Meet a Whitehead Postdoc: Junsik Choi
Junsik Choi is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member Mary Gehring’s lab studying epigenetic inheritance in plants. We sat down with Junsik to learn more about him and his experiences in and out of the lab.
What are you investigating?
In general, I am interested in plant epigenetics and cell biology. Epigenetics is the study of how genetic information can be stored and transmitted to subsequent generations through modifications outside of DNA sequence changes. The most common epigenetic mechanism is the addition of chemical tags or “markers” to DNA, or to the scaffolding of DNA, which can affect how genes are expressed. The Gehring lab investigates DNA methylation and histone modification in plants, two epigenetic processes that are key players in carrying epigenetic information. Because genetic and epigenetic information is enclosed inside cell nuclei, I am interested in how nuclei affect and interact with epigenetic information.
What led you to become interested in plant biology?
I grew up in an environment where my parents and neighbors enjoyed gardening to make our place charming and cozy. Then I learned that plants are not only beautiful but also essential for food, energy, and industrial material. Needless to say, they are also important for maintaining a habitable environment on Earth. This led me to study agricultural biology and chemistry in my undergraduate program, which included plant genetics, cell biology, and physiology as curriculum. After graduation, I sought to continue my study in the field of plant biology to understand plant cell biology and physiology.
What are the pros and cons of working with plants for your research?
On the one hand, it can be quite a laborious and lengthy process to sow seeds, grow them and harvest the next generation. Plants need a fair amount of care, as we need to water them, monitor pests, and clean the greenhouse area. On the other hand, seed plants are great platforms for biology as an alternative to animals. Plants don’t move around and are easy to work with on a benchtop. They are also easy to maintain as you only need water and soil, and you can store seeds for many years without any care.
Do you keep any plants outside of work?
I do! And many of my lab mates do. I am honestly not too diligent in caring for non-academic plants, so I keep jade plants and snake plants, which are low maintenance. They can propagate by branching and cutting, so when I get some extra baby plants, I plan to distribute them to other people at Whitehead Institute for free.
What’s a favorite non-research-related memory of yours from your time at Whitehead Institute so far?
I really enjoyed the concerts that Whitehead Institute hosted before the pandemic. Those invited here for concerts were excellent in their performance. I hope we can have these events again soon in the future. I also love that Whitehead Institute has a piano in the auditorium so that I can practice some pieces. More generally, I really enjoy interactions with my lab mates. Sometimes we are busy working, but there are usually chances to chat and discuss many different things. Coming to work also means meeting with friends, which is the most important part of non-research life here.
What did you want to be as a little kid?
I definitely wanted to be like Goku in the Japanese comics “Dragon Ball.” I think I wanted to use the Kamehameha wave, Goku’s signature attack move, pretty badly.
What are your hobbies?
I'm a computer game nerd. I play Overwatch and still wish to get into a higher rank. It's been a thing in my life from when I was maybe six years old. I also play piano; I have been practicing a piano sonata from Beethoven. Plus, as I mentioned, I have some jade plants and snake plants, which I like to propagate.
What else do you like to do outside of work?
Recently, I became interested in some DIY stuff, like repairing my car or doing simple plumbing things like rebuilding a shower valve. It felt a little ironic that I have a PhD but have no idea how to change a taillight bulb. So, I decided to address the issue and also save some money. It feels really good when I successfully finish these DIY projects. It's kind of a healing process when my work at the bench isn’t going well.
Do you collect anything?
When it comes to collecting, I'm a real nerd. For probably my whole life, I've been collecting Korean stamps (my main subject), bank notes, coins, baseball cards and even tickets for whatever. I've spent quite a lot of time on the Stamp Auction Network site. Unfortunately, as a postdoc, I have had to stop collecting expensive things, but I still retain an enthusiasm about them.
What is your favorite meal to cook or eat?
To be honest, I'm not a good cook but I usually cook Korean food. My favorite is Korean spicy stir-fried pork. Japchae is another favorite. It's a savory noodle with a lot of vegetables and meat. A good thing about Japchae is that you can also make it vegan.
What is your favorite place to travel to?
Assisi, Italy. Although any part of Europe is usually a good travel destination, I sincerely love Assisi. Of course, I wouldn’t pass up Rome or Florence, but those cities are heavily tourist-ridden and full of distractions. Assisi preserves medieval Umbria scenery without too many tourists or distractions. My Christian name is Francis (of Assisi), so it's also pretty meaningful to visit there as a Catholic.
What’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had in the lab?
First, let me just say to Whitehead Institute’s Environmental Health and Safety that this happened somewhere else. I put some 50mL Falcon tubes in liquid nitrogen to freeze plant tissue in the tubes. I think I didn't tighten the lids on the tubes fully, and some liquid nitrogen percolated into the tubes. When I pulled one of the tubes out of the nitrogen, ambient heat and my body heat expanded the nitrogen in it and the tube exploded. It was literally a frag grenade. Fortunately, I wasn't injured. Be careful with liquid nitrogen!
What would you tell a young student to get them interested in plant biology?
While I do not believe any field of study is more or less important compared to another, there are certain points in each field that can attract your attention. I found that plants are a good subject for research as they give you great freedom in many different ways. It’s easy to deal with them in terms of sample collecting, storage and manipulation. They also exist in various forms from a single cell alga to a giant sequoia, with which you can research topics like multicellularity and evolution in depth. Most importantly, plants are the very subjects we need to understand and improve upon for food, energy and environment. Think about moving to Mars. One of the first things you would consider is how to establish farms for food.
You’ve had some experience teaching. What have you learned about how to be an effective teacher?
I was a teaching assistant for six semesters during my graduate program at Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) at Cornell. Teaching while also prioritizing time and energy for research could sometimes be difficult. However, I found that teaching is the best way to teach myself, as I had to study really hard to understand materials before I taught them. I’m still learning how to be an effective lecturer, but one thing I’ve discovered is not to be too ambitious in teaching everything that you know. It’s easy to overwhelm the students, so be mindful of how much content you are asking them to absorb.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I'd like to remain in academia to become research faculty, but I'm also interested in industrial positions. In either case, I think nothing is easy to achieve so this is a hard question to answer. Currently I'm focusing on my bench work to finish my project. Let's see how it will go.
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