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Holy named Wolff Professor of Neuroscience

Recognized for illuminating neural circuits underlying behavior

by Tamara BhandariJanuary 22, 2018

Mark Beaven

Timothy E. Holy, PhD, has been named the inaugural Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. His research has provided valuable insight into how chemical cues are used for social communication.

He was installed as the Wolff Professor by Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

“Alan and Edith Wolff have provided extraordinary support for biomedical research and medical students at this university,” Wrighton said. “It is a privilege to have this professorship in their name. The inaugural holder of this professorship, Timothy Holy, is an innovative and gifted scientist. We are fortunate to be able to recognize and support Tim’s outstanding work with this endowed chair.”

A pioneer in imaging the nervous system, Holy developed a technique to visualize the activity of thousands of neurons at once and then used it to elucidate the neuronal circuitry involved when animals detect and recognize chemical compounds released by other members of their species. These compounds communicate information that triggers a change in behavior.

“Tim’s work has been transformational more than once,” Perlmutter said. “His studies of how individual molecules influence the complex olfactory system provide a model for studies on many other aspects of biology. And his development of a kind of light-sheet microscopy changed the way we see neuronal circuits.”

To better analyze the vast data generated by his imaging technique, Holy helped develop a new computer language named “Julia.”

“Tim has distinguished himself through creative breakthroughs in several fields: neuronal imaging, olfaction and computational science,” said Azad Bonni, MD, PhD, the Edison Professor and head of the Department of Neuroscience. “Tim is a brilliant scientist. His approach to neuroscience is quantitative and highly analytical, but he also brings an acute intuition to bear in solving the problem at hand. His research is distinguished by a very high level of creativity and rigor.”

Holy first developed a form of optical microscopy in 2008 that uses a sheet of light to image 3-D volumes at a resolution high enough to distinguish individual cells. Since then, he has continued to fine-tune the technique to record the activity of ever-increasing numbers of cells. His laboratory claims to have held the world record for most single neurons ever recorded at one time.

He has done groundbreaking work on the neuronal circuitry underlying the ability to identify patterns and form memories. His work focuses on how animals recognize and respond to pheromones, chemical compounds that influence reproductive and aggressive behavior. Recently, his laboratory identified a new family of female pheromones.

Holy also serendipitously discovered that mice sing. The animals, he found, sing all the time, but their tiny voices are too high-pitched for the human ear so no one had realized they were singing. As Holy and colleagues recorded and analyzed music from mice, they discovered that some mice hesitate or repeat sounds. Studying these mistakes has given insight into why people stutter.

Holy received his undergraduate degree in math and physics from Rice University and his PhD in biophysics from Princeton University before transitioning to neuroscience. For his postdoctoral research, Holy studied pheromones and behavior at Harvard University. Holy joined the Washington University faculty in 2001.

The professorship was created through the philanthropic legacy of the late Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff. They owned Wolff Construction Co., a real-estate development, investment and management company. Alan Wolff founded the company in the 1940s and led it until his death in 1989. Edith Wolff then led the company as president until her death in 2008.

Over more than 30 years, the Wolffs directed funds to many areas of medical research at the School of Medicine. Their gifts have supported research in Alzheimer’s disease, heart transplant, bacterial sepsis, dermatology, cell biology and critical care medicine. They have provided for 13 endowed professorships, seven distinguished endowed professorships and specific research funds in cancer and ophthalmology.

Their donations also support the Edith L. Wolff Scholarship Loan Fund, a noninterest-bearing fund for medical students. In 2007, Edith Wolff committed $20 million to establish the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Institute at the School of Medicine to advance the most promising biomedical research projects focused on preventing, treating and curing disease.

In recognition of her generous support of medical research, Edith Wolff received numerous awards from Washington University, including the Robert S. Brookings Award, the Second Century Award from the School of Medicine and an honorary doctorate in 2004.

Washington University School of Medicine‘s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked seventh in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.