New faculty profile: Tim Grant works to improve cryo-EM imaging

Tim Grant joined the UW–Madison faculty in March 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in various suburbs of London in the UK.

What is your educational/professional background?
I also did my undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in London, at Imperial College. Then, after spending my whole life in London, I moved to Janelia Research Campus, an HHMI research institute just outside of D.C, about 6 years ago. The official title of my previous position was “Bioinformatics Research Specialist” at Janelia Research Campus.

How did you get into your field of research?
My undergraduate degree at Imperial College was in biochemistry. During the structural biology lecture series we were taught by Professor Marin van Heel who was one of the early pioneers of single particle cryo-EM, a technique that is used to solve molecular structures using electron microscopes and a lot of image processing. I really liked his lectures and was immediately drawn to the combination of biology and computation. I did my 6-week research project in his lab and really enjoyed it, so I stayed on to do my Ph.D.

What are the main goal(s) of your current research program?
Cryo-EM has come a long way since I did my Ph.D. and it has been a joy to see it grow and for me to contribute to that growth via methods development. I’m still very much driven by the desire to improve the technique and make it applicable to as wide a range of problems as possible. Despite the massive growth, there are still limitations, especially when it comes to lower molecular weight molecules, and molecules that are inherently flexible. My main goals are to develop new methods and techniques to solve these and other problems. At the same time I am hoping to be able to draw from the huge number of potential collaborators in Madison to find exciting biological problems that cryo-EM can help to solve.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
UW–Madison has a fantastic reputation, and there is a lot of brilliant research being done here. I was also drawn to the collaborative spirit here. I have one foot in the biology world and one foot in the computing world so it’s great to have both so well represented here. UW–Madison has also invested heavily in cryo-EM recently, and so that was a big draw for me. Madison seems like a really nice place to live. I have two young children and I’m hoping it will be a great area for them to grow up.

What was your first visit to campus like?
I came for an interview in late February. Apparently it was relatively warm for that time of year, but being from the UK — which rarely gets below freezing — it was still the coldest I have ever been. I really enjoyed speaking to all the people I met, and felt that there was a great buzz around the campus.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope they will be amazed by the complexity in the 3D structures of biological molecular machines and the fact that we are able to “see” what they look like.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
The underlying reason for doing the research I do is to better understand disease, and to hopefully lead to new and improved disease treatment. I hope this ultimately benefits Wisconsin and beyond.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
In cryo-EM we image our samples in vitreous water, which is water that has been cooled down to temperatures below about -130°C extremely quickly. This creates solid water, it is not technically ice as it is not crystalline.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I enjoy hiking, cooking and making beer. Something tells me I need to find an outdoor winter hobby I like soon!