Episode 7: Meet Professor Sally Kim!

Host: Aditi Nayak '23

Today you will hear a conversation I recently had with Professor Kim, a new Neuroscience and Biology professor at Amherst College who used to teach at Stanford University. She researches the SHANK protein that can be found in neurons of the brain. This protein plays a specific role in forming synapses, which is where neurons connect with each other. It also plays a role in dendritic spine maturation. She specifically examines the role of zinc and the signaling pathways associated with the SHANK protein. Her research sheds a light on autism spectrum disorders and neuropsychiatric diseases. We remembered to start recording midway through our conversation while speaking about how she ended up researching this topic. So let's tune into that part of her story.

Timestamps: 

0:00 Introduction

1:26 Did you pursue a M.D., Ph. D.?

[8:34] Did your experience in the pediatric psychiatric ward inform what you researched in grad school or what you wanted to research in grad school?

[11:06] When you wanted to do biology or just more specific molecular focus during grad school, do you think that informed the way you approach neuroscience now?

[15:28] So are there ever any environmental factors that complicate zinc pathways? So for example, could zinc and calcium be confused for one another?

[21:41] With your two thesis students, do you know what it's like, I know you're still planning what to research, but can you give us a sneak peek?

[24:45] Well, are you remote or are you on campus?

[29:13] Is your lab just the two thesis students for this year? Or are you planning on working with other students?

[30:39] Is SHANK protein that's found throughout the brain or is it localized to certain regions?

[30:17] So with the type of research that you do, do you think there's one thing that people misinterpret a lot? Or is there something, a misconception about neuroscience in general that you want to correct now?

[32:08] Where can students find you on campus?

[32:47] And beyond that in courses. So you're teaching 191 this semester? 

[35:00] What made you decide to come to Amherst College and start teaching here?

[37:26] What were you nervous about or what something that didn't go as expected when you started teaching at Amherst? 

[39:16] What are you most excited about with now being an Amherst professor?

[40:18] Dog Instagrams, Wired Autocomplete, and More Fun Stuff!

[47:26] Conclusion

Credits:

Publisher: Amherst STEM Network

Podcasts Coordinator: Julia Zabinska

Music Composer: Grace Geeganage

Cover Art Designer: Chloe Kim

Image Source:

https://www.amherst.edu/people/facstaff/sakim

Transcript:

[0:00] Hello everyone, my name is Aditi Nayak and welcome to the Amherst STEM Network podcast.

Today you will hear a conversation I recently had with Professor Kim, a new Neuroscience and Biology professor at Amherst College. Before the clip of the interview that you're about to hear, Professor Kim and I had exchanged multiple emails and already spoke over Zoom for around half an hour. So let me get you up to speed. Professor Kim is a new professor at the college who used to teach at Stanford University. She researches the SHANK protein that can be found in neurons of the brain. This protein plays a specific role in forming synapses, which is where neurons connect with each other. It also plays a role in dendritic spine maturation. She specifically examines the role of zinc and the signaling pathways associated with the SHANK protein. Her research sheds a light on autism spectrum disorders and neuropsychiatric diseases. We remembered to start recording midway through our conversation while speaking about how she ended up researching this topic. So let's tune into that part of her story. 

 

[1:26] I think with a lot of neuro research, people have a medical degree. So did you pursue an M.D. Ph.D.? 

 

