Molecular Biology Students Interview Stanford's Dr. Seung Kim

Sahil Malhotra ‘19 & Jeffrey Tao ‘20/From Lawrencium
Lawrenceville’s Science Department is offering a new course this year: “Research in Molecular
Genetics.” Joining a number of research-based courses on campus, it involves hands-on genetics research with the common fruit fly species, Drosophila melanogaster. The course is taught by
Science Master Nicole Lantz and Director of Student Research Dr. Elizabeth Fox in partnership with the Seung Kim Laboratory at Stanford University School of Medicine. While humans and fruit flies may look different, they share many pathways and mechanisms that are crucial for development and survival. The ultimate goal is to use fruit flies to understand the genetic processes that drive human diseases such as diabetes.
Lawrencium had the opportunity to interview Dr. Seung Kim this past November. In the following interview, Dr. Kim shares his career experiences, the creation of the fly course, and his advice for high schoolers interested in scientific careers.
Sahil Malhotra: It’s unusual for a researcher, especially some- one of your standing, to reach out to students at the high school level. What made you consider this?
Seung Kim: Science has an inherent, built-in teaching component to it. People want to learn, and I’ve always been interested in teaching. But after I became a parent, I saw that things hadn’t changed so much in terms of science education from when I was a student. It was depressing in some ways because I felt that what [students] were being trained to do was remember and recall.
By contrast, I think that [...] the essence of science is discovery. The excitement and exploration that are inherent, for example, when people go on to discover something about nature, [...] were not being presented to my kids or other people. When I went back for a high school reunion [at Exeter], it really drove this home, because I saw first-hand that [teachers] were teaching high school biology the way I learnt it thirty years before. So, I developed [at Exeter] a notion of bringing experimental, open-ended experiences to the classroom. I started [the fly course at Exeter] in 2012 based on that experience. Now we’re on our seventh year there.
SM: Could you speak to the particulars of starting this program at Lawrenceville and other schools, as well as your hopes for expanding it in the future?
SK: It started to snowball after [Exeter]. [...] We became interested in trying this at other places. I happen to be friends with [Head Master Steve Murray] from my high school days, [and] we discussed the idea of trying to do something. That’s when I began to engage with [Dr. Elizabeth Fox] and [Ms. Nicole Lantz] to develop the sequence here at Lawrenceville. We have now done this in four high schools. The hope is that this expanding number of places and course types will constitute a kind of hub, with Stanford at its core.
So, someday, maybe Lawrenceville students [...] could legitimately teach at one of these other sites. It wouldn’t necessarily entail doing experiments, but there are many people who go into science who are interested in teaching, and that’s what they become. They don’t become principal investigators in a lab or that sort of experiment-based thing: they teach.
SM: What was your path into science, starting from when you first started getting interested, to where you are today?
SK: Well, it wasn’t a linear path for sure. I was very interested in many things. I wanted to be the starting catcher for the New York Yankees when I was growing up, so I devoted a lot of energy to baseball. I also was very interested in music.
I got interested in—it’s strange—the formalism of science presentation initially because I learned, when I was about 11 or 12, to touch type. I had a science report to prepare in seventh grade, and I just thought I would type it out. It was a different kind of writing, a kind of structure, with the formalisms {and] sections. It just seemed a very user-friendly format, and the feedback I got was encouraging.
The key struggle I had [...] was to decide what to do about all [my] interests, and then to stay flexible in terms of my opportunities. [I pursued] both medicine and graduate training in biochemistry when I was in my twenties, [but] by the time I got to my fourth decade, I realized that it [was] important to try to do the best you can. For me, that [involved] focusing on one or the other. I couldn’t ultimately feel comfortable doing both medicine, in this case oncology, as patient care was too demanding, alongside science and running a lab. Then, there are all the other things that were more important in terms of my life; I had by then married and had [...] a second child. The whole notion of balancing those was complicated by having trained in two professions, so I finally decided when I was 33, to just do one: run a lab and pursue science.
That was challenging. That choice was not so easy, and this is something I think is unsolicited advice for people who are facing these kinds of choices: It’s okay to make a choice. Often, people think of it as closing doors [...] but that misconstrues what choices are about. When you make a choice, it frees you to actually focus. That freedom then can translate to, if you’re fortunate and you work hard, unexpected consequences in terms of outcomes.
SM: What’s daily life like in the lab?
SK: When I teach students, I try to emphasize that self-awareness about whatever it is that interests you and drives you is very useful for making decisions. In my case, I realized at some point that I liked being alone in a room, thinking, and writing. Those are unnatural states for Homo sapiens. We’re social animals, but [...] writing something well or trying to write something well or trying to revise something so that it reads well is something that I realized that I liked to do. I am often supposed to be doing that for many reasons, whether it’s to write proposals to fund what we do, revise reports on what we do, write manuscripts, or teach people how to do those things. It all involves [being] solitary.
SM: What are some myths people might perceive about working in a lab?
SK: The myth, I think, about science that people find surprising [...] [is] although a lot of things I do are solitary or with maybe a one-on-one sort of dynamic, science in my lab is a team activity. There are so many expectations about testing a hypothesis, and often that [requires] expertise that you don’t have necessarily or that someone in the lab doesn’t even have. So team-based approaches are more the norm, or expected, actually. The scientist as a lone wolf—that largely doesn’t exist anymore. Single-author papers are rare in science [and] in biology in particular. So, it’s a very team-based approach and I like that.
That part though, requires some skills that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a scientist who runs a group. I not only assess data, but also check the data for its veracity, for the interpretation of it, and for the larger picture [and] how it fits into other data that either have been published or generated in a lab. So it’s an interesting role, that’s what I do.
I don’t do experiments [regularly] anymore. But, that’s part of the challenge of adulthood, to train in something, to become excellent at it, and then to move on and no longer do what you’re excellent in. That kind of adaptability is something we justly celebrate in our achievements. That’s what, for example, “Odysseus” in The Odyssey is celebrated for. He’s calculating, and he’s nimble and adaptable. He also has his flaws but that’s what the Greeks celebrated as a kind of success story, and I think the same is true, in general, for other careers and certainly true for science.
SM: If there’s one thing that you could tell either your younger self or any young, aspiring scientists, what would you tell them? What advice would you give them?
SK: I think what I would tell a budding scientist is that in order to find some kind of meaning in life, you wind up doing something daily that you really are engaged with. It doesn’t have to be science, it doesn’t have to be what the family expects, but it should be something that really moves you. [...] It seems to me that many people do not engage in something that enthralls and moves them, and that’s sad. That something doesn’t have to be any one thing; over time, it could evolve. I didn’t necessarily think that I could ever become so focused on teaching science and what it means to students in secondary school. That developed in my fifth decade. But unless I had done something that I really liked, it would have never evolved into that.
To pick that thing is very hard. To pick that thing takes self-awareness. You may have imposed external expectations on what you do. It could come from family history—it did for me—but that thing should come from your inner voice. How you actually nurture that takes time, experimentation, and luck, but it also takes some self-awareness. People don’t ever address that: they say find what you love and then do that. It sounds so easy and formulaic. But if that were true, [...] everyone would be, at some level, more engaged with what they do. As Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
I think that, ultimately, whatever you choose to do, there is an element of service in it. “Non sibi” is a motto for many people: “Not for oneself.” Science has its own rewards, but it’s also for me something that is a way to reach out and interact and serve other people. It’s a long-winded answer; there is no one piece of advice.
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