science at the salk institute

by Stacy

Last week a friend suggested that we visit the Salk Institute in La Jolla. Named after Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, the institute was designed by Louis Kahn and built in the 1960s on a piece of prime ocean-view coastal property. They offer daily architectural tours during the week which was our plan. The 60-90 minute tour (depends on your guide) describes the history of the institute and its architectural significance.

salk institute

The design has two symmetrical buildings divided by a courtyard with an interesting water feature bisecting it. On the autumnal and vernal equinox, the sun rises and sets along the water.

salk institute

salk institute

The institute is still a productive research facility with a number of Nobel prize-winning scientists having done research there. Tenure is rewarded with a west-facing office overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

salk institute

The building is meant to be low-maintenance so that financial support is spent on research, not the buildings. It’s constructed of concrete with teak accents meant to weather the salty humid air.

salk institute

Our particularly enthusiastic tour guide explained that the building was meant to look white in the sunlight, a temple to science and learning.

salk institute

He also had some interesting slips of the tongue which we found rather amusing. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

After our tour we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the courtyard (chickpea salad sandwiches, fruit from my friend’s CSA, and cookies) until our real tour guide arrived.

Dr. Matt (my friend’s boyfriend) does research at the Salk Institute and gave us a tour of the lab! No photos of that tour, but it was pretty cool to see. My science classes in college were intro level so it was impressive to see what actual scientists do. There is a lot of research going on but Dr. Matt was excellent at explaining using simple concepts for people with liberal arts degrees.

On our architecture tour, the guide had offered up several “antidotes” [sic], so Dr. Matt gave us one, too.


According to someone who understands stuff:

This picture is a cluster of motor neurons derived from mouse embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into any of the cell types in the body and these cells in particular were steered toward a motor neuron fate by adding two signaling molecules: retinoic acid and sonic hedgehog (Yes, named after the video game character. The gene encoding sonic hedgehog was first identified in fruit flies where a mutation in the gene caused the flies to grow bristles on their backs. The researcher thought they looked like hedgehog quills and named the gene after the video game character, which was popular at the time).
The color in the photograph comes from fluorescently labeled antibodies, which bind to specific proteins in the cell. The red dots are nuclei of neurons the green stain identifies cells making Hb9, a transcription factor that is unique to motor neurons. The blue label is a general DNA dye that labels the nuclei of all the cells.

Catch all that? Good. There will not be a quiz later.

This picture shows what we actually saw under a microscope on our lab tour which Dr. Matt kindly emailed to me along with the above explanation. Unfortunately his research does not include breeding super chickens with capes. I must admit, I was a little bummed. Maybe super mice are the first step.

If you find yourself in sunny San Diego, try to squeeze in a visit the Salk Institute. Unlike most things in La Jolla, it’s free! It’s also right next to the glider port if you have a hankering to throw yourself over the ocean strapped to a giant kite. Watch out for the cliffs.

salk institute

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Bridget March 18, 2010 at 9:31 am

Wow, that is so cool. Great photos too.


stacy March 18, 2010 at 10:11 pm

I appreciate science, so it was fun to see it “in action.” Not that I don’t appreciate your own research comparison posts which may actually impact my life more directly.


Jen R. ( March 19, 2010 at 7:03 am



Kristin Hart May 5, 2010 at 5:30 pm

I drive by the Salk Institute often and every time I do I say to my boyfriend “We really need to go and check out the Salk Institute”. So before the end of the summer is my goal :)


Darya November 11, 2010 at 10:40 am

the details that you gave here – are very interested to know about such an important building – i am studying architecture in the Uk – and i am interested in the ideas behind the plan arrangement, concepts, the ideas about the space – maybe the guide told you something like that?/?? Would be really interested to know. Thank you.


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