Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Neuroscience Research Building Opens

Building will centralize neuroscience research on campus

By Aditee Prabhutendolkar | Published 02/04/2021
Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Neuroscience Research Building Opens
The exterior of the new building, at the corner of Del Mar and Wilson (Credit Caltech)

Caltech’s new Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Neuroscience Research building officially opened last Friday, January 29th. The building hosts the majority of the Chen Institute of Neuroscience as well as faculty in other disciplines, including system biology, genomics, and developmental biology.

The facility was built with the intention of concentrating neuroscience research in one location on campus. Before the building’s construction, neuroscience research was primarily conducted in the Beckmann Behavioral Building, where many neuroscience professors will still have their labs. There were also neuroscience labs in the Kirchoff Building, Moore Building, and Broad Institute.

One of the most important features of the building is how its unique architecture promotes collaboration across labs. There is a central open area between the second and third floors, making it possible to view other labs and offices. David Anderson, Professor of Biology and Director of the Chen Institute, describes the space as “big” and “open,” which “makes interactions between labs much easier than most of the older buildings on campus” and promotes “imaginative research.” This theme of openness extends to the teaching and conference halls, where glass walls will provide ample sunlight.

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A common area in the new building, showing its open design (Credit Caltech)

The building also boasts a new neurotechnology center, run by Daniel Wagenaar, Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering. This center will help grad students and postdocs set up complicated experiments that require system engineering, measurement of behavior, observing stimuli, and creating new software.

Another improvement the new facility will bring to neuroscience research is the optimized organization of behavior rooms, where mice are stored for behavior experiments. To maintain the health of the mice, and the cleanliness of the labs and behavior rooms, Caltech has a policy that a mouse can’t be kept in a lab for longer than 24 hours without putting it back in its behavior room storage. Once a mouse has been in a lab for more than 24 hours, it can’t go back to the same behavior room.

This creates a problem because many experiments go on for days with the same animal being tested, so these experiments have to be done in the behavior rooms in the basement. If someone performing an experiment requires input from another lab member, they have to repeatedly go down to the basement.

In the new building, this issue is solved because the behavior rooms are adjacent to the labs that require them most, and easy elevator access from the other labs. With this efficient layout, it’s easier to conduct experiments within a lab and receive feedback from colleagues.

All of the institute’s ongoing research in neurobiology will continue with the new building. Viviana Gradinaru, Professor of Neuroscience and Biological Engineering, is developing neurotechnology to treat brain disorders; Ralph Adolphs, Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology, is investigating social cognition and emotion in humans; Paul Sternberg, Professor of Biology, is studying behavior control in nematode worms; Professor Anderson is looking at fear and aggression in mice and fruit flies.

There is also a collaboration between Professor Anderson and Pietro Parona, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computation and Neural Systems, to quantify behaviors objectively and correlate them to brain activity. The goal is to develop a transgenic jellyfish species (ideal because jellyfish are small and transparent) which can let us visualize neurons blinking on and off through fluorescent markers.

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