Collaboration Central

Collaboration Central

The New York science scene has, through unique alliances and partnerships, become greater than the sum of its parts.

Read digital edition

As Willa Appel, chief executive officer of the New York Structural Biology Center (NYSBC), shares the story of the city's first major collaborative life science research center, which opened in 2002, she still marvels at the good fortune that landed the NYSBC at the abandoned South Campus of the City University of New York on Convent Avenue in Harlem. The gymnasium's lower level, complete with an empty swimming pool sunk deep into the Manhattan schist, turned out to be an ideal site for housing the city's most advanced nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers—exquisitely sensitive equipment unable to tolerate the nonstop vibration of millions of New Yorkers and the subways that move them.

The NYSBC—along with dozens of universities, research institutions, nonprofit organizations, and start-ups that comprise New York's burgeoning science sector—is a true product of the city: wildly ambitious, visionary, and undaunted by the challenges of the island E.B. White called "the greatest human concentrate on earth."

The major players in New York's science industry almost universally view what most residents perceive as obstacles—population density, intense competition, and premium real estate—as assets. They've succeeded not in spite of, but because of, the city's singular makeup and layout. The secret behind the success of what has become one of the world's best funded and most productive multidisciplinary science sectors is the kind of mold-breaking collaboration that is uniquely possible in a place like New York.

"When we first proposed the idea of the Structural Biology Center in 1997, nobody believed this kind of collaboration could happen."

Speaking from the new downtown headquarters of the New York Genome Center, Bill Fair, vice president of strategic operations, recalls a time when joining the terms "New York" and "science hub" was more likely to generate questions than answers. As recently as 2002— despite having the most advanced medical infrastructure and largest healthcare workforce in the country—New York City was struggling to attract science talent and the funding dollars that often followed. At the first meeting to discuss what would become the NYSBC, Appel remembers, one participant joked that "the best recruiting tool in New York was a subway token and a bus pass. People weren't moving here to work in science."

The town long known as the capital of finance, media, and fashion took a turn toward technology when Mayor Bloomberg zeroed in on life sciences and entrepreneurship as ways to revitalize and diversify the post-9/11 economy. What would transpire over the following decade would vault New York into an elite position among bioscience and technology hubs, uniting the city in a way that would draw the attention of the world.

From Competition to a Competitive Edge

"When we first proposed the idea of the Structural Biology Center in 1997, nobody believed this kind of collaboration could happen," says Appel, describing the circumstances that prompted its nine founding institutions to put their competitive concerns aside and form a consortium. Structural biology—the study of the three-dimensional shape of biological macromolecules and how changes in shape can affect their function in both health and disease—was a hot field that required access to highly specialized research equipment no one institution could afford alone.

Pooling their resources, the consortium initially purchased four highfield nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers at 800 megahertz— the most advanced instrumentation in the field—housing them at the renovated NYSBC facility and alternating access much like a timeshare. On opening day, the NYSBC was the most advanced facility of its kind in the country, and it has since added cryoelectron microscopes, synchrotron beamlines for x-ray crystallography, and high throughput protein production facilities. Today, it's the most advanced structural biology facility in the world.

Start-up Engine
At 29th street and the East River, sandwiched between NYU School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital, is the Alexandria Center for Life Science—the largest biotech campus in New York City and the embodiment of the city's efforts to bolster commercial development of bioscience breakthroughs.

A new and transformative paradigm for New York's research institutions and universities was born.

By 2004, the city was gaining competitive ground, garnering close to $1 billion in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. By 2007, New York's colleges and universities would well surpass that number, leading the nation in NIH funding.

Despite that progress, the city was still home to, what one researcher quipped, "a lot of R, but almost no D." Pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer had a presence limited to sales in New York City, but the crucial behind-the-scenes work took place in the kind of lab space that seemed unattainable in the five boroughs. Many researchers who made breakthroughs with commercial promise had to weigh the possibility of leaving academia to bring an innovation to market. Finding a solution that would allow them to translate local research into reality would be the next crucial step in New York's transformation.

A Complete Cultural Shift

Private labs were one way to, as Susan L. Solomon says, "leave the politics at the door and take the science as far as the researchers were able to go." Solomon, who founded the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) in 2005 and serves as CEO, saw the potential for New York—with its 50 hospitals and diverse population— to become a leader in stem cell research. "Young researchers were being counseled out of pursuing stem cell work," she says. "The thinking was that the real work wasn't happening here."

With a roster of healthcare luminaries as an advisory board and $1.1 million in private seed funding, Solomon and her team opened a lab in less than 4 months. "There was very exciting diabetes research coming out of Harvard, but too much red tape preventing it from moving forward. We brought the work here, and built the lab faster than the researchers could collect patient samples."

Since then, NYSCF scientists, including 45 postdocs from New York's elite research centers, have done "high-risk, high-reward" work, turning out five top medical breakthroughs including the first personalized bone intended for transplant. The organization has also designed software to automate the labor-intensive process of generating stem cell lines, producing a degree of uniformity that is key to advancing therapeutics. "We've saved years of time and millions of dollars through the openness of our scientists and partners, who go so far as to share pre-publication work at our conferences," Solomon says. "It's a complete cultural shift. At our first meeting, most of the researchers in the room—and they were the best in their fields—had never met each other."

"We brought the work here, and built the lab faster than the researchers could collect patient samples."