No, actually. So I had when I graduated from college, I was interested. So I went to Haverford, another liberal arts college, and I was interested in child psychiatry. After I graduated from college, I took like a couple gap years and I worked in a psych hospital, a private psych hospital. I worked on the children and adolescent units. And I really liked it at first. It was super interesting, like working with patients, and, you know, getting to know what it looks like when a patient has a disorder that you've read about and that you've learned about and like interacting with them, and how you provide a therapeutic environment for them. And I really love working with children. Also it was more in the children's unit than adolescent unit. But then, after that really exciting part of the learning curve, where everything's new, and you just learn about all sorts of pharmacology and you learn about patients and roles in the psych hospital. After like a year plus, I started to think maybe that this wasn't for me. And part of that change came where there was a lot, the population in the psych hospital started to get much sicker. And I lived in Pennsylvania, and they had changed some of the laws and so that there were a lot more people. It was a private psych hospital, and there were a lot more people who would have gone into a state hospital that were no longer able to do that because they had changed the rules for sort of tax reasons. So the private hospital got much sicker. Then it became just this frantic kind of putting out fires all the time instead of having a therapeutic environment.  Then it got more and more stressful, and I was working probably like 60 plus hours a week. And then I was like, Oh my gosh, I don't think that I can do this for the long haul. Like, I just felt like that, it was just so emotionally draining and exhausting. And then I realized the things that I really enjoyed were actually trying to understand why somebody gets better when you give them medication, right? Like what's happening in the patient, that you give them drug X, and suddenly their behavior completely changes. And so then I decided to go to grad school based on that, and then there was this one event that happened, that pretty much I went home and I'm like, I'm going to grad school. 

It was that working with this kid, he was four years old. And he had come to the psych unit for a diagnosis called PDD, which is pervasive developmental delay. This means it's like an umbrella term where he had all sorts of things. He had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He had obsessive compulsive disorder, he had tried to kill himself three or four times by throwing himself through a glass door. He couldn't follow any directions and would become really aggressive. He just had a lot of behavioral issues. It was amazing. He  came, and they put him on a medication, and within like a week, it was a completely different child. His parents came, and they were like who is this. He was well mannered, well behaved, and could follow directions. But then it turned out his blood pressure was like, 80 over 40, or something like that just dropped to like almost nothing. So they had to take him off the medication, even though it was working really well. Then he was back to being completely out of control. And so then it was one day and I was working with him and he was on thing they call one on one so that it's one staff person to one child because he had so many behavioral issues. And he had gotten himself locked in the safe room. And the way that happens is usually if the child isn't following directions, or has some difficulties, they have to take a timeout. And if they can't take time out and they get up, they have three tries to sit quietly. In our child psych ward, that's three minutes where they sit quietly in a chair, and then they have to explain why they were sitting in timeout, and what they would do differently. And if they can't do that, they get put into a safe room. And they have to sit in the safe room. And at that point, it's 15 minutes sitting quietly. But if they can't stay in the safe room, they get three tries, and then the door gets locked. And then they have to do 15 minutes with the door lock, 15 minutes with the door unlocked. And so he had gotten locked in the safe room because he was just out of control. And so I went and the protocol is you go and you say, "Do you want me to start your timer?" And so I went and looked in the window and I said, "Would you like me to start your timer?", and he said "No!" He's screaming and running around. So I said okay, and I went away and did some paperwork, came back and said, "Are you ready for me to start a timer now?" to which he goes, "I poopied". And I was like, oh my gosh. And I looked, sure enough, behind him that he had pooped and I was like alright, so I called the nurse. And she said, "You know, he has to take his time out, it doesn't really matter. He needs to sit there, take his time out and you can bring a cloth and he can help clean". I was like, "Okay", so I told him that and then I sat down and then came back and checked. And I was really ready for me to start a timer. And he was like, smearing it all over the walls and was like totally freaking out. I was like, okay, so I called the nurse again. And I was like, "Okay, what do I do?" And she's like, "You get a bucket, you go in there and he needs to clean it. If he's making a mess, he has to clean it". I said, okay, so brought all the supplies that went in there. And I said, you know, we need to clean this. And luckily, because he had an obsessive compulsion, he's doing a really good job cleaning it. But then he just started like throwing everything at me. And I was like, I'm done. I'm done, I'm done. I was like, I'm not gonna do it. I was like, I'm going to grad school. So I went home, and I was like, I'm going to grad school. That was the last straw on the camel's back. That pushed me into grad school. And I know, I had already been fascinated by the fact that, like an antidepressant, you know, completely could fix back his behavioral deficits. And that's so sad because he couldn't maintain it. But yeah, that was my story that basically put me in grad school, and stopped me from wanting to do medicine anymore.

 

[8:34] Wow, that's not where you thought this story was going. That took a very sharp turn. So even though you didn't keep working there, did that inform what you researched in grad school or what you wanted to research in grad school?

