need to do our experiments. The list of top quality scientists already moving to the Crick is amazing, and is set to grow further very soon.
But as with any big change, there’s also some uncertainty. Any lab move results in some down-time and a period of adjustment to new ways of working. We all worry that this will slow our lab’s progress. But I am confident that the new Crick administration and lab management teams will do their best to support us all and be efficient and flexible.
The key thing is to make sure that the more junior researchers – PhD students and Post-docs – can do their experiments unhindered and feel comfortable asking for help or resources whenever they are in need – students and postdocs are by far the most important people at the Crick. And while there is a lot of emphasis on committees and management processes at the Crick, I suspect this will quickly evolve into a focus on executing things smoothly and competently, because good science requires it.
And as a relatively junior Group Leader, the expectations placed upon us at the Crick are very high and we all feel a lot of pressure to publish our discoveries in flashy journals, get big grants, be ‘translational’, or even start spin-out companies. While this pressure is motivating, I hope it doesn’t crowd-out our desire to get to the real truth of things, or to follow our curiosity in weird or unexpected directions – which can lead to the kind of discoveries that make a big difference over the longer term.
But aside from these unavoidable worries, there are so many exciting elements of the new Institute to look forward to.
A common ‘fly room’
Most importantly, the new open-plan layout of the Crick will favour collaborative interactions between labs. Collaborations are a big part of my lab’s work, so I am delighted to be close to other labs from both LRI and NIMR who also work on fruit fly biology, and with whom my lab will share a common ‘fly room’, as well as common secondary lab spaces.
In addition, my lab is close to others whose main focus is ‘structural’ biology: working out the 3D shape of the molecules we work on – something that’s vital to fully understand how they work. So I’m very optimistic that the collaborative environment of the Crick will strengthen these existing interactions, and enable my lab to move in exciting new directions.
In order to be truly creative in science you have to borrow from other fields. Human limitations mean that it’s impossible for one person to know everything. But if you place yourself in an environment where you are naturally exposed to a diversity of fields, it is extremely conducive to imaginative research.
On top of all of this, the Crick aims to develop many new interactions with clinicians, who are treating cancer or a wide variety of other human diseases. Having clinicians around will make it much easier for scientists like myself to access clinical samples and to try out ideas that might lead to important medical advances.
The future is very exciting indeed.