Leading 'RNA and Disease' research in South Korea

Prof. Jeong Sun-Joo’s recent discovery of the relationship between RNA and β-catenin has the potential to significantly advance the field of cancer research, by understanding the generation and development of cancer cells. She shares with DiscovHER her insights on the significance of her research, her role as a woman in her industry, and how she has managed to maintain a balance between her work life and personal life.

DiscovHER: You are the leader in new research area of “RNA and Disease.” Please explain why you chose this area and its anthropological and social significance.

Prof. Jeong: It was recently discovered that RNA, which was once known to merely play a supporting role in gene expression, actually serves a central and proactive role in adjusting gene expression. I have focused on the possibility that RNA could be the major reason behind diseases such as cancer and have carried out research by pioneering the new field called 'RNA and Disease'. I believe that the research on 'RNA and Disease' will help people overcome diseases and pursue healthy lives.

DiscovHER: Please explain the project that you are the most focused on at the moment.

Prof. Jeong: I am concentrating on the effort to unveil the reason behind the generation of cancer caused by abnormalities in RNA. In particular, my research is based on the hypothesis that cancer inducing protein causes abnormalities in RNA metabolism, and I used this to look for other functions that were yet to be discovered. Currently, I am trying to identify how β-catenin can adjust RNA metabolism and what types of RNA it can control on a larger scale. I strive to make contributions to the field of 'RNA and Disease' through further in-depth research since the area represents translational research which will open a new window for developing diagnostic and medicine using RNA.

DiscovHER: According to the report on the current status of women in science, many female students decided not to pursue careers in science due to numerous stereotypes including the belief that women are not talented as scientists. What do you think about that?

Prof. Jeong: I believe the stereotypes are generated due to the lack of opportunities to learn and study science. That is why I believe that we must create an environment which enables young female students to grow interested in science and keep studying. It would be a great help for them to take a glimpse at the field of research by meeting with women scientists through exciting opportunities such as 'Science Open Lab' held in South Korea last year.

DiscovHER: As a woman scientist, how do you balance your work and your private life?

Prof. Jeong: Since scientists must stay in the lab all the time in order to produce good results, being a female scientist is very difficult. I once tried to be a stay-at-home mom after marriage, but could not give up my dreams as a researcher. In my case, the support of my family was the most helpful in overcoming difficult situations. I was able to work and take care of my family thanks to the understanding of my husband, who is also a researcher pursuing a career in the same field. My mother-in-law also helped a lot in raising the children.

Personally, I try to forget about housework when I am at work and set aside my work when I am at home, so that I can concentrate on where I am at present. I believe the most important factors in striking a balance between work and family are the help and support of your family and personal devotion.

DiscovHER: Could you give advice to the next generation of women scientists?

Prof. Jeong: I would like to tell them to trust themselves and know that they are capable of achieving great things with great dreams. They should always look for new things and enjoy their work. Scientists are people who do things that nobody has done before. Only those who pioneer a new road and enjoy it can become true leaders. They should also learn to overcome difficulties and ordeals. Thus, AQ (Adversity Quotient) is as important as the IQ and the EQ in achieving success. The strong will to overcome success ultimately determines whether you succeed in life or not.

DiscovHER: How do you think that the Korea L’Oréal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science will help you?

Prof. Jeong: It is a great honor. I considered that I was selected as the winner among many excellent women scientists not because I was very talented but as an encouragement for me to keep overcoming numerous difficulties and work harder.

I believe that the award granted me the opportunity to move one step closer to my goal. My goal is to establish a society of RNA researchers and build an RNA center. I would also like to make contributions to the society with my work. Jonas Salk, the bio-scientist whom I admire the most, not only eradicated polio from the earth by developing polio vaccine but made sure that its benefits were shared with all of humankind. It would be a great pleasure if my research contributes to the happiness of all men, even if just a little.

Prof. Jeong has been selected as the Academic Promotion Honor winner of 2014 Korea L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Life Science. 

For Women in Science

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