Q&A: Peter Salovey

The West Campus hits its stride

Cancer research, genomics, an “artificial leaf.” More to come.

The Yale Alumni Magazine regularly holds a conversation with Yale president Peter Salovey ’86PhD to provide a forum in which alumni can learn his views. (Interviews are conducted both in person and by e-mail and condensed for print.)

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

In this issue, Salovey talks about developments on the West Campus over the past ten years. View full image

Y: When Yale bought the West Campus and its advanced science labs from Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 2007, the medical school dean, Robert Alpern, said that a hundred years later Yale would look back on the move as a terrific decision. We’re only a tenth of the way in, but how would you review it so far?

S: The development of the West Campus at the ten-year mark has exceeded our expectations in speed and quality. There are over 1,400 faculty members, staff, and students conducting research, studying, and working on the campus in other ways every day; the entire School of Nursing, in fact, is there.

Yale established seven research institutes on the West Campus, organized around problems that are best addressed in an interdisciplinary way. These institutes focus on energy, health science, biology, and cultural heritage preservation. Cutting-edge arts conservation studios and science laboratories have been developed there. Substantial parts of our museum collections that used to be locked in basements, or stored offsite, are now conserved, studied, and accessible on the campus.

These seven institutes organize the research laboratories of nearly 40 faculty members, connected to about 20 different schools and departments at Yale. They have made some incredible discoveries—for example, an ultra-thin coating material that could extend the life of lithium-sulfur batteries and the “artificial leaf,” a handheld device that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The West Campus has attracted funding for interdisciplinary research on pressing contemporary challenges. The National Cancer Institute, for example, awarded Yale a five-year grant to probe how cancer cells become aggressive and damage surrounding tissues. That research program involves several of the institutes, as well as three of Yale’s schools and seven different departments, and it straddles disciplines—genomics, cancer biology, cell biology, evolutionary biology, biomedical engineering, pharmacology, mathematics, and many more.

Y: Interdisciplinary work is very hot now in academia. Why is that?

S: It is the old parable about trying to understand an elephant. If you have six different specialists—one describes the trunk, another studies the tusks, another examines the feet, and so on—you may never come to a full understanding of the animal. Academic disciplines provide a well-organized way of studying a question and have enormous value. However, some issues require an integrated view of the whole to understand their nature. A problem like how cancers become aggressive needs to be addressed at various levels of analysis, micro to macro.

Y: The West Campus has changed since 2007. At least three of the earliest institutes either shifted direction or were eliminated. Is the current arrangement permanent, or is it still changing?

S: This is an important conceptual issue. Setting aside the School of Nursing, which we expect to go on for centuries, the West Campus institutes and cores were set up with an expectation that they might evolve over time, depending on the nature of the problems that demand our attention. We did not organize the campus along the lines of academic departments partly because we expect the structure of our departments to be more-or-less stable over time, but the structure of the institutes to be less constant. This kind of evolution is a good thing, and it allows the West Campus to address emerging research challenges.

This concept of evolution is also true for the West Campus cores. The cores are centers that offer shared resources serving all the institutes, as well as the rest of Yale—some even serve external collaborators. For example, the expert staff at the Center for Genome Analysis will perform genome sequencing for researchers who require it. The cores have the flexibility to update instruments and equipment as needed to meet the demands of pioneering research.

Y: How much is the West Campus integrated with the rest of Yale?

S: The West Campus already feels like it is an integral part of Yale. We reduced the psychological distance between the West Campus and the central and medical campuses. The actual distance is only about seven miles. We introduced a shuttle system with a convenient schedule and an app for tracking how soon a shuttle bus will be arriving at your stop. When there is no traffic, I have driven from the door of my house on Hillhouse Avenue to the School of Nursing, for example, in 12 minutes.

The West Campus has welcomed the rest of the university in its beautiful and functional common spaces: a dining area with Yale Hospitality providing the food and a conference center with Yale conference services managing the space. Art from the Yale collections is on display, indoors and outdoors. Special events are held there: meetings of alumni affinity groups, science conferences, and concerts.

More importantly, it is home to some of the most advanced technologies at Yale, allowing researchers from across the university to work in innovative ways to push the boundaries of knowledge. For example, the new Krios cryo-electron microscope enables scientists to visualize biological processes at extraordinarily high resolutions and will be used by biologists, chemists, computational scientists, etc.

Although the campus was not designed for undergraduates, they find themselves taking the shuttle out there—to work at the institutes, in the School of Nursing, or with the Yale Landscape Lab, 136 acres of space for projects spanning the fields of sustainability, health sciences, energy, entrepreneurship, and land use. The wealth of exciting research taking place on the West Campus can open new intellectual horizons for a student.

The opportunities made possible by this new campus have a depth and range that are serving the Yale community in many more ways than originally imagined—the West Campus is a vital part of the university.

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