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Pathway to Feinberg: Seok-Jo Kim, PhD

seok-jo-kim_150x180.jpgSeok-Jo Kim, PhD, Research Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care

As a student in Korea, challenges with atopic dermatitis impacted my ability to earn excellent grades. During that period, I did not want people to see my face. I struggled physically and mentally. My parents helped me reach a breakthrough in my sophomore year of high school by introducing me to the power of positive thinking. They worked with me to integrate three principles into my daily life, endurance, adherence, and balance, which manifested like this: When I wanted to scratch my itchy skin, I moved my hand from my face and counted to 20 (endurance); Each study session included reading, writing, and speaking (adherence); And I gave equal time to study, exercise, and nutrition (balance). It was tremendously difficult to make these changes, but with my parents help, I was able to change my entire lifestyle. Within a few months, my skin condition improved, as did my self-confidence and my grades. As a result I was able to enter university and begin my pathway to the Feinberg School of Medicine.

While an undergraduate and graduate student I continued to rely on my power of positive thinking creed – endurance, adherence, and balance. During graduate school, I was chosen to attend the SungKyunKwan University to study ‘Glycobiology’ in several diseases, including angiogenesis, cataract, and inflammation. During the four years I spent there, I became a lab manager and learned valuable lessons regarding how to communicate and facilitate collaboration amongst the wide range of personnel that make up a lab. When problems arose, as they invariable do, I relied on my endurance, adherence, and balance creed to determine how best to address the issue at hand. And I learned the most important component is to listen to lab members, to hear everyone’s opinions to solve problems positively.

After earning my PhD in medical bioscience, I chose to move to the United States to further strengthen my research and global health communication skill sets. In August 2010, I began a postdoctoral fellow position at the Center for Lung and Vascular Biology in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Pharmacology. When I arrived at UIC, I did not know anyone who shared my culture who I could ask about housing, transportation, shopping, etc. As such, I had a lot of missteps. For example, upon arriving at UIC, the first item on my agenda was to rent an apartment close to the university. I liked everything about the apartment I was shown, including the furniture and appliances. I was shocked when I showed up to take possession of my apartment to find it without furniture and appliances. For several nights I slept on the floor covered only by my clothes. However, I was not disappointed because it increased my knowledge of American culture. I had similar lost in translation experiences during my first day of work. I had to register my tax status, provide my social security number, make decisions during benefits orientation, J-1 visa, and work safety orientations. It was all a big blur that I didn’t truly process. And I tried to do it all without help.

It was during that time that I begin to think about an association that would help individuals of Asian descent acclimate to Chicago and American culture. I reached out to several Korean researchers and suggested that we form an association, which became the Association of Korean Scientists at UIC (AKSU). I was happy to serve as the chair. The organization focused both on members’ professional and personal lives. For example, when my daughter was born on January 1, 2012, the first Korean baby born in Chicago in 2012, a member of the association helped my family navigate the insurance process. 

Insufficient funding for my UIC lab led me to my current postdoc position at Feinberg, in Dr. David Kamp’s Pulmonary lab. Upon realizing that Northwestern did not have a Korean association, in September 2013 several colleagues and I launched the Korean Association of Northwestern University (KANU). KANU makes a special effort to reach out to graduate students and postdocs. The goals of KANU are to aid members with: 1) the acclimation process; 2) career development and employment opportunities; 3) meaningful work-life balance. The group typically meets every 3 months and features a research or career development talk. We also engage with other membership organizations that operate within the greater Chicago area. We believe that our activities help our members and new arrivals to Northwestern from South Korea adjust to life here so they can make contributions to research.

For more information about the  Korean Association of Northwestern University (KANU) contact:

Seok-Jo Kim, research assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care
President of KANU and vice president of the Korean Bioscientists & Chemists Association in Chicago
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