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Howard Hughes Medical Innstitute

photoHoward Hughes Medical Cen ter courtesy of Brad Feinknopf, photographer
Fruit Flies and Dragon Flies

I fully expected to encounter human brains in formaldehyde or human beings with electrodes plastered all over their skulls. But that wasn’t the case. I met with Joanne Theurich who is the Chief Administrative Officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and with Beverly Barnes of their Chevy Chase office.

Ms. Theurich gave their rationale for locating in Lansdowne, “There were a couple of reasons: one we wanted to be relatively close to Chevy Chase and two we wanted to be close to a major metropolitan airport.”

She described their mission, “We search for neuronal pathways; connections within the cellular level of the brain.”

The Institute has over 200 scientists from all over the world, according to Dr. Zarixia Zavala-Ruiz, Science Program Manager at the Institute. “Our work also consists of developing microscopes and tools to assist in studying the brain.” The Institute has fashioned a high resolution microscope and a “Genetically encoded calcium indicator used in imaging.”

The complex opened in 2006 after deriving its funding from Howard Hughes aviation stock. Designed by architect Bob Magee, it faces north along the Potomac River at the Eastern end of Lansdowne. As an architectural masterpiece it conforms to the natural contours of the site and accommodates the working relationships among the scientists. The terraced side is all glass giving the buildings an openness that facilitates a pleasant working environment. Dr. Zavala said, “Much of the construction material came from (the sites) excavated rock used with cement to build.” .

We paused at one point and noted that scientist Anthony Leonardo was out by the man-made lake with a net, “Collecting dragon flies for experimenting.”

That brings us to the subjects used for research: Dragon flies and fruit flies plus mice and rats. They have a huge colony of fruit flies in glass tubes. In another room a series of cameras lined the four sides at the tops of the walls to “measure how dragon flies catch their prey.”

Why fruit flies? Dr. Zavala said, “Because they are the simplest organisms.”

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