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.”