 

So it's actually really interesting. So when I went to grad school, I was interested in doing psychopharmacology. And at that time, I started looking into it and did some rotations. And I realized that there weren't good models for studying that. And a lot of the things that people were doing were very non quantitative, and just, it just didn't like the style of science. And so then my dad's a professor, or he's retired now. But he had told me, he was like, don't worry about the topic, you should worry about the mentor. He's like, you should make sure you find the very best mentor who can train you to be a scientist. And he's like, it hardly matters, what the topic is. And I was like, Oh, well, that's interesting. So I then kind of did a different rotation with somebody who's doing biochemistry. And that wasn't really what my interest was, but I had heard he was a good mentor, and I actually went and joined his lab for a semester. And, um, and then really, really enjoyed working with him and he and I are still super close. And so I just decided to join his lab and then started down this project where I actually started doing biophysics and like single molecule fluorescence, and I went into a completely different path that was so reductionist, compared to what I had intended. So it was almost shocking. And so then when I started wanting to do a postdoc, I wanted to come back into neuroscience. And so I did a postdoc at Caltech for a while. And then I went up to Stanford. And when I went to Stanford, I actually started getting back into neurodevelopmental disorders. And things have changed very dramatically in terms of the field and the way you can study these things. And so it's kind of very strange, because I took a sharp left turn and have gotten right back where I started. So now I actually am studying neurodevelopmental disorders, in particular autism. And so it's kind of it's kind of surprising.

 

[11:06] When you wanted to do biology or just more specific molecular focus during grad school, do you think that informed the way you approach neuroscience now?

 

Absolutely. So, I was studying calcium signaling pathway and a protein called CAM kinase ii, which you'll learn about in 214. And, and CAM kinase ii is a protein, which they thought for a long time was going to actually be like the molecule that was like the learning and memory molecule. And it turns out that it's not, but it's still a really important molecule. But I think that trying to understand the mechanisms that underlie how this protein works, really and in the context of signaling was really critical for the way that I think now and so then I started pursuing more calcium signaling proteins. And then when I transitioned to Stanford, switched to zinc. And so zinc is a kind of newish signaling molecule people now sort of categorize and calcium has been very well described. And so it's kind of zincs kind of the new calcium. Now, I think, at least for me. I think that zinc plays a signaling molecule, but it's very different from calcium. Timescale is different and I think the functionality it plays is quite different. But there's still like calcium, there's a whole host of proteins that binds zinc and are activated by zinc similar to calcium. The protein that I'm interested in is called SHANK, and SHANK is a zinc binding protein that is, that is in the receiving side of the synapse. So it's a critical protein, it's called a scaffolding protein. And by that what we mean is, it's a protein that can bind to many, many different proteins and hold them in place. So that the receiving side of the synapse has a complete array of complex proteins that are bound into that structure. And depending on, you know, if you want to strengthen the synapse, or you want the synapse to be eliminated, you change that compliment of proteins. And the scaffolding molecules help you do that, so that they hold molecules in there or release them. SHANK has been implicated in autism. So if there's a point mutation or a deletion and SHANK, this results in a syndrome called phelan mcdermid syndrome, and most patients, maybe 90-95% of the patients have fairly severe forms of autism. And so this is what is called a monogenic disorder so that we know if they have this genetic abnormality that they will have autism. Most types of autism are what we call idiopathic. And so we don't actually know what the cause is and because we don't know what the cause is, we can use these types of models where we know if you have a genetic mutation or deletion, then we can just study what are the cellular molecular mechanisms that underlie it, and then try to see if we can generalize that to autism. And so, so SHANK is kind of the main player and we're looking at all these proteins that bind to SHANK. At Stanford, I was looking at this pathway that include the ampa receptor, which is a really critical molecule at the receiving side of the synapse, and  at Amherst College now we are looking at two binding proteins that we believe bind to SHANK, and one of them does bind zinc directly, and that they're involved in the actin  pathway so we're looking at its role in the receiving side of the synapse and look at how that how that whole pathway is involved, hopefully in the context of zinc and maybe autism. We have to see where it goes. So I haven't done any experiments yet, but we had two honors thesis students who are amazing. We are brainstorming, and as soon as we get all of the equipment in the lab, we're going to start doing experiments frantically. So we're really excited.

