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Regulating cancer cells

Biological chemistry doctoral student Hyun-Ik Jun works in the laboratory.
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Doctoral student Hyun-Ik Jun studies telomerase, which allows cancer cells to divide endlessly.

Doctoral student searches for mechanisms to stop cancer growth

Hyun-Ik Jun, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Chemistry, has received the 2015 UC Irvine School of Medicine Outstanding Student Fellowship Award.

The award, given this year for the first time, recognizes two doctoral students for academic and scientific achievements, as well as volunteer work.

Jun and fellow recipient Rolando Ruiz-Vega "exemplify the strengths and values of high-level researchers who will have a profound impact in their future scientific and philanthropic endeavors," said Klemens Hertel, PhD, associate dean of Graduate Studies.

Jun, who works in the lab of UC Irvine biochemist Feng Qiao, PhD, discusses his research studies and his plans for the future:

Q: What is your area of research?
A: Our research is on telomerase, an enzyme that repeatedly adds the DNA sequence, TTAGGG, to the end of DNA strands in the telomere regions. This special enzyme is active in 80 percent to 90 percent of all cancer cells. Telomerase activity allows cancer cells to divide virtually forever by replenishing the telomere repeat sequence. Therefore, telomerase may be important for cancer cells to escape cellular senescence (loss of cell’s power of division and growth) and thus has been studied extensively by cancer researchers.

The goal of my research is to understand the mechanism and regulation of telomere maintenance. To achieve this goal, I intend to identify regulators of telomerase activity and elucidate their mechanisms of action. Recently, our studies identified a novel mechanism that positively or negatively regulates telomere length. Additionally, in some cases, we discovered that Rap1 regulates telomere length by communicating histone protein in the absence of telomerase. Therefore, I am interested in understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms of telomere maintenance without the presence of telomerase.

Q: What impact could this research have on healthcare?
A: Overall, I am hoping that the identification of telomerase regulators may have medical implications in the development of new drugs to prevent cancer growth.

Q: How did you first become interested in this field?
A: Growing up, I was always interested in animals. I used to love exploring the mountains in my hometown. I remember in middle school I wanted to be an animal biologist. During college, I decided to study molecular biology, which was the closest major offered at my university. As I began my undergraduate research, I became really interested in biochemistry.

Q: What people in your life have been instrumental in shaping your scientific interests?
A: I am enormously grateful to my PI, Feng Qiao, who constantly supports me and helps me to change my weaknesses into strengths. He consistently encourages me to learn and investigate more about the unresolved scientific knowledge, which is the only philosophy to do science. I would also like to extend my gratitude to my wife, Dr. Hyun Ji Lee, who also actively contributes in our real life and makes diligent efforts to teach me various aspects of science.

Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to go into biomedical research?
A: I first got interested in research as I worked for Min Wong Lee, a microbiologist who was developing alternative medicine. There, I was able to perform both basic and clinical research, but I soon realized that I was more interested in basic, bench-top science in molecular biology and biochemistry. Soon after, as I worked with Dr. Qiao on telomere and telomerase, I became interested in biomedical research.

Q: What keeps you motivated?
A: I have always been motivated as I am challenged. During research, I have had a chance to immerse myself in multidisciplinary studies, including biochemistry, structural biology, molecular biology and many other fields. This was actually a great motivation for me.

Q: What are your long term goals?
A: I would like to continue studying in this field of science and to contribute to the ongoing endeavor. This includes my effort as a researcher.

Q: What advice would you give to people thinking about a career in biomedical research?
A: I don’t know whether I am capable enough to give advice, since I am still in the phase of learning and will continue to learn throughout my life. Instead, I would like to share my philosophy about life. I have always tried my best to pursue whatever I love to do. Therefore, I believe one’s success depends on their passion and craze for whatever he or she likes to do. So if my advice is meaningful to anyone, I would urge that one’s passion can help him or her get attached to whatever one likes to do.

Q: What do you do outside of the lab?
A: I spend my spare time with my wife and my newborn baby, hiking and playing, whatever they want me to do. Sometimes, I spend the weekend watching TV shows and sports.

Q: How do you feel about receiving the School of Medicine Outstanding Student Award 2015?
I honestly did not expect to receive this award. I am very honored and grateful. I will take this opportunity to review and advance myself in the biomedical research field.  

Q: Tell us something that most people don’t know about you.
Other than science, I love politics and history, especially issues about South Korea. So, in my spare time, I love to read, watch and listen to the news.