James Park, PhD

“Science is a method, it’s a process that helps us understand the natural world and the way it works. Understanding is critical to progress.”

What is your current project and position here at ISB?

I’m a postdoctoral fellow in the Baliga lab, and one of my current project involves following up on the work that previous Senior Scientists have done related to Glioblastoma. I’m trying to understand and identify what the transcriptional regulatory networks are that drive biological behavior in Glioblastoma. More specifically, I’m looking at what regulatory interactions are driving cellular heterogeneity within a tumor.

What techniques are you using in your work?

Most of the work that I’m doing is computationally based, so I work with a lot with developing and improving algorithms. Some of the strategies that I’ve been using have been developed within the lab or others that have been developed by other research groups. I’m learning these techniques, reading about them, and trying to apply them towards analyzing data sets that other people have generated, and hopefully soon, will apply them to data sets that I will be generating on my own or through collaborators in the Seattle area.

Can you tell us a little bit about the path you’ve taken in science?

In college, I studied chemical engineering and at that point, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to grad school. The idea of grad school was in my head but come graduation  I felt burnt out from undergrad course work. I had to work hard just to survive chemical engineering. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to get a job with Merck & Co, Inc. So, I worked at Merck in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I worked in vaccine manufacturing there (Pennsylvania) and then transitioned over to process development (New Jersey), so more in the research area of the company. The experience in process development gave me more exposure to the industrial research mentality, though somewhat different from academic research. I made the transition from manufacturing to process development thinking that I wanted to at least consider grad school, so this experience would help me figure out if research was something I wanted to do.

After about 7 years of working with Merck, I was still thinking about grad school. At this point, I figured that if I’ve still been considering grad school, I should pursue it further. Otherwise, I would always be asking myself “what if?” As a result I decided to make the jump and apply to grad school. There I studied chemical engineering as well, but I worked on a project that had more of a systems biology focus. So then I had a “deep dive” into systems biology and even more into biology in general. When the time came around to wrap up my graduate research, I wasn’t really sure about what my next steps should be, whether or not I wanted to get a job in industry or pursue an academic career. To help clarify things, I interviewed with multiple labs and applied to a lot of different jobs. Of the opportunities I had available, the postdoc position in the Baliga lab seemed to be the best place to go and continue to develop my scientific skills and to expose myself to other opportunities. Also, Seattle seemed like a good place to live and explore. I wanted to try something different, so that’s the reason why I ended up here.

How do you feel the setting of ISB differs from a company like Merck?

It’s much more of an academic slant here than at Merck. Merck is a business, so there’s certainly a bottom line that each group’s efforts contribute to. To a certain extent, there is freedom to do what you want, or rather how you accomplish the objectives that are set out for you by the team and management. But I would say that there’s definitely more structure to what was being done at Merck, and more focus to what you were doing. The type of work I was doing was downstream from basic research. It’s much more applied, there’s a specific problem that you need to address, such as you need to get a vaccine product out the door, or you’re working on a fermenter and it’s not functioning, so you have to figure out why. It’s very focused there, what you need to do, as opposed to being more open-ended in the type of problems I’m dealing with here at ISB.

You went to two different schools for undergrad and grad school, could you tell us the differences in your experiences?

At least for engineering, and I suspect for the life sciences as well, most schools do not want you to stay at the same school to continue graduate research. They want you to go to a different place and be exposed to different perspectives and to learn from different people. If you go through an undergraduate curriculum and then do graduate research at the same institution and the same people, you would be exposed to a somewhat “narrow” field of thought and ideas, whereas going to another institute for graduate research would give you broader exporsure. YIn research, you definitely want to have that exposure because research is all about coming up with new ideas and executing them. To turn ideas into reality. It’s about having that broader exposure of ideas and research, which is I think important in terms of pursuing a scientific career.

What schools did you go to?

I went to Cornell University for my bachelors degree. While I was working, I earned my Master’s in Engineering degree through Lehigh University. It was a telecommuting program that Merck had with Lehigh. I then went to graduate school at the University of Delaware.

What did you like about your experience at Cornell?

I would recommend Cornell. My first semester there, I didn’t have a good grasp on what the workload would be like. I chose chemical engineering because I did well in chemistry and math in high school so I combined the two and found chemical engineering. It was nothing like I thought it was going to be because I had no idea what chemical engineering really was. It was a little bit of a shock. The workload for me was really challenging. I remember, around Thanksgiving, I came back home and said, “I want to transfer, I hate it here.” But then after starting to survive that first semester and you establish that social network, things became better and better. I mean, the workload got worse and worse, but as you grow older, you become better at handling that kind of stuff. Cornell has a beautiful campus, but you have to bear in mind that 9 months of the year there is a good chance it’s either raining or snowing, so it can get pretty depressing at times, . Definitely helps to have a lot of good friends to help you get through those tough times. During the early fall and late spring, it’s beautiful. It’s an excellent school and there are a lot of things to do, especially if you’re into the outdoors. As a side note, it’s very, very far from New York, about 4 hours.

What was something you learned about yourself while you were in school?

What I learned, or began to learn, in undergrad and through my Master’s program, is that I’m a hard worker. I don’t like giving up on a problem until a satisfactory solution is reached. I’ll keep working on something until I’m satisfied with the product I have come up with, but that’s the kind of person I am. I think I’m a persistent person. I think that is an important skill set to have, but you also have to balance that with being reason and a sense of practicality because anything taken to the extreme can turn out bad. I’m still working on keeping that persistence while also learning how to decide at what point is “good enough.”

