5 Questions with an Expert in RNA’s Role in Immunity
You research the mysteries of immunity—how the body recognizes self from other. What sparked this interest?
I was always interested in physics. I like its simplicity, its beauty and elegance, the fact that it allows you to describe a complicated phenomenon using only first principles. Over time, I also learned the beauty of “messiness” and became fascinated by the process of pulling individual threads from a tangled mess. Self/nonself RNA discrimination in immunity seemed like an interesting mess that I could work on. It also has a philosophical implication about self-identity, which I like.
What is your ultimate research quest?
There are two pathways I’m interested in. One deals with the innate immune discrimination between self and nonself RNA. The other is sort of an RNA quality-control system that spots correctly folded, and misfolded, cellular RNA. Researchers don’t understand misfolded RNA well. It is one of my hypotheses that when RNA is misfolded or has not degraded properly, it can be misidentified by the immune system as nonself. I’m interested in that interface between RNA quality control and immunity and the role it may play in a range of diseases.
You grew up in South Korea. Does experiencing different cultures and new places hold any instructive lessons for scientists and scientific inquiry?
I think it’s important to be outside of one’s comfort zone, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I am a woman; I am Asian. I feel like an outsider everywhere I go, so I’m used to exploring new things from the outside. Maybe that indirectly affects how I choose a project or how I ask a new research question. When you are an outsider in a given field, you are more likely to detect dogmas or gaps in a line of research.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the pain I’ve overcome. When I was in high school, the pressure to do well academically was enormous. In fact, some of my classmates and two of my cousins committed suicide. I developed a phobia that impaired my ability to function. I overcame it when I realized that whenever I worked on something I enjoyed, such as solving math problems, I completely forgot my fear.
When I started my lab, our first paper kept getting rejected. I felt the world was against me. I told myself, ‘This may be the last paper you write, so just focus on writing a good paper and don’t worry about anything beyond that.’ I learned that when you are in a tough situation you can either give it everything or devote part of your energy to finding an exit route. The thing is, if you are looking for a plan B, you’re aiming for the failure of plan A.
If you could do anything else, what would it be?
When I was young I was torn between becoming an artist and becoming a scientist. Right now, I’m channeling my passion for painting and injecting my artistic vision into my son. I get a lot of joy from that.
Image: John Soares