The shift Solomon notes is evidenced several dozen times a year at the lower Manhattan offices of the New York Academy of Sciences. Jennifer Henry, director of life sciences at the Academy, presides over a program for local scientists that tests—and often breaks—the barriers of convention. "We set out to create a more united community of scientists working in New York—to introduce them to each other before they meet at major conferences," Henry explains.

For nearly 50 years, scientists from across the region and around the world have convened at the Academy to attend one-off conferences and recurring Discussion Group symposia. Formalized as Frontiers of Science 12 years ago, this program unites academia, industry, nonprofits, and government to discuss progress and challenges in science, medicine, and technology. The Academy hosts over 60 such events each year, each with a different focus. "Everyone is on equal footing at these events," says Henry. "It's a neutral environment where people who don't typically get together can interact in a personal way. It's also an incredible opportunity for younger scientists to network with major players."

The Discussion Groups bring sought-after speakers and smaller gatherings of scientists together in New York throughout the year. "Networking is a major benefit, but these groups have become so much more than that," Henry explains. "The Discussion Groups are now safe spaces where what are, essentially, competing researchers have been known to enlist the group's feedback on their work in progress. Can you imagine?" The success of New York's academic collaborations continues to embolden and inspire new ventures, continually expanding the city's science capabilities. Manhattan's foothold in the emerging field of genomics and bioinformatics lies in SoHo at the New York Genome Center. Ten local institutions founded the facility, which operates as an independent nonprofit, to speed advances in genomics and commercialize breakthroughs. Researchers gain access to valuable wet lab space and latest generation sequencing equipment, along with technical support. Demand for the Genome Center's services—which include full human genome sequencing, bioinformatics analysis, and data storage— has been so high that it had to establish a 3,000 squarefoot temporary lab at The Rockefeller University during construction of the new headquarters.

The Genome Center's founding institutions are reaping more than scientific benefit from their investment. It has been a powerful recruiting tool, helping attract top-level talent to the area. "You can't get this kind of genomics experience just anywhere," says Fair. "New York has the most diverse patient population in the world."

Cooperation and technology are transforming the region's hospitals, too, offering a glimpse into a future of fully connected care. The New York eHealth Collaborative is leading the movement to make electronic health records for any patient available to any physician, anywhere in the state, instantly. Currently under development is a portal that will also allow New York's patients to access their own records electronically.

In less than a decade, New York's scientific community norm moved from competition to collaboration, with positive results on the bench and at the bedside. Asked to describe the interactions of the Genome Center founders, Fair laughs. "Every Board meeting is like a 14-way pingpong match."

Beyond the Bridges
With 3,100 people on site and 140,000 square feet of clean room, the College for Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) in Albany—the world's only college devoted to nanoscience—operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week doing some of the world's most advanced semiconductor research and fabrication and revitalizing the manufacturing workforce in the Capital Region.

Science on the Streets

Perhaps the most magical manifestations of New York's efforts to advance science are the ample opportunities for people of all ages to see and touch science in classrooms, cultural institutions, and on the streets.

When Stephen Hawking and Yo-Yo Ma share a stage, robotic fish swim through Brooklyn's MetroTech Center, and Darwin meets hip-hop in the first peer-reviewed rap performance, it can only be time for the World Science Festival. Each summer since 2008, the Festival, founded by author and Columbia University professor Brian Greene and journalist Tracy Day, has lured close to 1 million New Yorkers to dozens of live events, many of them hands-on, all of them inspiring.

Alongside programs exploring beer brewing—"humankind's first biotechnology"—and an intimate study of insect music and mating— timed to the emergence of the 17-year Brood II cicadas—are days' worth of programs aimed at the Festival's youngest and most important attendees: children.

Sparking a love of science in the next generation is a responsibility that has taken on new importance as studies show U.S. students lagging in science and math. In New York, a host of homegrown programs, along with the city's museums and schools, are making steady progress to reverse that trend.

This year, the New York Academy of Sciences and the Girl Scouts of America joined with the Clinton Global Initiative, committing to raise $3 million to pilot a program pairing professional scientists with Girl Scouts to provide hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) lessons at the middle school level—exactly the age when girls' participation in science and math tends to decline. The program is an expansion of the Academy's successful Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program, which serves middle school students in low-resource areas of New York and New Jersey, thanks to a robust partnership with the State University of New York and community based afterschool programs.

Such supplemental STEM enrichment programs, particularly those aligned with school-based efforts that engage teachers and students, have proven highly effective. The Central Brooklyn Robotics Initiative, pioneered in Brooklyn middle schools, pairs graduate engineering students with public school teachers to create engaging classroom STEM activities. In its first three years, 70% of its 3,200 participating students raised their STEM grades by a half or full grade.

Two of the city's premier science museums, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and New York Hall of Science collectively host more than a million pairs of exploring young hands each year, drawing school groups and families with programs that are now, more importantly than ever, helping turn curiosity into careers. AMNH's much-lauded science-enrichment initiative, the Urban Advantage Network, started in New York middle schools and is now serving as a model for schools across the country to partner with local science institutions.

Taking in the many vibrant organizations comprising New York's current science scene, it's clear that what began as an experiment among an elite group of New York's research institutions has spawned a contagious collaboration that has touched every sector of the city, changing it for the better. This drive toward togetherness has inspired members of the scientific community to see the limitless possibilities for invention in this extraordinary city.

Today, the subway token has been replaced by the Metrocard, and much like the transit system that runs beneath them, New York's science players are more connected than ever. As Appel says, in a sentiment that also characterizes New York itself, "in science, you can't sit still for half a second."

Hallie Kapner is a freelance writer in New York City.

Photo: A New York Genome Center researcher works with a sample.