 

[15:28] I think just out of my curiosity, so I believe I might be mistaken, but I believe zinc, like calcium, is a divalent kind ion where it has a plus two charge. So are there ever any environmental factors that complicate zinc pathways? So for example, with things like lead could zinc and lead also be confused for one another?

 

So it's really interesting. So I mean, the last paper that I published had this kind of freakish amount of publicity because of this zinc aspect to it. It was a little bit strange and very surprising. Usually, papers with basic molecular cellular mechanisms don't really make the news media, that somehow this idea which we were in the discussion of the paper talking about is zinc deficiency and diet and trying to understand what these what kind of ramifications could be because we found this deficit that happened during developmental stages with ampa receptor maturation. So your question is really great is that, you know, it's a divalent ion. Usually copper is kind of the one that is sort of the comparable one, iron not quite as much. 

 

So it was interesting. This woman actually called me because her husband had read a news article about the paper we had published. And she was really eager to chat with me. So she actually called my grad advisor, my grad advisor was like, "Oh, this woman called, can you call her". And so I called her and she actually told me about the story about when she was pregnant, she had issues with copper: she had unusually high levels of copper that so much so that her hair turned green and that her first child had severe heart abnormalities and had very, very severe autism. They could never really understand she said that she was like, they wrote a case study about her. And so then she had a second child. And the same thing happened. And she doesn't have copper issues normally--it was only when she was pregnant that her copper levels just went exorbitantly high and then the child's level also went exorbitantly high. After the child was born, the copper levels still remained. So it was this very interesting case. So the second child also had autism and didn't have any kind of heart defects, I think that the first child had. Then she had a third child with, I think, a different husband. And the third child, her husband read about supplementing zinc in the hopes that it would help this copper problem. And so she took zinc supplements and worked with a doctor. And then it turned out the child did not have autism. And so she was like, "Do you want to study me? It's interesting is like that is really interesting." And then she had a child. The fourth child, they also had zinc supplements. The fourth set also did not have autism. And so like, she was very eager to chat with me about this and talking about, you know, zinc and copper. You know, what I thought about this, and if there was some sort of replacement, or what was the mechanism behind it, and she was, she was very delightful to talk to. And so there's all sorts of ramifications that can come from heavy metals, right? So trying to understand the zinc, we know, if you deprive a mouse of zinc in its diet, it starts to show some autistic types of behavioral phenotypes. We know that zinc itself can play a role. I think some of the few like tracks sort of the media articles that came from the paper, they start getting weirder and weirder, kind of farther and farther out in a field in terms of interpretation. They're like, "Oh, does zinccure autism? '' which is, is like not what we're saying. And so I think of it I think that zinc is playing a role. I think probably dietary zinc has something to do with it. I think that zinc, that it's a very, it's a very sharp titer they have to have. You have to have the right amount of zinc right: too much is bad too little zinc is going to be bad also. And so in cells, the zinc levels control very, very tightly controlled even more tightly than calcium. So calcium in basal conditions is in nanomolar concentrations, but zinc is in picomolar concentrations. So it's really, really much more tightly regulated. And so all these things, I think, are super interesting and hopefully, we will be able to, to figure them out. 

We're working in a rat hippocampal model. So we basically are taking neurons out of embryonic rat pups, and then squishing them all up and putting them on pieces of glass. And then we're using that as our model system to study where we can manipulate zinc or put drugs in there to do anything that we would like to see, we can put genes in, we can express fluorescent proteins, and see what's happening kind of on a cellular molecular scale. I do have a mouse model for this phelan mcdermid syndrome where this molecule SHANK three has been completely knocked out, so there're many isoforms of SHANK iii. So they basically have many different versions, I think there's 20 plus different versions of this molecule. It's pretty difficult to knock out all of them. But we do have an eye out for all of SHANK three molecules. The mice are not here, they won't come until after the pandemic, just to kind of keep things lowkey. But there are experiments we might be able to try in that mouse model. That might be a little bit understanding in terms of dietary zinc.

