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Meet Albert Kim - Winner of the ISEH New Investigator Award

Posted By Connections Editor, Thursday, October 30, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Albert D. Kim, BSc, MSc is the 2014 winner of the ISEH New Investigator Award, given to the best poster presentation by a graduate student. Albert is finishing his PhD in the laboratory of Dr. David Traver at University of California, San Diego. He has been working in the field of hematology and stem cell for 8 years, and has been an ISEH member all those years.

Albert kindly answered some questions for ISEH.

Tell us about your graduate education, generally. About the experience of being a graduate student.
My graduate career has felt like growing up all over again, learning from talented people that are much better at research than I am. During this period I understood that to approach the level of my colleagues someday I would need something more than what I could absorb from them. Graduate school has been the stage where I’ve tried to understand and develop what ‘my way’ as a scientist is.

Who has most influenced you to become a scientist, and how did they influence you?
Julien Bertrand was my first postdoc mentor that showed me by example the level of performance and diligence that I would need to reach as a scientist. Wilson Clements was my second postdoc mentor that showed me the level of thinking and planning that I would need to focus my research. I think of both of them as my living textbooks and I constantly refer to my memories associated with them when I am doing my research today.

How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
I was interested in the advancements in the field of stem cell biology from the news and I wanted to be part of that. I found David Traver as he was beginning his laboratory at UCSD while I was an undergraduate and was excited by his goals in understanding how hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) are made. David shared much of the expertise that he had developed during his training with Irving Weissman and Leonard Zon with me from the beginning, and since then I’ve been hooked on this field.

What is the overall aim of your research?
My aim, shared by many in the field of hematopoiesis, is to understand the requirements for specifying HSCs during embryonic development. I have focused my research on understanding the mechanisms by which cell-signalling pathways orchestrate this process, with particular interest in how the surrounding microenvironment of HSC precursors is involved. Ultimately I would like to understand more about what the microenvironment does that is required for HSC specification.

Tell us a little about the subject of your presentation.
Notch signaling is known to be a key requirement for HSC specification, but our understanding of how many processes it controls that are required by HSCs is unclear. In my presentation I presented evidence that Notch signaling utilizes multiple Notch receptors to coordinate at least two molecularly, temporally, and spatially separable events that are both required for HSC formation. The requirement for Notch1a/Notch1b in HSC precursors demonstrates conservation across vertebrates, but the requirement for Notch3 in the somitic microenvironment is surprising.

What is the most exciting or intriguing result you’ve gotten so far?
I was excited by the results that activating Notch signaling in the somites of Notch3-deficient embryos rescued HSC formation, while endothelial induction of Notch failed rescue HSCs. I was interested by the fact that this failed endothelial induction of Notch signaling in Notch3-deficient embryos led to ectopic expression of HSC markers in endothelium of regions of the embryo that normally do not express these markers. My inference from this finding is that tissues that normally do not make HSCs might be easier to transform to an HSC-like fate with inappropriate signals than bona fide HSC precursors that might ‘know better.’ The key to making healthy HSCs in a dish might lie in understanding what makes true HSC precursors different from every other tissue in the embryo, even from what seem like highly similar tissues.

What's the biggest challenge you've ever faced in your research?
The biggest challenge has been how to do research in a highly competitive field as a relative newcomer to it. As a graduate student my resources in terms of time and expertise are more limited compared to the majority of independent researchers in the field, therefore in order to be competitive I need to choose questions that are unlikely to have many preexisting competitors working on them, can design experiments that have a reasonably high chance of resulting in a clear answer, and have the discipline to not move on until I find the answer. While these factors are important for everyone in research, graduate students feel the combination of these pressures most acutely. The one advantage that we have as graduate students is that thinking with these pressures in mind can lead to incredibly simple ideas and straightforward execution.

How do you balance between work and personal life?
I think of the two as highly related; my personal life is tailored to boost my motivation to the highest possible level so that I can be the most effective researcher possible. As I mentioned earlier graduate students are limited by time and by expertise, the one thing we can use to our advantage is our fresher motivation. I am motivated when I am improving at something that requires a high level of skill, so I spend much of my personal time doing hobbies that are like science in that I get more out of it the more skillful I am. These hobbies allow me to develop this type of thinking and attitude in a stress-free setting and give me a foundation to draw on when the pressure is on.

