Jerome L. Greene Science Center Will Be Interdisciplinary Hub

Sixty years ago, when neurology department professor Harry Grundfest was doing groundbreaking research at the College of Physicians and Surgeons that attracted the likes of future Nobel laureate Eric Kandel to Columbia, he designed a workspace at the medical center that was intended to promote maximum contact among his postdoctoral students.

Record Staff
June 23, 2011

Research rooms surrounded a large central area, where a blackboard filled an entire wall and long tables and chairs filled the middle, according to a monograph written later by one of the post-docs. Discussions and debates occurred throughout the day, particularly at lunch, where on the center table sat several jars of Kosher sour dill pickles, delivered regularly from the Lower East Side.

Now, 40 blocks south, rising on the onetime site of parking lots and warehouses in Manhattanville is the University’s effort to recreate that kind of collaborative space in the Jerome L. Greene Science Building—not just for a single department, but for a wide range of disciplines related to neuroscience. The first new structure to be completed in the University’s long-term campus plan, the nine-story, 450,000-square-foot building will have 60 laboratories where faculty and students will explore the relationships between gene function, brain wiring and behavior—research with vast implications for the treatment of brain illnesses and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano and scheduled to open in 2015, the Greene building will be home to the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative. It is supported by a $250 million gift from the late Dawn Greene and the Jerome L. Greene Foundation, and will bring together a cohort of Columbia researchers roughly equal in scope to that of Rockefeller University on Manhattan’s east side. In years ahead, the blocks between 129th and 131st will also become a new home for Columbia Business SchoolSchool of the Arts, the School of International and Public Affairs, as well as a University conference center. As a result, the Manhattanville campus will become a mixing bowl for a diversity of academic disciplines—and free up much-needed space on the Morningside and medical center campuses.

University President Lee C. Bollinger notes that “the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative has two functions. It’s the initiative in the Greene building in Manhattanville, and it’s the link for the work there to every other part of the University.”

He emphasizes that the initiative will provide a new forum for connecting many different parts of the University—from cutting-edge biomedical research to the social sciences, arts and humanities—to collaborate on essential questions of human behavior. “This is a remaking of the intellectual life of the University,” he added.

“Renzo and his architects have thought very hard about how you populate that building with a thousand scientists and maintain interactions that range from a small, impromptu group of three or four people who want to discuss an idea all the way through more formal presentations that attract 150 to 200,” said Thomas Jessell, codirector of the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative and a professor of biochemistry and molecular physics.

Piano, a winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, after many conversations with neuroscience researchers, saw the need to create quiet spaces for concentration and open space where people and ideas from various academic disciplines can come together—as well as shared public spaces for those from the University and the local community.

A rendering of the future Jerome L. Greene Science Center as seen from West 129th Street and Broadway. On the right is a depiction of the science center as seen from a plaza on the Manhattanville campus.

“The university of the 21st century is not a fortified citadel and Columbia University in New York City has always been an example of the urban university, in contact with a complex social reality,” he said. “The great challenge is how to make the various requirements coexist without renouncing dialog between public and private space.”

The key to Piano’s plan is to embrace the intersection of the City and the University, especially in the way the building activates the street level. This, then, frees up the sidewalk level to become an open place of exchange, with restaurants, retail, cultural and civic spaces. “You can’t make a laboratory for research on brain behavior in the middle of the street, but we can insert it into a world that is transparent and not self-referential,” Piano said.

In recent decades, advances in research on brain circuitry have created new fields of study. Using functional MRIs, psychologists can record the brain activity generated by fear or anger; art historians use brain imaging techniques to tease out how a painting stirs powerful emotions. “You see the neuroscientists studying the impact on emotions and decision-making through the studies of the brain,” said Alessandra Casella, a professor of economics. “Economics depends very much on decision-making, and so the more we can understand about how that works, the better able we’ll be to build economic models that make sense.”

Kandel, now a University Professor, calls the Greene science center and the research it will contain “the opportunity of a lifetime. Can you imagine having a building that is just concerned with brain sciences, in which we can bring engineers, physicists, chemists, psychologists all into the same buildings? We could bring neural science to a completely new level.”