 

[21:41] With your two thesis students, do you know what it's like, I know you're still planning what to research, but can you give us a sneak peek?

 

You know that the sort of protagonist in the lab, and the story that we're studying is this molecule SHANK. So there's two, there's a family of chain molecules of shank 1, 2, and 3, and SHANK 2 and 3, both bind zinc shank three is much more heavily implicated in autism but SHANK two is also implicated autism. SHANK 1 I believe is actually more involved with synapse stability. So it's kind of involved with much later stages. SHANK 2 and SHANK 3 come up in neurons in these developmental stages, so it makes it more interesting. And so what we've done is we've picked this pathway that includes actin. So shank binds to this actin pathway. And we've picked two molecules that are very not well described in neuroscience. One is called zyxin. And one is called LASP1. And we know that zyxin and LASP1 from the cancer literature bind to each other. And we believe that there's some hints from collaborators that they should bind to SHANK also. And so one thesis student, Braxton, he has a zyxin and that's of interest. And Nisan, she is looking into the LASP1. And there's a lot of overlap between the two. The experiments kind of run in parallel, so we can do a lot of the same sorts of things. LASP1 has two papers in the literature that have characterized it, zyxin has zero. There's one C. elegans paper, but other than that, there's nothing and so they've had to go into the cancer literature and look into other different types of cells to try to understand what we know about those molecules in other kinds of pathways. And then we've been hypothesizing what that means for the SHANK zinc pathway. And so the LASP1 also has a zinc binding domain directly in it. It has probably maybe dual regulation through zinc, maybe both through shank and through itself. And so we are exploring these pathways. Because these proteins haven't been described, they're kind of low lying fruit so that we can, you know, do some experiments and immediately learn something new. So we're really excited about that.

 

That's awesome. That's really, really cool that they get to, I guess, almost pioneer with you in this field of research, which is so exciting.

 

Yeah, they've been amazing. They like I mean, both of them have, like done, we spent the summer. We met three times a week for two hours each time and they really developed complete hypotheses about what they think that protein may be doing and how I'd be working. And so we're really excited to start testing some of those hypotheses in the lab.

 

[24:45] Well, are you remote or are you on campus?

So I arrived at Amherst like two or three weeks ago, and, and I sent a whole bunch of things from Stanford. So I sent a freezer with reagents and 25 boxes and a bunch of other stuff. And so they all arrived here at Amherst before I did even. And both thesis students are here. And so we are going to start on Monday, unpack the lab, order reagents, and start experiments as quickly as we can. So we were ready to go. Yep.

 

Wow, that's really exciting. So over the summer, I guess because over the summer is remote, did you guys focus more on literature reviews and I guess compiling, like drawing from other data sources, just to see what you could find in terms of the hypothesis, and now it's the testing phase?

 

Yeah, so um, so that was the majority of it, we did a lot of things to onboard in terms of software. And so from, you know, you tell me when 191 has a lot of new software, so my lab also has a lot of new software. So we use Nero and Slack, which we're using in BIO191. Also, we used it in the lab, which was really helpful also just to see how students interact with it and how they like it. We also started working with reference managers, and trying to basically get all of the pieces, a lab notebook, electronic lab notebook, all of the pieces that we were going to use when we arrived to get everybody kind of on the same page with that. So we spent a lot of time, you know, introducing one piece of software every week. And then we did some team building things to try to try to work together. And we like it, because we couldn't be in the lab, both of them actually did some, like protocols to try to write protocols actually did some cooking, and then they had to write a protocol based on a recipe from their, like home and their family. And so they, you know, we talked about protocol writing through the mechanism of what you could do, and how you transfer, basically, you know, techniques through cooking. So we worked on that for a little while. And then we've been kind of working with these ideas and brainstorming them to write a proposal. And so that's what we're that's kind of stage we're in right now is that they've written drafts of their proposal, and we're trying to hone them into sort of specifically into those experiments they're going to do, and then polish those drafts for what's the kind of perspective will be for their honors theses. And so we did, like a very strong proponent of there's a strength assessment that we had them do through the Career Development Center, which was really interesting. And this woman came in from the Career Development Center and helped us do kind of a strengths assessment and how we could work as a team. And that was a very interesting analysis, it was funny, because she had said, I mean, they, they have, I think, like 34 strengths that you can have. And when we because I had already taken it. And so they took the strength assessment, we, the three of us had three out of five of the same for the top five strengths. And the woman had never ever seen this before. We had come into the kind of discussion and she was like, "Oh my gosh, they have three out of five. I've never seen that." And so then I said mine, and she was like, "Oh my gosh, you have the same three." So it was really fun to do that. So we tried to do some other activities that weren't just you know, literature based and trying to do some, some other community building because of being remote and trying to get to know each other to their remote environment, we have a thing at the end of my lab meeting because we're remote, we have this gif entertainment. And so every time we got together, somebody had to bring either a gif or a movie or a video or a picture that they thought was funny that they thought they knew, that other people would enjoy and then share it so that we could, like all have you know and and have a positive note.

