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Cornell University
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Hojoong Kwak
Graduate School

Class of 2013

When you enter Biotech 417, your eyes first see lab benches stocked with a myriad of equipment: pipettes, tubes, beakers, various colors of chemical solutions, gel molds, electrophoresis chambers, heating units, sophisticated microscopes, cameras, goggles, gloves, and more.

Once your eyes adjust to the visual complexity of the space, you begin to notice other details: computers blazing, technical diagrams and notations covering the whiteboards, several researchers in hushed conversation—the intense rhythms of people seriously immersed in their work.

Hojoong Kwak and his colleagues in the John Lis lab are quintessential research scientists. With a passion for RNA biology, Kwak is conducting research, based on the work of his thesis advisor, Professor Lis, to advance our understanding about how RNA is made—specifically how the molecule, RNA polymerase, reads the master DNA blueprint and copies it to RNA, thus translating the DNA’s genetic information to working body parts. Very specifically, he is trying to determine why the RNA polymerase pauses its functioning during this transcription process—and what signals it to pause and then to restart.

From medicine to academia

From a young age, Kwak has been interested in why things work. He attended a science high school, where his love for science matured, and when it came time for college, he knew he wanted to pursue studies that were scientific—“data-driven”—and practical—“with job security.” He chose pre-med, with plans to become a surgeon. But in medical school—and especially during his medical internship—he had experiences that showed him medicine is an art as well as a science. It does not always depend on scientific evidence.

“I saw that the decisions I made as a physician could seriously effect a patient’s future, and I was humbled by that reality,” Kwak explains.

So he determined that a career in research and academia would be a better fit for his scientific predilection.

“The research I do is very basic—it helps us understand the behavior of a molecule—but it’s a lot of fun,” Kwak says. “I enjoy thinking about possibilities and imaging an outcome that could influence many things.”

In-lab collaborations are an important part of working on the Lis team, he explains. Everyone in the lab works on the same or similar biology, but there are different topical specialties and different sets of technical experiences among the group of post-doctoral associates, senior graduate students, and new graduate students. Some, for example, are skilled in high-end optics, others in real-time monitoring, and still others in analytical informatics. Generally, the person with more experience with the technique needed leads the experiment—and teaches the others.

“Everyone knows what everyone else is doing,” Kwak says. This means there can be quite a bit of informal conversation—in the hallway, during coffee breaks, at someone’s bench—which leads to new thoughts and new ideas for experiments.

“When we work to answer the same questions using different aspects of technology, if we come to the same conclusions, we know they are very strong results,” he says.
Kwak foresees that studies he and his colleagues are conducting with RNA may one day help scientists understand more about natural and disease states and about how to repair malfunctioning at the molecular level.

“Hojoong Kwak is one of the most outstanding students that I have encountered in my 34 years as an advisor of graduate students at Cornell,” says Lis. “He is extremely smart and mature, with both extraordinary experimental skills and an amazing ability to computationally analyze large genomic data sets. He is also incredibly good-natured and has cultivated productive partnerships with several people in my lab and collaborating labs. He is in high demand.”

Technically complex biochemical procedures, highly sensitive imaging tools that capture molecular interactions, sophisticated computational science, teaching seminars, published research papers, planning, and patience—these are the foundation of Hojoong’s life as a scientist.

Beyond the lab

But there’s something more about this PhD candidate that is not immediately visible—he recognizes the need for something other than his science-minded, data-driven focus.

Kwak grew up among the high-rise buildings in the Gangnam district of the mega-metropolitan city of Seoul. His childhood revolved around disciplined schoolwork but also included family and friends—and experiences that gave him the values which shaped him. One might say that he reflects an authentic Gangnam style.

“The support from my family, and their faith in me that I am doing something really worthy—this keeps me working hard,” Kwak says.

And then there’s science itself. He knows from experience that having solid data and a logical analysis doesn’t always mean success. Serendipity plays a part, as does perseverance.

“Things don’t always work in the way you expect,” he says. “I am continually surprised.”

Sometimes the first proof-of-concept experiment will work perfectly, he explains. “This is exciting. Then when you repeat it, things start not working the same way and you need to spend months adjusting conditions to find consistency.”

One more factor—Hojoong and his wife have a five-year-old daughter. “It’s the time of the fairies and princesses for her,” he says, “which means that I always have magic fairy dust on my sleeve.”

And a true research scientist considers all the data that is presented.