You may have missed Tim Grant’s arrival on campus earlier this year: he joined the Biochemistry faculty and the Morgridge Institute for Research at a historic time, on the brink of campus-wide shutdown due to COVID-19.
In fact, Grant’s first day of work was also the first day of shutdown. “I came into the building and it was largely empty. There were a few people who kindly came in to say welcome and so that I could fill out my starting paperwork,” said Grant. “I’ve mainly been working from home ever since.”
And he’s made it work. Grant’s field of research is in advancing Cryo-EM technology to improve the results of the technique, and to extend its use to more and more samples. Cryo-EM has been at the forefront of research in recent days, perhaps most notably in terms of understanding the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19. Cryo-EM as a tool has played a substantial role in contributing structures of these proteins to the research community, providing valuable insight into the way the virus works.
One of Grant’s first collaborations on campus is with Professor Ivan Rayment and his team studying the structure of the yeast spindle pole body central plaque, which is expected to provide insight into the control of cell division. The central plaque samples form two-dimensional crystals, which are difficult to study using current Cryo-EM techniques.
“As the crystal is a sheet, the only way to get three-dimensional information is to tilt the sample,” said Grant, “and this leads to a number of problems when trying to process them, so we’re working on new computational methods to enhance the results.”
Better images mean better structures and a better understanding of how molecules work, which can help researchers interact with molecular processes more effectively. If, as in the case of COVID-19, the molecules being studied are important to a specific disease, the structural information can be used to help design therapeutics for that disease.
This is key for Grant: “The underlying reason for doing the research I do is to better understand biology and disease.”
Grant joins the Department of Biochemistry and the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Center for Research in Virology at the Morgridge Institute for Research most recently from Janelia Research Campus, an HHMI research institute just outside of Washington D.C., where he worked as a Bioinformatics Research Specialist. Prior to his time at Janelia, he was in London at Imperial College, where he completed his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees and developed a passion for Cryo-EM.
“My undergraduate degree was in Biochemistry, but I’ve always had a strong interest in computation,” says Grant. “Cryo-EM is a great mix of the two. It requires a large amount of sophisticated computation to get a result, but the ultimate aim is to understand molecular structure and mechanisms and therefore further our understanding of biology.”
Grant was inspired by those courses he took as a student that were led by teachers who had a passion for the subject that they were able to instill into their teaching. He looks forward to emulating this model, and is driven to inspire similar passion in his own students in the years ahead.
And he looks forward to hiking, cooking, and making beer here in Madison – as well as identifying a winter hobby. “I came for an interview in late February,” said Grant. “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. Something tells me I need to find an outdoor winter hobby I like soon!”