 

[29:13] Yeah. Is your lab just the two thesis students for this year? Or are you planning on working with other students?

Yeah, so at the moment are just the two thesis students but I would like to hopefully pick up maybe two more freshmen, sophomores to work with us. Even if they go remote in the spring, then they have had a little bit of experience in the lab before and then can help with image analysis or data analysis. But like at the moment, we have to like, you know, build the lab scratch and so I think the first thing is to make sure that the thesis students are completely comfortable and that we have everything running and then hopefully mid semester, we would be looking to maybe add a couple new students. And so if people are interested, they should contact me. I'm excited to talk to people and tell them about what we do.

 

I feel like at Amherst, you're probably going to get a lot of students here. Like, I would love to do it because this sounds so interesting.

 

Yeah, I feel like just the fact that our protein, or even in this case, just like a small molecule, like SHANK, and have such a big implication in a disease like ADHD or just concentration is just that's, like, fascinating to me. 

 

I mean, it's amazing, because a single point mutation, like a single amino acid change can cause that also. I mean, it doesn't even take much.

 

[30:39] Actually, with SHANK, is that protein that's found throughout the brain or is it localized to certain regions?

 

So it is found throughout the brain, but it has different concentrations in different regions. There are some places where it's the only SHANK that that family of SHANK molecules. So in the hypothalamus,  SHANK 3  is the only family member that's there, but it is, it is throughout different brain areas, for sure.

 

[30:17] So with the type of research that you do, do you think there's one thing that people misinterpret a lot? Or is there something, a misconception about neuroscience in general that you want to correct now?

 

I think that people probably think that it's super complicated, right? That they like, Oh, it's so difficult and so complicated, and I can't do it. And I don't think that that's true. I think that anybody who's interested in it can endeavor to do molecular and cellular neuroscience. It's more how much you work, hard you work, and how much you're interested in pursuing it. And so I think, this idea that, you know, neuroscience is really hard or really complicated is kind of what I would want to dispel. And also, the neuroscientists might be really boring, which, hopefully, people don't think. From the neuroscientists I've met at Amherst College, that does not seem to be the case. So I think that people may not have that preconception.

 

[32:08] Where can students find you on campus?

 

Oh, that's a good question. So my lab is on the third floor of the Science Center, and then middle area, like that's overlooking the living room, and I'm in 321. And I am in the part of the lab that's closest to the glass wall that looks over the living room area. And then my office is right behind that area, and it's in 316. So I will not be there all the time, but I will definitely be there a lot of the time and as we start more and more research, probably more and more.

 

[32:47] And beyond that in courses. So you're teaching 191 this semester? 

 

Yes. So I'm teaching bio 191 this semester with Professor Purdy, Dr. Emerson and the amazing Emily Ma. And then in the spring, I am teaching the molecular neurobiology course. So I think it's BIO/NEUR 301. I think that's the number.

