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‘Topping out’ new life sciences building

Stanford Neurosciences Institute

A steel beam “tops” the new Stanford Neurosciences Institute and Stanford ChEM-H. 

Photos by Sam Fontejon

By Nathan Collins 

A new home for interdisciplinary life sciences at Stanford, set to open in mid-2019, reached an important milestone on Friday when workers put the building’s highest steel beam in place, an event known as “topping out.”

Located just across campus drive from the James H. Clark Center, home to Stanford Bio-X, the new facility will be home to Stanford ChEM-H and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and will help to foster deeper collaborations across traditional academic boundaries.

“Topping out celebrates an incomplete project that has reached its maximum height,” said CHAITAN KHOSLA, the Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor in the School of Engineering and the director of Stanford ChEM-H. “While that may be true for the building, the institutes are only just getting started.”

Stanford Neurosciences Institute, Ann Arvin
Research Dean Ann Arvin was among the
university officials marking the "topping out"
of the new building for the Stanford
Neurosciences Institute and Stanford
ChEM-H.

Several dozen researchers from both institutes will be organized into “neighborhoods” where junior and senior faculty, as well as postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, can interact with others outside their home academic departments. The buildings will also house resources and meeting spaces for the hundreds more researchers – including faculty from the schools of Engineering, Medicine, Education, Law, and Humanities and Sciences – affiliated with ChEM-H and the Neurosciences Institute.

Among the amenities is a new pub café, which is envisioned as “a magnet and center for communities much larger than those housed in the building,” said WILLIAM NEWSOME, the Harman Family Provostial Professor and the Vincent V. C. Woo Director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. “We’re trying to encourage collaborative interactions on a human scale.”

ChEM-H, which tackles problems in human health through collaborations between chemists, engineers and medical researchers, will occupy one of the two buildings on the site, with the Neurosciences Institute’s new home across a central courtyard. The building will also be home to ChEM-H’s knowledge centers, which provide facilities and training in specialized techniques that would not normally be available to most researchers on campus.

The Stanford Neurosciences Institute building will be home to a new center for theoretical neuroscience that aims to bring theorists and experimentalists who study the brain into closer contact. A similar “sandbox lab” will have dedicated equipment and space for engineers and neuroscientists to collaborate on pilot projects.

The exact origins of topping out are ancient and uncertain, according to a 2001 article in the journal Western Folklore, but the practice may have emerged from a northern European tradition of placing a tree branch near the top of freshly constructed homes and other buildings. In its modern incarnation, topping out involves a painted steel beam signed by various people involved in the construction of a building and adorned with both a U.S. flag and a small evergreen tree.

Newsome is a professor of neurobiology and is also a member of Stanford Bio-X. Khosla is a professor of chemical engineering and of chemistry and is also a member of Stanford Bio-X, the Child Health Research Institute, the Stanford Cancer Institute and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.