RNA + Us

#NCCRWOMEN Portrait - Yeji Kim

(Photo: Yeji Kim)

Yeji Kim received her Bachelor’s and PhD degrees from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. After her PhD, she wanted to expand her scientific expertise and get to know the working environment abroad. Therefore, she joined the Sebastian Leidel’s group as a postdoc in 2017, when his lab was still located in Münster (Germany). The lab was relocated to the University of Bern in 2019, where she has been working ever since. In her postdoc, she investigates novel microproteins and their function in vertebrate neurodevelopment.

Yeji, what inspired you to become a life scientist?
As a child I had an encyclopedia of wild flowers and trees and I enjoyed remembering them and finding them in nature. People often told me that I should become a life scientist because I was quite good at it. I didn’t even know what it was, but I thought I wanted to be one. I thought that if I became a life scientist, I could go on field trips and observe flowers and trees, which is quite different from what I am doing now.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I would be a writer or journalist. I have always loved writing and have been good at it. I keep a journal, wrote some scientific columns for the public during my PhD, and have even written short stories. I dream of writing soft science fiction stories where the main character is a scientist.

What does a typical day look like for you? What do you like most and least about it?
On a typical day, I like working in the lab in the morning and doing desk work (analysis, reading, and writing) around 3 pm. My favorite moment in the lab is sitting in front of the microscope and taking immunofluorescent images. I am fascinated by multicolor imaging, and those beautiful images are my favorite data to be included in the figures. Completing my to-do list by checking all the ticks at the end of my day makes me feel satisfied and happy. The thing I like least during my day is preparing presentations. I like presenting itself, but I don’t like making the presentation file since I always feel that I am not good at designing PowerPoint presentations.

What is the main question that your research tries to answer?
My project aims to identify novel coding regions that have not been identified before and characterize the functions of microproteins that are translated from those regions, particularly during vertebrate neurodevelopment. It is like puzzling the missing pieces of knowledge in biological processes.

What fascinates you most about your research topic?
The most fascinating part of my project is the novelty. This field has recently emerged, and there is a lot of room for discovery. You need to be independent and challenge yourself to conduct experiments, interpret data, find different collaborators, and guide your research. I have experienced hardships, but it is also exciting to get through them. Another fascinating thing about my research is that since I am investigating an absolutely unknown protein, my target doesn't have a name yet, and I get to name it!

What are some of the most exciting scientific discoveries that you have been a part of?
The protein that I am currently characterizing does not have a name. It was unknown whether it existed or not, and I am the first person to study this unknown protein. I will be naming this protein when the research is published.
In my PhD project, I worked in collaboration with a hospital to study a rare genetic disorder called citrin deficiency. It occurs rarely, and the majority of patients are East Asian (Korean, Japanese, Chinese), so research on the disease has been limited. I used patient-derived stem cells to study the underlying mechanism of the disease phenotype and was happy that I could contribute to understanding the disease.

How do you stay motivated and overcome obstacles when conducting scientific research?
In my case, overworking has not been the biggest problem. When my research gets stuck, and I have nothing to do but sit in the office and feel useless, it is always a big problem for me and demotivating. I try to encourage myself by fully appreciating every small achievement I make in the lab.

What would you like to say to your younger self about a scientific career?
You don’t have to be obsessed with finishing your PhD early. And, you don’t have to give up other options and ideas (which are branched from science) because you think it will take too long, it will interfere with your PhD project, that you need to focus only on research and nothing else…

What do you like to do outside the lab?
I like going to museums, not only the biggest museums you can visit in Europe, but also smaller local museums to see the pieces of lesser-known artists. During the pandemic I also started baking; I think that baking is a good hobby, especially for scientists. In baking, you get a result if you follow the protocol, not necessarily in the case of an experiment...

Can you describe some of the challenges you have faced as a female scientist, and how did you overcome them?
Sometimes, you face colleagues or seniors who already assume that you don’t prioritize your career because you would get married, have children and take a career break. There were times when I felt I was already excluded from the competition from the beginning. I couldn’t find a specific way to overcome that, but I kept pursuing what I wanted to do and sometimes tried to reveal and promote myself, even on the level that might be a bit aggressive. But I wanted to show that I am serious about what I am doing.

Have you been able to provide mentorship to other young women pursuing careers in life sciences, and what have you learned from these experiences?
I had a few chances to talk to younger women who want to continue studying in a graduate school, and I have one experience I still regret. I was a PhD student and struggled in my research. I told the girl only negative things and challenges of graduate school. Looking back now, it was a hard time for me, but I should not have discouraged her. I keep one thing in my mind: don’t discourage someone’s potential in an excuse of telling “truth” or “reality”.

How important do you think mentorship is in helping young women succeed in the scientific community?
We can be inspired or mentored by scientists of all genders in relation to science, but not always in relation to life. You can learn by taking advice from experienced women in the field and see how they manage their lives at different stages and situations. You can be inspired and prepare your future by implementing what you have learned directly from someone who has already done it.

What advice would you give to young women who are seeking mentorship or looking for role models in their field of interest?
There is no perfect role model who fulfils all aspects perfectly, who you want to copy and learn everything from. But you can always meet and find many women having different strengths and possessing the points that you want to learn and implement.

Do you think the scientific community was different if more women were in leading positions?
Yes, in the end, the scientific community is the same as other communities: they work together. If we had more women in leadership positions, it would give us a more diverse understanding of life and how to deal with it. That would make fewer women leave science.

What is your wish for girls studying science in school today?
If you like science and want to study it, believe in yourself and continue. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that women are not good at mathematics or science or have a hard time succeeding in STEM fields… I don’t know if there are still people saying this nowadays, but that’s what I was told a lot when I was a schoolgirl.




We are sharing profiles of women researchers of the NCCR RNA & Disease as part of the #NCCRWomen campaign. You can find out more about the campaign on YouTubeTwitter or Instagram

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