Elizabeth Villa

Elizabeth Villa, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of California San Diego.  She completed her PhD in Biophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a Fulbright Fellow. She was a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich. In 2016, she was granted an NIH Director’s  New Innovator Award, which allows her to pursue high-risk high-reward research  developing tags for cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET), and developing new technological and computational techniques to advance structural cell biology.  In 2017, she was named a Pew Scholar.


Dr. Villa’s laboratory has a strong focus on building tools for quantitative cell biology, using cryo-electron microscopy and tomography, cell biophysics, computational analysis, and integrative modeling. This potent combination enables the observation of macromolecular complexes in their native environment and derive their structure, context, and interaction partners.  Her current research is focused on studying the nuclear periphery, as nuclear biology remains one of the most exciting challenges in the cell, and it is uncharted territory structurally. Her lab  also pursues many collaborations aimed at understanding the bacterial cytoskeleton, studying Parkinson’s disease.

Opening Windows into the Cell:  Revealing Molecular  Architecture of the Nuclear Periphery

To perform their function, biological systems need to operate across multiple scales. Current techniques in structural and cellular biology lack either the resolution or the context to observe the structure of individual biomolecules in their natural environment, and are often hindered by artifacts. Our goal is to build tools that can reveal molecular structures in their native cellular environment. Using the power of cryo-electron tomography (CET) to image biomolecules at molecular resolution in situ, we are building tools to make compatible with, and directly comparable to, biophysical and cell biology experiments, capturing the structural behavior of macromolecules in action under controlled conditions. I will show how we use these techniques to study the molecular of the nuclear periphery, to understand Parkinson’s disease at the molecular level, and to peek on the inner life of bacteria.