Where do you come from?
I find two things magical: plants and movies. My love of plants started when I wrote a little story about a tree that grew next to the apartment building we lived in Seoul when I was 12. We lived on the sixth floor and my room had a window next to the tree whose canopy was the same height. I was amazed that a tree could grow so tall amidst the concrete towers in the high-rise jungle and wrote an imaginary biography of the tree and its thousands of dancing leaves. My story got a national award and I thought I was destined to become a writer. Little did I know that my little world would be uprooted and transplanted across the globe within a year. A new life in the US where I no longer had control over the language dissolved my dream of becoming a writer. Little did I know that I would eventually end up studying and writing about the mysteries of plants for a living!
What was your first experience with research?
The smell of ether singularly captures my memory of science and research in high school and college. We had a little room behind the biology classroom of Dr. Kowalski’s at Yorktown High, where we conducted genetics experiments with the fruit fly. We would knock them out with ether so that we could count their eye colors and learn about the magical ratio of Mendelian segregation. At Swarthmore college, in the fancy Howard Hughes laboratory of Dr. Mark Jacobs, we wanted to identify protein kinase C from plants and purified the protein from rat brains (one of the most abundant sources of PKC) to establish the biochemical assays. Trips to the Psychology department for the source of PKC were angst-ridden as we ‘took care’ of the rats by knocking them out with ether in a large aluminum garbage can on the roof and surgically removed their brains with rusted guillotine and scissors. These were ‘exciting’ times but also solidified my distaste for doing experiments with animals.
How did you choose graduate school?
A new life in the beautiful San Francisco bay area got started when I came for an interview to do graduate work at Stanford. Learning about the cutting-edge research at Stanford was thrilling, but what really made me decide to settle here were the lovely dinners hosted by plant biologists Drs. Ginny Walbot and Sharon Long. Ginny grilled a whole salmon on her deck and we sat around a picnic table overlooking her gorgeous garden of native plants in full bloom. Sharon and Hal McGee (a science food writer with a cult following) made a wonderful meal and we talked about science and food around the table for hours. In my eyes, they were the Meryl Streeps and Katharine Hepburns of science.
How did you choose a graduate project and lab?
A lot of soul searching goes on during a graduate program. I probably hold a record in not settling into a laboratory to perform graduate work. After doing 4 rotations in various labs, I was still uncertain about where to do my Ph.D. work, and I was gearing up to do yet another rotation when Ginny interjected and encouraged me to talk with a plant biologist, Dr. Chris Somerville, who was coming to Carnegie (a non-profit research institute whose plant biology department was located on campus) as the new director. He was gracious enough to meet me during one of his visits to Stanford and we sat in the white plastic picnic chairs outside the seminar room. Before I realized, we had talked for over two hours, sharing our ideas, perspectives, and science, and I was certain that he was the ideal mentor I was looking for. Although I had to wait another year until his lab moved to Carnegie and didn’t get started with my Ph.D. research until my third year into graduate school, it was a wonderful experience and Chris remains as one of my favorite scientists and friends of all time.
What was your path after getting a Ph.D.?
A lot of soul searching goes on after getting a Ph.D. While I enjoyed the intense period of digging deep into the mysteries of how pollen cell wall formed and unformed into the wee hours of the night, I wasn’t sure whether this was the life I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. My curiosity knew no bounds, yet what I could do to attack these bouts of curiosities remained frustratingly limiting. So I decided to leave science and turned my attention to the other magical medium, filmmaking. I developed a project with a dear friend from college, Nan Bress, who had just finished a masters program in documentary filmmaking at Stanford. We wanted to make a series of short documentaries about career paths and choices with a degree in science. We pursued our project for two years with a lot of zeal and heart but couldn’t raise enough funds to realize our goals. While I was pursuing this path, I took on a part-time job as a database curator at the Genetics department at Stanford. The database, AtDB, held genetic information about Arabidopsis, the plant I studied as a graduate student. I shared the office with postdocs from Dr. David Botstein’s lab where new genomics technologies were being developed. With the human and Arabidopsis genome sequencing projects well underway and the Internet becoming a household name, I could almost taste the beginning of a new era in biology and I wanted to be a part of it!
I was in the right place at the right time. The Arabidopsis community, which amassed its critical mass, thanks to dynamic leaders like Chris Somerville and Elliot Meyerowitz, wanted a brand new database to hold all of Arabidopsis data that was about to explode. I was part of one of the teams that submitted a proposal to this call and we were successful in getting it. We got the news on my 30th birthday and because I was second in charge (the person who was going to run the project had just taken a job at industry a month before), this project essentially landed on my lap. With a team of about 10 people I put together back at Carnegie, we created the next generation Arabidopsis database called The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR).
This is my 20th year at Stanford 18th year at Carnegie. Since I (re)-started at Carnegie as a staff associate building TAIR and other biological databases in 1999, I was promoted to a staff scientist in 2005 at which time I passed on the baton of running TAIR to Dr. Eva Huala. Since 2005, I have been revamping my scientific program to understand how plants exhibit complex traits like drought and salt tolerance by elucidating the underlying genome-wide networks of proteins and metabolites. We want to identify all of the unknown processes and functions in plants using methods and concepts from computer science, evolution, and genetics and connect the dots in a way that we can explain the complex behavior of plants mechanistically, quantitatively, and predictably.