 

Yes, and I'm really excited about it, I had kind of completed a whole thing planned. But because of the pandemic, I don't think that I could actually do what I had planned. My idea for the lab was to take another pathway that's involved with SHANK and looking at different proteins. And that we would spend the semester looking in that pathway together in that class, and doing different techniques that we do in my lab, but doing it in the class as a separate pathway. And so that would be all kinds of new things, and would be really cool. And then you would kind of understand what cellular molecular neuroscientists did in terms of looking at signaling and protein dynamics. But I'm afraid unless things get much better, much more quickly. I'm not sure that we can actually do that in the way that I had intended. And so I had a boot camp at Stanford for the incoming neuroscience grad students, and it was doing something somewhat similar. And so I was really eager to try to do this at Amherst College. But it may have to wait for a year, which is sad. I think it'll be more interesting if you can actually do the lab, not virtually. I mean, we'll come up with something that you can do that will be interesting virtually also. But I think it won't be quite the same because you won't be able to work on the microscopes and play with the neurons and do all of these things. So we'll see. But I'm like at the moment, working on 191 but I'm going to soon start cooking up ideas for 301.

 

[35:00] What made you decide to come to Amherst College and start teaching here?

 

Well, that's a really good question. So I had, last year when I was applying for jobs, you know, you basically, there's, there's kind of a timing to it. It's sort of like applying to grad school or something, right? There's like applications coming out. And then you look through them. And you see, interestingly, you know, I have, you know, biophysics, and I have molecular cellular biology and neuroscience. And so I could look through a bunch of different ads and see what would fit. And every time I looked through all the ads, the one for Amherst College was always my favorite ad, like it was it was it looked like it was written for me, it was sort of shocking, like, I read the ad, and I was like, I fit this description exactly. So I applied to places and I had since I've gone to liberal arts college, I was interested in it. And I had done a lot of teaching with undergrads at Stanford, which I loved. And so I was definitely invested in finding an environment that did both research, research and teaching and on, you know, as high of a level as possible. And I really didn't want to go to a med school where the teaching is not really valued and wanted to go somewhere where teaching was not only valued but was also creatively implemented and that people really cared about it.  When I came for my interview, it was like, completely crazy, because I just loved it. I was like, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, and how much I loved it. And it was, it was really an amazing experience. And I love talking with everybody. And I love meeting with the students and the faculty. And I was amazed by how warm and caring, and like the excitement that was here and the sense of community. And so like I left it, I was like, Oh my gosh, it's completely crazy, I would totally love to be here. And so when I got the offer, I was completely astonished. And I was really, really excited. So it's sort of happened organically. And I don't think I realized how good of a fit it was until it kind of all sort of came together. And I was talking to my grad advisor who I'm very close with, and he was like, that is the perfect place for you. So I think everything's just come together. So it's, it's wonderful.

 

[37:26] What were you nervous about or what something that didn't go as expected when you started teaching at Amherst? 

 

So I think for me, the thing that I was that I am and was most nervous about is being able to connect with students through Zoom. Because it's hard, like when you're a new person and people don't know you, and it's, you know, hard enough just to get to know people, but then when you can't even meet them in person or talk to them, or have them see you in three dimensions, it makes it even harder, right? And so just to kind of establish a relationship, because I think, in terms of learning and teaching, it really is this, like mutual trust, right? That you have to know me and I have to know you, and we have to trust each other that we're going to be doing our best to, to work together, right to have as much learning happen as possible. And I think my worry was that over Zoom, that this would be even more difficult. And that, you know, trying to create a sense of community and trying to create a platform where people can know you and feel comfortable and trust you I think has been my biggest concern. So hopefully that will be and so I hope people will, you know, try to talk and we've tried to create as many different forums where people can ask questions and talk and get to know us in 191 as possible. And so I hope this will work. But I think that's kind of the biggest anxiety at the moment to fill that void, which is this whole virtual space.

 

[39:16] Yeah, it's definitely something I think that we're all navigating together. And so hopefully, just like that shared sense of wanting to connect will also help. But on the flip side of that, what are you most excited about with now being an Amherst professor?

 

I am most excited about, I'm excited about many things. I'm excited about getting research started. I'm excited about teaching and seeing what that looks like, it feels already really different than teaching at Stanford, which I find really interesting. So I'm just excited to meet the students and see what they're interested in and to see where things go and try to be kind of creative and do things in an interesting and exciting way as possible. And hopefully, hopefully we can still do that when we're doing things remote. I think so. I am optimistic.

