Alumni Spotlight -Jun Seok Lee


IMG_7233Tell us about where you are now in your academic career.

I recently graduated from Rutgers University with a double major in theoretical physics and mathematics. Come September, I will be starting a masters program in biophysics at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris VI) in France. I plan to continue towards a PhD at the end of my masters, either staying in Europe or maybe somewhere stateside where it’s always warm, like California.

What is your research focus?

I’ve spent most of my time as an undergrad exploring research options more than focusing on any specific thing. I’ve done research in high-energy experimental particle physics, in neurobiology, in genomics, and extremely briefly in optics. At the moment, I am not obligated to any specific field of research, but I am being drawn more and more towards neurophysics in regards to understanding and treating neurodegenerative diseases, as well as aspects of membrane biophysics.

When and how did you first become interested in this type of research?

I had some health issues regarding my nervous system a few years back and was really frustrated at the lack of answers and solid methodologies in diagnosis. While that frustration was more owed to my lack of patience, it did spark my curiosity in reading up on biophysics and neurophysics in general and prompted my desire to return to school to pursue my degree.

What was the most important thing you learned or took away from the summer program that helped you get where you are at now?

The summer program taught me that a PhD program is not some cutthroat outdo-your-peers competition, but rather it is a support group that is trying to help its members succeed academically, socially, and mentally. It showed me that people ranging from administrators, mentors, peers, and even unaffiliated people like professors from different departments are all willing to offer their time and support even if you don’t do anything related to what they are doing.

The program also exposed me to various types of work being done in biophysics. I had a better understanding of what work was being done in the field, and helped me both broaden and narrow my vision in the type of work I hope to pursue in my career in biophysics. The guest lecturers, the alumni, and the one-on-one counseling I received from various people both related directly and indirectly, was formative in creating the idea of what I believe is my future career goals.

What was your favorite thing about the summer program?

If not all the wonderful food (I’m not even joking here), it has to be all the people I met. My fellow students, the TAs, Mike, Barry, Lisa; everyone had a part in creating the awesome time I had during the program. I was exposed to so many types of personalities and lives a scientist could live, and I received so much good advice that has helped me get to where I am now and will probably continue to advance my growth as a scientist. I believe that during that short span of time, I was able to make connections, find new friends and mentors who I could depend on for support throughout my academic and professional career, and well into the rest of my life. Biophysics is such a broad field, and it requires a vast pool of knowledge to answer the questions posed in it. The program made it such that we all came from widely differing academic fields so that we could work together during our time in the program as well as call on each other for support for our individual work.

However, let me repeat once again, the food was great. I have cravings for that vinegar-based North Carolina barbecue sometimes.

What advice would you give for current undergraduates interested in pursuing a higher degree?

It’s not about how intelligent you are or how easily you can grasp the topic, but about persistence and consistency. Many people fall into this trap where they think just because they’re not the smartest or the fastest among their cohort, that they aren’t good enough for graduate school or beyond. Absolutely not true. You might have to put in some extra hours with the book or at the lab, but if you can hunker down and get working, consistently and diligently, you most definitely can reach that higher degree.

Have mentors played a role in your success? If so, how?

Absolutely, yes. I had multiple mentors during the program. Some were obvious mentors, and some not so much. I think you have to really take advantage of everything the program offers, whether that’s advice from your post-doc lab mentor about the research, or from a TA who was just recently in your shoes, or from a professor you sit down for conversation over lunch who tells you about how he got to where he is today, or even just passing by an office of one of the administrators and having a small chat that leads into something deeper. In whatever situation, summer program or not, there will be people out there who can help you figure out how to orient your compass.

What have been some of your toughest challenges so far in advancing your career?

Trying to figure out where my true passions lied in regards to the field I wanted to pursue. Luckily, the professors and programs I’ve applied to and been a part of have been more than helpful in guiding me towards my goal rather than trying to make me settle for any one specific thing.

Another tough thing is trying to get over what is commonly known as “imposter syndrome.” You study, you do your problem sets, you do research, but that fear of not being good enough makes you feel like you’re a fraud. That’s another thing the program helped with, is that I got to meet people along the various stages of a career path, whether in academia or industry, and it showed me that this is what everyone goes through, and as I said before, persistence and consistency are the keys to success.

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BPS Summer Program Alumni spotlight


20170617_191504Hi, my name is Lonzie Hedgepeth. I am from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Last year, summer of 2016, I attended the Biophysical Society Summer Research Program in Biophysics. I learned about the Biophysics Program through the help of a guest speaker in my genetics class.

My professor, Dr. Conner Sandefur, invited Patrick McCarter to talk about the biophysical properties of DNA, and how mutations in DNA can lead to diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis. Patrick’s lecture, which not only deepened my insight into the fields of biophysics and genetics, exuded vigor and confidence. After the talk, I approached Patrick. We talked about possible summer research opportunities that are available at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and then exchanged contact information. Later that day, I sent him an email, thanking him for a wonderful and informative seminar.

Soon after, Patrick contacted Dr. Sandefur, informing him about the Summer Research Program in Biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Sandefur and Patrick, who had attended the program himself, thought that this program would be an ideal program for a budding research scientist, such as myself, to gain extensive research experience in an environment that would mirror that of Biochemistry and Biophysics Ph.D. programs. Fortunately, I got accepted! After meeting with my cohort, I realized that we were a very diverse group, coming from different backgrounds. At first I was a little nervous, but over time the cohort and I became very close and connected like a family.

