Dr. Jane Grimwood was born and raised in the United Kingdom. Her fascination with science began in childhood, but she never dreamed it would take her “across the pond,” and eventually to Huntsville, Alabama, where she is a faculty investigator at the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center. We invite you to “get to know” Dr. Grimwood.
Q: What sparked your interest in science and genomics?
A: My dad is a PhD chemist so my sister and I grew up around science. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a scientist. My first thought was to study zoology in college, although I was persuaded against it. I compromised and studied agricultural zoology at the University of Leeds in the UK. After my degree I continued with the study of infectious diseases, which ultimately led to the study of the DNA sequence of infectious diseases and genomics.
Q: What led you to the U.S. and ultimately, to HudsonAlpha?
A: I did both my bachelor’s degree and PhD in the UK. My PhD was centered on the cell biology of the infectious agent Toxoplasma gondii. [Toxoplasmosis is considered to be the third leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the U.S., according to the CDC.] After graduating I wanted to spend a couple of years in the states so I took a postdoctoral position at Dartmouth College in a lab that also studied toxoplasmosis. After Dartmouth I took another postdoctoral position at the University of California in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to be in the lab at the time when one of our major projects was determining the DNA sequence or genetic code of chlamydia. This shift towards genomics led to a scientist position in the lab of Dr. Rick Myers while he was director of the Stanford Human Genome Center. I worked with Rick at Stanford for eight years before moving the center to HudsonAlpha when Rick took the position of director here.
Q: What was it like to play a role in the Human Genome Project at Stanford?
A: I feel very lucky to have been a part of the Human Genome Project. It was arguably the best international collaborative project of our lifetime. We, along with the Joint Genome Institute (JGI), a virtual organization of several labs in the United States, were responsible for shotgun sequencing and finishing 10 percent of the genome, namely chromosomes 5, 19 and 16. It was hard work as there was a lot to do. The work was challenging and we were under very strict timelines. However, it was also a lot of fun and very exciting. We finished with minutes to spare!
Q: What is the primary purpose of your lab at HudsonAlpha?
A: Since working on the Human Genome Project we have continued to generate DNA sequence and other genomic resources, currently focusing on plants and fungi that have relevance in the fields of sustainable biofuel production and global food security. We have become one of the world leaders in the assessment, assembly, improvement and finishing of large eukaryotic genomes and we try very hard to produce accurate, high quality sequence data which can be used, without restrictions, by scientists worldwide, to develop downstream scientific discoveries.
Q: What exciting things can we expect in the future?
A: The search for a sustainable, economically viable alternative biofuel is currently a very hot topic that we hope to impact. In collaboration with the JGI, we are working on the sequencing, assembly or improvement of several potential candidates for biomass production including the largest hardwood tree in western North America, the American poplar, the hardy perennial grass, switchgrass and soybean, the principal source of biodiesel and an important source of protein. It is our hope that the sequence data we generate can be used, for example, to improve plant biomass and oil yields, improve plant drought tolerance, modify cell wall composition to improve access to sugars and decrease the length of time to domesticate a plant for modern agricultural processes.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job at HudsonAlpha?
A: One of the things I enjoy most is the sense of family and community that exists here. People enjoy their work and are eager and willing to contribute to both their specific work areas and to HudsonAlpha as a whole. And of course, who could not enjoy coming to work every day to such a beautiful building. The laboratory spaces are the envy of scientists everywhere!
Q: You work with your husband, Jeremy Schmutz, who was recently first author on the sequencing of the soybean genome. What is that like?
A: Jeremy and I met at Stanford while we both managed the genome center through the Human Genome Project. Those were very long hours, seven days a week and I guess we realized we got on pretty well and could work together. That is still the case with us both managing the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center. Our daughter very much enjoys Huntsville and loves to come to work with Mum and Dad. Maybe one day she will be a scientist, too.