 

[40:18] I also really loved the Wired video that you made. That was the best thing I saw on the Science Center Facebook Page.

 

Oh, I’m so happy you liked it. So, I got an email from Jess Martin like in the summer to all the new STEM faculty. And she had asked if we could make a three minute video for the SURF students. And I was like, okay I don’t have too much time and at some point I was brainstorming with a couple of friends. I said I wanted to do an Autocomplete, I don’t know if you’ve seen them before. They’re fun! They’re great. So then I asked my friends and thesis students for questions to make the video. I don’t really know how to do video editing, so one of my friend’s sons who is around 11, she had said, “Oh just ask him, he can do it.” So literally I had an eleven year old who directed and produced the video. He told me I needed three different cameras and an audio feed. So then I set it up, recorded it like he specified, and sent the video to him. At some point he asked do you want to edit it with me,  and I said I really don’t. Like I want you to do it and then just let me know. And so he put the whole thing together. We edited it. The original one, I don’t know if you saw the longer one, but it was like seven minutes. He really prefers the seven minute one, but I told him, they asked for three minutes so it has to be three minutes. He was like yeah but you’re going to lose all the good stuff. So we basically spent one evening just cutting out parts, and then he had to go to bed. So I said, okay we’re done editing it. It’s not three minutes, but three minutes forty seconds. So I had no idea if people thought I was insane because it was not the format people expected or that other professors had done. But I thought it was a fun way to get to know me. So, we’re actually going to make a series of these videos for the instructors of BIO191. So I am going to release mine to the class this coming week. Then we are going to make one with the eleven year olds' help for Emily Ma and Professor Purdy.  The dogs from the video are right here, and they are actually going to have office hours for 191. People can come visit them. They’ll offer some dog therapy for people who come visit them. They’re very good at it. It’s their super power.

 

At Stanford, Rachel (who’s the mom) actually had an Instagram account because the students insisted she did. They wanted her to have a Facebook and I had said, “I can barely manage my own Facebook. I can’t manage a dog’s Facebook.” Then they convinced me that Instagram’s less work, so I said alright. But then I hadn’t branded it properly--it was this whole thing. They gave me lessons on how to brand it better. I’m still learning. I think Rachel could be Instagram famous if she had someone much less lame than me. 

 

Does she have an Instagram account? Like is it still active?

 

She does. It’s there. I haven’t posted on it in a while, but if people bug me and ask for it, then I will definitely post there. It is @rachelthespy. The reason it’s @rachelthespy is because she is very oddly well behaved. She would go to lab meetings and seminars. When I taught, she would come and just lap surf across the students. My husband’s youngest brother was convinced that she’s a Russian spy. Like she’ll literally sit in on conversations and just listen. That’s why it’s Rachel the Spy. And Sophia does not have her own Instagram, but she does make appearances on Rachel’s. 

 

Aw, I think it will definitely be up in popular demand at Amherst as well. If you need help with the branding, I am more than happy to help out. 

 

Ah that’d be great. I’m just not very good at it, so maybe the Amherst students can help me post to it or something. It was hilarious because we were doing this icebreaker activity in one of the classes that I helped teach. It was this activity where you’re in a room and one wall is a thing and the other wall is the other thing and it’s a spectrum. So if Harry Potter is on one wall and Hermione Granger is on the other side, if you really like Harry Potter you would stand on this wall and if you like Hermione Granger you would stand on the other. If you like them both the same, you stand in the middle. And you can change the options as much as you want depending on the milieu you want to create. At one point, the prompt was rich and famous. All the Stanford students walked to rich, and Rachel walked all by herself to famous and sat there all alone.  And everyone was laughing because it was hilarious, because she was sitting there all by herself on the famous side. So I think she would appreciate it if Amherst students can help launch her fame.

 

[47:26] Thank you so much Professor Kim for taking the time to share your stories and research with us. If you’re interested in working with Professor Kim at some point during your time at Amherst, she mentioned that you can email her starting this October, once her thesis students are more settled in. Thanks for listening to today’s conversation! Remember to stay curious, stay informed and stay tuned for more.

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