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Oklahoma’s Big Experiment

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By Meredith W. Salisbury


The focus of the Stephenson Research and Technology Center may be on biosciences and bioengineering, but the experience of having a lab there is, as one faculty member puts it, something of a sociology experiment.

The University of Oklahoma center opened in 2004 as a new approach to encouraging collaborative science. Unlike many such centers at other universities, this one lacks what counterpart institutes often consider their linchpin: a director. While under the broader jurisdiction of T.H. Lee Williams, vice president for research at the university, the center exists day to day without a lead person whose job is to oversee everyone else or to actively encourage the kinds of collaborations the center was built to host. In that respect, some would wonder why chaos doesn’t reign at Stephenson. “You do expect a certain amount of pulling ladders out from under each other,” jokes Henry Neeman, who heads up the University of Oklahoma Supercomputing Center for Education and Research, located in the Stephenson center. Instead, he says, everyone has proven very supportive of each other. “The sociology experiment of Stephenson has been tremendously successful,” he adds.

Just as the lack of a director serves to keep lab heads on equal footing, the center was administratively designed to be as fair as possible to other departments on campus. “All the people that are faculty maintain their original departmental affiliation,” says Bruce Roe, director of the Advanced Center for Genome Technology in Stephenson, who notes that this move prevented ruffled feathers, since many of the center’s faculty are top grant-getters in their home departments.

Home to about 150 faculty, staff, and students, the $27 million center was designed to facilitate the bumping-into-people atmosphere that scientists say has been just the impetus needed to start cross-group team research efforts. Much of that bumping happens during the morning and afternoon breaks that have become tradition at Stephenson, where people gather at the center’s Café DNA for free coffee and tea. “Sitting down with somebody over a cup of coffee,” says Neeman, “is just such an important part of the collaboration process.” He’s not kidding — he’s submitted a number of joint proposals with other faculty from the center, most of whom he got to know just by “running into them,” he says.

Bruce Roe says the atmosphere is reminiscent of what he experienced during his postdoc with Fred Sanger. “The idea of really open collaboration really comes from my time in Sanger’s lab in MRC. We had morning coffee and afternoon tea,” Roe says. “That kind of environment is really unique — I wanted to recapture that here.”

And when Roe says “open,” he means it. The lab heads decided early on that no one should be denied access to any of the facilities in the building, so everyone’s security pass allows entry into any lab in the center. “It’s all open access,” he says, acknowledging that not everyone was prepared for this kind of all-out accessibility in the center. “The fear was, what about my pipettes, isn’t someone going to steal them?” he says.

Randy Hewes, who runs the center’s neuroendocrine research efforts, recalls that joining Stephenson wasn’t the easiest sell for him. “I have a lot of very good colleagues in zoology,” he says, noting that he was initially reluctant to consider moving to the new center. “[But] I became convinced after I started to get to know people in the building better and decided that this might be a very interesting experiment to be part of,” he says. “I’m very glad I did.”

Stephenson science

The Stephenson center is home to several labs that were recruited in from various parts of campus. They include Roe’s center, which in 1990 became one of the earliest groups working on the Human Genome Project; the Institute for Environmental Genomics; the Microarray and Bioinformatics Core Facilities; the Bioengineering Center; OSCER, the university’s supercomputing facility; the Neuroendocrine Development Genetics Lab; the Robotics, Evolution, Adaptation and Learning Lab; and the Zebrafish Development, Genetics, and Genomics Lab. Randy Hewes, who heads up the neuro-endocrine effort, says scientists are making the effort to keep everyone plugged in. “We’re keeping people appraised about what’s going on in the building,” he says, mentioning as an example a seminar series that’s being started to update everyone on activities and research in the center.

One gap the center members are currently trying to fill is in proteomics. Roe says the university has been looking for some time now to bring in proteomics expertise, and even extended offers with generous recruitment packages. At press time, the university was still in the recruiting process for the kind of mass spec experience needed at the center. Meanwhile, one plan currently waiting for university approval would double Stephenson’s space with another 100,000-square-foot building to house the mass spec equipment and other tools necessary for a true foray into proteomics. “That’s what many of us would like to see,” Roe says.

Hewes is one such person. His group studies “the development and regulation of neuroendocrine systems” — especially how changes in neuropeptide signaling regulate behavior — using Drosophila as a model organism. “I think we can learn a lot by following the proteome as well as the genome … and looking at how cells are modulated,” says Hewes, who currently relies heavily on gene and protein expression studies.

But true to Stephenson style, Hewes is interested in more than just proteomics. His lab is starting to take a functional genomics approach to examining neurons, and for that a nascent, sequencing-based collaboration with Bruce Roe’s group is looking promising. Roe’s team has a 454 sequencer, which is paying off because “it’s bringing in collaborative work with people in a lot of departments,” he says.

For his part, Roe says he has collaborations going with Tyrrell Conway, whose group focuses on E. coli, as well as Jizhong Zhou, who was recruited in from the Oak Ridge National Lab and has teamed up with Roe for a community sequencing project. “We’ve got several joint proposals in,” says Roe, whose lab also has some ABI 3700 and 3730 machines.

As usual, the glue that binds everything together in Stephenson comes in the form of the informatics and supercomputing teams. Roe says a group of 10 informatics people manages the data analysis for many of the labs. There’s also OSCER, the campus supercomputing facility, which occupies both levels of one side of the research building. Headed up by Henry Neeman, that group also has teamed up as part of these collaborations and cross-lab grant proposals. He says being in Stephenson has given his group a chance to get more familiar with bioinformatics tools, and points out that a significant distributed computing proposal that’s in the works “uses Blast as a kick-start application to get people [involved] right away.”

Roe, noting the number of collaborative grant proposals that have been submitted by supercomputing and the other labs in the building, says so far Stephenson has proven to do just what he had hoped. Still, he acknowledges, the experiment was far from a guaranteed success. “It’s really amazing that it actually works,” he says.


InfoSpot

Name: Stephenson Research and Technology Center

Host: University of Oklahoma

Began: The two-story, 95,000-square-foot building was completed in 2004, and various labs began moving in as early as that spring.

Staff: Approximately 16 faculty; about 150 with staff and students

Funding stats: The building is a $27 million facility named after Peggy and Charles Stephenson, who led the funding with a $6 million gift to the university. Each lab head is responsible for his own funding, and those labs receive much of their funding from agencies including NIH, DOE, USDA, and NSF.

Key research areas: Functional genomics; environmental genomics; bioengineering; microbe and pathogen studies; E. coli, Drosophila, and zebrafish genetics; and neuroendocrine system, among others

Core facilities: Stephenson includes a number of core facilities, such as those for microarrays and bioinformatics, as well as other groups like the supercomputing center, bioengineering center, robotics lab, and zebrafish development lab that support a number of investigators within the overall center.

 

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