What are you working on most intensely right now?
The work that I presented on recently at ISEH leads to many immediate questions including what are the specific regulators and targets of the environment and cell-intrinsic-required Notch signals. I have exciting preliminary data that shows that there are specific regulators of these Notch signals, and I am trying to uncover the mechanisms involved in this process. On the horizon I have my postdoctoral training lined up and I spend time planning my initial directions.

There are a lot of interesting aspects of this scientific field; what do you find the most exciting?
I like that to succeed as a scientist in this field there are many different skill-sets needed, and there is a constant pressure to get better as we progress in our careers, making it an endless goal. That’s the type of career that I can devote my life to, and find joy in every step along the way. Yes is it incredibly difficult, but that is what will give me satisfaction in the end.

In your field, what do you hope we will know in five or 10 years that we don’t know now?
I hope we know what are the conditions needed to maintain and make healthy transplantable HSCs in a dish someday. It’s been a huge mystery since the beginning of this field, but there has been tremendous progress in the past few years so the chances can only get better.

Who is your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did he or she help you?
I am most impressed with my mentor David Traver’s relentless hunger for progress and intensity to cross the finish line on projects, and I have taken that with me. He’s shown me how to take a laboratory from its inception and take it all the way into an established and successful laboratory. If I am fortunate enough to be in that position someday I am sure I will draw upon my memories with him. Most importantly he gave me incredible opportunities to apply what I have learned from the talented team he has assembled and succeed as a young scientist. I’ve grown more as a scientist and a person than I would have thought since I first started with him, and I am confident moving forward.

What are your future career plans?
I have my postdoctoral training lined up after I am finished with the Traver laboratory. I will be joining Andy McMahon at USC to ultimately understand how to make, maintain, and repair healthy kidneys in a dish, similar to previously mentioned goals in hematopoiesis. I know by the end of that phase of my postdoctoral training I will be well trained for the next stage of my career.

What general advice would you give a young person considering a career in science?
Understand what it is you like about science and your specific goals, then get informed about what it will take to reach these goals. Once you have that plan, continuously set benchmarks that will help you reach the next stage and take measures to reach them. Once you’ve taken the plunge and set on your path in a career in science take responsibility for your own development, and become an expert trainee and utilized your mentors effectively. Learn how your mentor made it to where they are today, and make their strengths become your strengths as you are developing your own. Lastly, have the tenacity and the intensity to develop and protect your career as a professional.

What are the results of a scientific career that makes it worthwhile and exciting?
Certainly having recognition and contributing to what is known in science is a huge part of what makes it worth doing. I am most motivated by the daily prospect of learning more than what I knew yesterday. Everything else seems to fall into place when that is my main priority.

How were you introduced to ISEH?
My mentor and colleagues were encouraging me to attend the yearly meeting. I was excited by the list of speakers and the ability to communicate with them in person.

What do you find most valuable about ISEH?
Much of what we think about as graduate students feels like independent thinking in a vacuum. Coming to the meeting and talking with the community gives us the opportunity to inform and refine our perspectives. That big picture understanding is something that I find the most rewarding about meetings, and ISEH in particular.

Why do you attend the ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting?
I attend the meeting to present my work and get advice from experts in the field. It’s a huge opportunity to network and set up future collaborations.

What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory?
Without a doubt winning best student talk. I’ve never presented a talk at an international meeting or won anything in my life. To do both at the moment that means the most for my career makes me feel tremendously lucky and thankful to everyone that helped me along the way.

What are yours :

Hobbies? Tennis
Favorite book? Ender’s Game
Favorite movie? Lord of the Rings Trilogy
If you could meet one person (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
I view tennis and science as very similar disciplines in that those that have succeeded have possessed an amazing combination dedication, willingness to adapt to solve problems, and ability to execute in key situations. Rafael Nadal is a champion tennis player that has these qualities but is also believably humble and uplifting. Here is one of my favorite quotes of his:
“(But) it's nice to be there fighting, trying to go to the limit. It's something I really enjoy and I always said it is good to suffer. When you are fit and have passion for the game you are able to enjoy suffering.”
It would be nice to meet him just to say thanks for the inspiration.

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