Growing Up In Science: Timothy Holy (WashU Neuroscience)

May 5, 2022
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
McDonnell Sciences 928 (Medical Campus)

Growing Up In Science is a global series dedicated to sharing the personal narratives of scientists, with a focus on the hidden challenges of becoming and being a scientist throughout all stages of one’s career. We’ll feature scientists at WashU via in-person talks at 4pm in McDonnell 928, typically on the first Thursday of the month.

Full schedule, WashU Growing Up In Science

If you have questions or are interested in getting involved, please contact Julia Pai.

Official story:

Tim Holy got his bachelor’s degree from Rice University (math and physics), a PhD from Princeton (physics), and did his postdoctoral work in neuroscience at Harvard with Markus Meister. From there he began his faculty career at Washington University in St. Louis, where he remains to this day as the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Neuroscience. His group has focused on three major areas: mechanisms of olfactory perception, technological innovation in imaging, and creation of the high-productivity and high-performance programming language Julia. In olfaction, his group has identified many of the chemical cues used for social communication in mice, and identified peripheral circuit mechanisms for their detection and processing. In imaging, his group co-invented light sheet fluorescence microscopy and pioneered its use for calcium imaging; more recently his group has combined imaging tools with single-cell sequencing. In computation, Holy (co-)developed core infrastructure such as array-handling (“NumPy for Julia”), developer tools like the profiler and debugger, compiler features (e.g., the inlining engine, ambiguity resolution, method deletion, etc), extensive work on reducing Julia’s latency (creator of Revise.jl, invalidation, and precompilation), and creator or contributor to hundreds of packages (including the founder of JuliaImages). He is a recipient of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and the Research Award for Innovation in Neuroscience.

 Unofficial story:

I was lucky to have a scientist as my dad. From the moment we started doing backyard experiments, being a scientist seemed like the obvious thing to do. (When I wasn’t riding my skateboard or being a ninja.) The hard part was deciding which kind of scientist to be. My first true love was snakes, and I was sure I’d someday be a herpatologist. Then a chemist, like my dad. In high school I had a neglectful physics teacher who chose a very demanding & interesting textbook and then left us largely alone for almost the entire year, and for me that worked: after that course I was going to be a physicst. The one thing I knew for sure, it was never going to be biology—I hated my high school biology course. But in college I began to think that maybe biochemistry wouldn’t be so bad, but somehow I never ended up enrolling in a single biology or chemistry class; the physics and math called. Pretty soon I was going to become a string theorist, until a fantastic summer workshop for budding string theorists at which it became clear that they were all stuck and didn’t know what to do. At the time I didn’t appreciate that they’d eventually get unstuck (a graduate student sitting 3 carrels down from me found the key), so I arrived for graduate training at Princeton, then the best place in the world to do string theory, looking for something different.

 My graduate program insisted that even hard-core theorists like myself should do an experiment as part of the qualifying exam. I groaned and picked someone who was looking for greater insights into the statistical properties of DNA gel electrophoresis. Much to my surprise, I adored the project, even though I wasn’t very good at it and didn’t discover anything particularly useful. I still knew (so I thought) that I was a theorist at heart, so I chose a theorist as my PhD supervisor. We did some interesting things together, but over time I started feeling ever so slightly lazy or dishonest: biology really did seem driven by experiment, and maybe I should try a real biology “experiment thingy.” So in the last half of my PhD I put on the latex gloves and plunged into lab. Once again, I loved it, and I really embraced learning as much real biology as possible. I could hear my high school biology teacher cackling with the irony. We were basically doing cell biology, strongly shaped by a physicist’s perspective.

For my postdoc I decided to switch into neuroscience. I found a remarkable mentor, Markus Meister, who to this day is someone I am grateful I had a chance to work with. We did some work together that was unusual by the standards of his lab, and many times it looked like failure was imminent. But eventually I tried something I thought I had tried at the beginning, but a small twist rescued the entire project and we discovered some fun things. This let me get a faculty job and try to pass down to others some of the things I had learned along my journey. Being a faculty member had lots of moments of trial by fire, but is also a phenomenally satisfying life.

I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is that because science is one gigantic playground with an infinite number of interesting problems to work on, then picking your mentors is probably more important than picking your subject. From my own father up through the colleagues and department chairs I’ve been lucky to work with, they have enriched each year.