What is your favorite aspect about your career?

I think one thing that I can appreciate is the challenge of science. There’s always something new to learn, always a new problem to solve, and there can be a lot of freedom in the scientific field: picking what problems to work on, deciding which problems are worthwhile to work on, and how you approach those problems. You’re constantly learning, constantly challenging yourself, and constantly challenged by others to do your best. Although working through such challenges may not be the most fun,  I think that the struggles one faces helps you to grow. Every day, I’m learning something new, working with really motivated people, intelligent people, and hard working people, and that’s another thing I really appreciate about my job in science so far.

Are you able to balance work and personal life with your career in science?

That’s something I struggle with on a regular basis. I definitely had more of a balance of work and social life when I was working. In college, I put a lot of pressure on myself to to do well. That self-imposed pressure and challenging curriculum drove me to constantly study. Fortunately, I had good friends that would make me hang out with them, otherwise I would’ve just studied all the time. In grad school, I made a conscious decision to work hard so that I would get out sooner, but that didn’t really happen. Now, I still find myself working hard and trying to find time to expand my personal life. Similar to my mindset in college, I want to do good work, but that requires a lot of time and effort on my part, to understand techniques people have done, to apply and use what people have done to my work.

What was your experience in Grad school like?

When I first started, I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn’t really know how difficult it would be. I was a little presumptuous prior to starting school because I thought I’d have no problems in research having worked in biotech. I thought, “Oh, I’ve got this stuff figured out,” how to manage myself and manage my time. It turns out grad school was a very different world than the working world. The work that I had to do was very different than the work I had grown accustomed to. Getting back into the academic part of grad school was a little challenging, but more than that, one of the biggest difficulties I had was dealing with how ambiguous research can be. The problems I dealt with at work were more defined. But with research, you have to help define the problem you’re going to work on.

Your advisor may have an idea, a general problem or topic they would assign you to work on, then they’ll say, “here you go, go work on it.” It could be a well-defined project, other times it may be a vague, general idea. Then it’s up to you to hone in and understand that field of research, see what others have already done, identify what the gaps are, then come up with a problem – a solvable problem – that you think you can address. You’re learning these things on the fly, essentially, as you go along. That was a big challenge. If you’re ever learning how to do something for the first time, it can bevery difficult, but once you’ve figured it out, it becomes more routine. Learning how to do devise a research problem and conduct rigorous research was difficult for me because I hadn’t done it to at that level before. Despite the stress and challenges associated with this process, it was ultimately a rewarding process.

When you were in high school, did you ever picture yourself being a PostDoc?

In high school, no. My parents definitely suggested ideas of becoming a medical doctor, or something along the lines of that. A college degree was not enough, essentially. That sort of pressure influenced me. In college, I thought when I’d be 30, I’d be married, have kids, and have a higher degree of some kind. In reality, I didn’t start grad school until I was 29. Reality can be very different than what you hope it to be, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When I was in high school and in college, I didn’t know better, but I’m learning!. I know now more than what I did then, but there is a lot more for me to learn. In high school I definitely did not think I’d be a PostDoc because I didn’t know what I was going to be.

If you could go back to high school, would you take the same path?

It’s hard to say, I don’t regret choosing this path, this scientific path, but there’s just so much more out there in the world with respect to careers and experiences… I would certainly like to do them all, but you have to try and pick one and maximize your experiences there in the path that you choose. I think I would choose this again, I would just do things differently.

What surprised you the most about your career in science?

In grad school, one idea that was stressed was the importance of communication. In high school and in college I thought the most important thing was having a solid understanding of the concepts. I’ve realized that being able to communicate those ideas, those concepts to other scientists as well as other people, is incredibly important. It also ties into one’s understanding of a concept, because being able to explain an idea in a way that is understandable to a peer or layperson, requires rigorous understanding of that idea or concept. Ultimately, research is funded by the taxpayers and I believe it’s our responsibility as scientists benefiting from this funding to be able to communicate to the people who are paying for it what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s also important to be able to communicate our work to our peers because that’s how ideas are generated and progress is made, by sharing and refining these.

What do you find so important about science?

Science is a method, it’s a process that helps us understand the natural world and the way it works. Understanding is critical to progress. Granted, it may seem like the world around us is going great, there’s technological advances, cultural advances, and I think they’re all integrated.

What advice would you give high schoolers pursuing science as a career?

I would say in general to keep an open mind. Try to experience as many things as you can, try to expose yourself to many different things. If you know you’re definitely interested in science, by all means, go for it! Even then, though, I’d suggest exploring non-scientific classes and opportunities because I think they can all feed upon each other. Don’t be close-minded and don’t limit yourself to ideas and opportunities because you’re all young and you never know what opportunities may surprise you and what events may lead you down one path versus another.

Life is likely going to be a non-linear journey. Whether it takes on a zigzagging kind of path, or forwards-backwards kind of path, I think it’s important to learn as much as you can while you travel that path. Don’t beat yourself up if things don’t happen in a linear way. And your progress is specific to you; everyone progresses at their own rate. I certainly beat myself up a lot when I compared myself to my peers that are maybe more successful. But I’m trying to focus on improving myself, being better than my previous self.


ISB High School Interns 2017