Wellome purchased the Hinxton estate in 1992 to establish a genome research centre, and the Sanger Centre (now the Wellcome Sanger Institute) was opened on the site in 1993. Initially housed in the former TIRL labs, the Institute was created to contribute to the Human Genome Project, and to ensure the data from the project were made public.
Cordelia Langford started at the Sanger Institute as a Research Assistant in 1994, as the Human Genome Project was getting underway. She is now Director of Scientific Operations, running one of the world’s largest genome sequencing facilities.
“Looking back at the Human Genome Project there was a feeling of excitement and discovery, but more importantly, a feeling of collaboration. There was a strong team spirit – almost a family feel. Everybody got involved to help each other – whatever their job was. If I needed help with something, I would just wander along the corridor until I bumped into someone and would ask them! Our founding director, John Sulston, in the early days was known to regularly help with the lab work one minute and then would be talking to the government the next.”
“The laboratories were set up in the former TIRL buildings, and perhaps it was some of the way things were set up in the space that allowed these things to happen. The main lab was nicknamed the ‘fish bowl’ because of the visibility of all the work going on in there. There was a mezzanine walkway above, with lots of visitors, and everyone could see and hear each other. Most of the building was arranged around a central square, all the labs felt interconnected and accessible. We were always passing each other in the corridors and different teams could get together to chat in the cafe.”
Mike Stratton, current director of the Sanger Institute says: “I feel the space here has been important for science. Not just the location - we are close to Cambridge University and have strong links to research in and around the city - but more importantly we have a physical and metaphorical space for people’s creativity to run free. We have space to think and beautiful surroundings in which to reflect. The most incredible things in research are the incidental findings, the serendipitous connections, moments when you are looking for one thing but you find another.”
The Human Genome Project was a huge, international collaboration. By the time of its completion, the Sanger Institute was the largest single contributor, and had unravelled one-third of the sequence of human DNA. The foundations of openness and collaboration that underpinned the landmark project remain today.
“The site and its architecture have a role to play in our openness. It is designed and built to foster collaborations – whether that’s bringing multidisciplinary teams together, or enabling global projects. So many important conversations happen in the queue for a coffee or passing your colleagues on the stairs. You are forced to bump into people. We have communal spaces, training & learning spaces, a conference centre, and in non-COVID times, we welcome many visitors to the site,” says Beth.