During the summer course, I was able to conduct graduate level research, attend lectures and seminars hosted by UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, participate in several professional developments activities, and also socialize with people at similar stages of their academic careers. I conducted my research in the lab of Dr. Timothy Elston, a professor in the department of Pharmacology. My direct research mentor was Patrick McCarter, who at the time was a graduate student in the Elston lab. I never expected to be working alongside Patrick, someone who I greatly admired. We worked on investigating Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases (MAPKs) in budding yeast. We wanted to define time-dependent interactions between the Sln1 and Sho1 branches of the yeast (S. cerevisiae) High-Osmolar Glycerol (HOG) pathway. Each branch transmits hyper-osmotic stress through a MAPK cascade to Hog1 the terminal Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase of the HOG pathway. My role in this project was to use mathematical models to investigate the time-dependent contribution of each branch to Hog1 phosphorylation (MAPK are typically active when phosphorylated). I defined a set of 24 mathematical models that each tested a different hypothesis about the time-dependent contributions to Hog1 activity. Mathematical models provide us with a way to investigate aspects of the biology that are currently not feasible with experiments alone. I then used UNC-Chapel Hill’s Killdevil High-Performance Research Cluster to ‘fit’ each model to an experimental Hog1 phosphorylation training data set. The best ‘fitting’ models were then used to predict how Hog1 phosphorylation would change under different experimental conditions including dynamic hyper-osmotic stress and/or with various genetic perturbations in key HOG pathway signaling proteins.

With the help of Dr. Elston, Patrick, and my colleagues, I was able to present my findings at Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). In addition to presenting my project, during ABRCMS I was also able to attend seminars, participate in networking, and learn about a variety of potential PhD programs.

While I mainly focused on computational science in the Elston lab, the interdisciplinary nature of the project and the collaborative research environment also allowed me to directly communicate with the experimental biologists who were gathering data needed to build the models. Thus, I learned a great deal about cellular and molecular biology, live-cell microscopy, and genetics.

Working in the lab allowed me to see how graduate students, post-docs, and senior professors manage their time, maintain organized lab spaces, and communicate their unique perspectives in an interdisciplinary research group. I was able to witness how modern scientists work together to solve some of the most interesting questions in the world. I am now using these experiences, along with the skills I accumulated from the Biophysics program, to further prepare myself to apply for Ph.D. programs in the fields of Pharmacology, Biophysics, and/or Systems Biology.

I am currently in a Post Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). I have kept in touch with Dr. Elston, Patrick, and also Dr. Sandefur! I have developed an invaluable relationship with them. They have become more than just mentors to me. I hope to emulate their perseverance and dedication to help others. They have inspired me to reach out and share my experiences to other young scientists, and to encourage them to pursue their dreams to conduct high-quality biomedical research. I am also extremely grateful to have attended the Summer Research Program in Biophysics. Through this experience, my aspirations of conducting high-quality research are immensely strengthened, and my relationships with scientists developed and flourished. I look forward to the day when I am able to help a young and budding scientist get started on their own journey in science!

Biophysical Society Summer Research Program: The Time of Your Life

li_alexMy name is Alex Li. I am a rising third-year undergraduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in B.S. Chemistry with a focus in biochemistry. I first found my love of chemistry in high school after taking AP Chemistry and now I wish to specialize my interests in organic chemistry after taking a two-semester sequence of it with Michael Crimmins. I have always loved science since I was a kid – it led me to questioning “why” and “how” to every scientific phenomenon, as if I am the detective trying to fit every piece of a jigsaw puzzle. In my free time, I like to play the piano (classical), listen to new music (rap), and try new outdoor adventures (skydiving). I plan to pursue a dual-DDS/DMD and PhD in dentistry and organic chemistry in the future, as I am interested in career options such as clinics, industry, and academia.

I first heard about the Biophysical Society Summer Research Program from Howard Fried, who strongly suggested that I should apply to this program, because he wanted me to get exposed to the field of biophysics. I chose this program because it lasted for so long and I wanted to get the most out of learning and research this summer.

I worked this summer under Kevin Weeks, under whom I researched about different conformations of the RNA genome within satellite tobacco mosaic virus (STMV). This work is related to biophysics in that the research can be applied to visualize RNA structure and dynamics in vivo with high-throughput analytical methods (i.e. x-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy). By understanding the biomechanics of the STMV viral life cycle (i.e. entry, disassembly, replication), we can obtain the knowledge to develop antiviral drugs that are effective against more complex viruses (i.e. adenovirus, rhinovirus, poliovirus) that have the same structure as STMV’s. It was a rewarding and challenging summer in Kevin’s lab, especially working entirely independently and discovering literature sources to plan out my experiments.

What I liked so much about BPS Summer Course was that it is different from what other REUs [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] provide to motivated science students during the summer. It is a combination of everything: lectures/recitations, career panel workshops, seminars, lab tours, and fun social events! The lectures provided a brief overview, but intensive insight, into different fields of biophysics from UNC faculties; we also had fantastic TAs who helped us understand biophysics since it was confusing a lot of the time. There were workshops that gave helpful advice and learning tools for graduate school or MD/PhD admission process, GRE testing, abstract and personal statement writing, and much more. Different faculties from universities across the United States gave seminars about their biophysics research, which were very engaging and interactive. We also got to tour different lab facilities across UNC’s campus (which I never knew about!) to see some of the coolest science equipment, such as atomic force microscope. Some of the best memories I have made this summer was during the Emerald Isle beach trip – a social event that should be continued for future classes!

Overall, I am beyond elated to say that this summer program was a blast – both educationally and socially. I am glad I applied and I strongly recommend others to do so in the future. I will dearly miss all of the friends I have made this summer and like to thank all of the BPS Summer Course coordinators that helped made this summer possible.

-Alexander Y. Z. Li, 2016 Biophysical Society Summer Research Program Fellow