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Meet Tim Harris, research professor of BME

June 18, 2019

Tim Harris

Tim Harris joined the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering as a research professor in April 2018. Harris leads the Applied Physics and Instrumentation Group at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus, and is the originator of the project that produced the Neuropixels Si probe for extra cellular recording in animals, mostly mice and rats. Now sharing his time between Janelia and Johns Hopkins, Harris will pursue this thread to produce a more advanced technology.

In this interview, Harris discusses his experience working for Janelia, his interest in neuroscience, and the secret to success in industry.

What is it like working for Janelia?

It’s a unique experience. It’s quite small, compared to a place like Hopkins. There are only 400 or so scientists, so almost everyone knows each other. It has a narrow mission and no interest in making money. I used to tell people that I work for a charity where my job is to create things and then give them away.

Janelia does not have an education mission or a product mission. It has a knowledge mission. Scientists make tools that everyone can use, and the tools they develop are imaging-at-large, mostly for cell biology but also for neuroscience. The tools that I work on are directed either as imaging resources of general utility with the life sciences, or as tools designed to enhance circuit neuroscience studies. Sometimes both.

How do you identify which projects you want to work on?

I listen to my colleagues. I arrived at Janelia without any special neuroscience knowledge, and was on a team whose mission was to make things important to the people in that building. If they are important to the people in our building, they’ll be important to lots of other people as well.

What can you tell me about your career and research findings so far?

I was trained as a physical scientist and I built instruments my whole life. Physical scientists have a different relationship with instruments than biologists do. Physical scientists will tell you what they want to know, while neuroscientists will tell you what they want to do.

What makes you excited to get into biomedical engineering?

What I find intrinsically interesting is how to measure things. I was attracted to Janelia because its projects solve measurement problems. I thought getting into neuroscience would be a good fit for me because neuroscientists measure things all the time. My mission is to exercise my broad literacy and my intrinsic interest in measurements to figure out how to do stuff. Hopkins BME has a broad neuroscience community and it’s the most logical place for me to be.

What would you like to accomplish next?

I would like to write a research grant to improve irrational exuberance for neuropixels. What we have now is great inside the brain, but what’s outside the brain is clunky. We need to effectively make that go away so people can record the whole brain. That doesn’t mean we need to record every neuron, because there would be no brain left. We need to adequately sample all over.

What advice would you give to current students?

 If you want to get into industry, you need to be able to learn enough about a product to ask the right questions early. Don’t be afraid to appear ignorant. Would you rather look ignorant or be ignorant? That’s an easy choice for me. That concept has lasted through my whole life, and that’s how I do things.