“This is a wonderful story of collaboration and imagination,” said Harvard President Drew Faust, moments before cutting a ribbon yesterday afternoon to open the new Harvard Center for Biological Imaging (CBI).

The facility, on the second floor of the BioLabs at 16 Divinity Ave., is not just another room filled with microscopes. For everything about the facility is unique, from its conception, to its open design, to the fact that its equipment will be replaced every 24 to 36 months.

But what may be the most important aspect of the CBI, Faust said, is not its collection of cutting-edge scientific instruments, but rather that “it makes the instruments the instruments of collaboration, as well as the instruments of science. And that, to me, is tremendously important.” The fact that the new center is furthering interdisciplinary, collaborative science at Harvard is why Faust offered to help provide funding for it.

Jeremy Bloxham, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Geophysics, professor of computational science, and dean of science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told those attending the ribbon cutting that “as I look back over the last five to 10 years, there’s a real change to how science is supported at Harvard. It used to be that individual investigators were supported, [and] equipment would disappear into their labs and wouldn’t be used by anybody other than the members of that particular lab group.

“Now, we have a much stronger emphasis on building centers. We do that not just [because it’s] financially more effective to build centers, but because it’s scientifically more effective to build centers. … It’s having people interact with each other … having people bump into each other while using the instrumentation [helps to ensure] that new ideas emerge and people find new ways of doing things,” Bloxham said.

Quoting 18th century satirist and essayist Jonathan Swift, Faust noted, “‘Vision … is the art of seeing things invisible.’ I thought of this not just because the center is dedicated to making the invisible visible,” Faust said, “but also because every step in its creation … was made possible by this ability to make the invisible possible.”

The envisioning of the center began with Jeff Lichtman, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), asking first himself, and then colleagues in his and other departments, what doesn’t work about the way most imaging is done, and what might correct that.

“I’ve been a director of imaging centers for 20 years,” said Lichtman, who is now the director of the new CBI, “so I know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and there were a number of weaknesses I wanted to address. One serious problem,” he said, “is that the expense of these devices [the microscopes] is enormous — they literally cost what a house costs. And with the pace imaging technology is moving forward, within three or four years they’re out of date.

“We needed an evergreen imaging facility,” Lichtman said in an interview. As an observer of the “sociology of science,” Lichtman said, “Laboratories know certain technologies, but when you have a field that’s moving forward rapidly, you can have a mismatch between the gray-head lab heads and the microscopists. The students are young and open-minded … but normally there’s no opportunity for students using one piece of equipment to have real exchange with people using others.”

Lichtman, MCB assistant professor Sharad Ramanathan, and MCB chair Catherine Dulac, the Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, proposed creating a center with a unique open architecture. Rather than have individual microscopes sequestered in closed rooms, the center’s scopes would all be at stations in an open space, with direct-down lighting, and easily moveable 5-foot-high partitions around the instruments. With that arrangement, scientists and students would all be exposed to all of the technologies being used, and the work going on, in the center. The CBI eventually will have a dozen microscopes, including several that have been placed there by individual researchers, including Dulac and Doug Melton, the chairman of the new Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (SCRB).

Additionally, they developed what Lichtman calls a unique “health club” model for the use of the center. “Normally, facilities work on an hourly rate, typically $30 to $60 per hour to use the equipment,” he explained. “That is a tremendous damper on students trying to learn to use devices; they spend 10 hours, and it’s $600. Instead, labs wanting to use the CBI will purchase annual memberships at $2,000 per year per person. That works out to about an hour-and-a-half a week at $30 an hour, and most labs use way, way more than 1.5 hours per week,” Lichtman said.

Then came the question of how to ensure that the CBI is always filled with state-of-the-art equipment. Jim Sharp, president of Carl Zeiss Microimaging, came up with a unique solution to that problem: Rather than purchase microscopes, at upwards of a half-million dollars each, the CBI and Zeiss worked out a leasing arrangement that not only guarantees that the microscopes will be replaced with the latest equipment every 24 to 36 months, but also provides for a Zeiss engineer to be at the CBI full time, maintaining the delicate instruments and helping the researchers work through any problems with them. Additionally, Zeiss will ask Harvard scientists working in the CBI to evaluate Zeiss equipment still in the alpha and beta stages of development.

“We would like to learn from you; we’d like to look over your shoulder so we too can improve,” Sharp said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Though the new imaging facility is in the BioLabs, it is open to researchers from all across the Cambridge and Longwood campuses, as well as to those with laboratories in affiliated hospitals throughout the area.

One of those attending the opening was Jeffrey Macklis, a professor in SCRB, whose laboratory is moving from Massachusetts General Hospital to the Bauer Building in Cambridge. Macklis said he’d been talking about such a facility with other members of SCRB for some time, so when he heard the idea of the center, he embraced it, and has already purchased CBI memberships for 20 members of his
lab. “We’re very excited about coming together with our MCB colleagues,” Macklis said. “Just having Jeff Lichtman thinking about our microscopy is worth the membership alone.”