By Leo Barolo
When Mabel Minji Jung lost her mother to leukemia as a teenager, she never imagined that she would grow up to study this disease. Due to a series of coincidences, she joined Emery Bresnick’s lab in the Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology in 2020, where she now studies blood cancer predisposition mechanisms as a Ph.D. candidate in the Pharmaceutical Sciences program.
Jung is now in her fourth year of graduate work. She recently served as first author on a collaborative paper where she conducted genome-wide mechanistic and multi-omic analyses on a disease-causing variant of GATA2, a master regulator of hematopoiesis.
Jung describes a bit more about her research and her story of how she got here:
What are the main goals of your research?
I study blood cancer predisposition mechanisms. Particularly, genetic mutations of GATA2 that cause GATA2 deficiency syndrome, which may lead to bone marrow failure and acute myeloid leukemia. I used our lab’s genetic rescue system with GA
TA2-deficient blood progenitor cells to compare how GATA2 and a human GATA2 variant (with 9 amino acid insertions that dislocates the two zinc fingers) function genome-wide. We took the top-down approach, and asked what genetic networks were disrupted through RNA-seq and then dug deeper to ask whether there were defects in remodeling and occupying chromatin using ATAC-seq and ChIP-seq. Overall, we gained insights into how GATA2 controls the genome for normal blood generation, and our system and approach can further guide the curation of other genetic variants.
Is there a single person, event, or experience that most influenced your trajectory to where you are today?
My mother. I lost to her to leukemia when I was 14, and for the longest time I couldn’t understand why it had to happen and why it continues to affect others. We meant the world to each other, despite our growing arguments due to her high expectations and me being a teenager and all. After I lost her, I had many regrets for not being a better daughter, friend, person – you name it. I let guilt drive me a lot through life in ways that were perhaps not always healthy. But some time along my undergraduate years, I found a genuine passion for research.
Finding Emery and his research on blood was mostly a coincidence, and I did not know I would be conducting research on the blood system today. Through my graduate studies so far, Emery has been a great support and influence to help me grow both as a scientist and an individual, and I have much respect for him.
What advice would you have for a young person interested in graduate school or research?
What I find the most challenging about being in a graduate program is that it’s not only about studying hard and acquiring knowledge (like one usually does up until their undergraduate studies), but also about producing new knowledge and dealing with the unknown. As much as there’s intrigue, there can be frustrations coming from what you and the rest of the world do not understand. Yet, if you know you have much passion in the field you are pursuing, and have the will to endure through the unknown, graduate school is a good fit for you. Being a graduate student really opens doors to many resources and opportunities, so once you are in, make the most out of it.
Originally from the suburbs of Seoul, South Korea, Jung often studied in 24-hour-open coffee shops. While the coffee shops in Madison have a closing time, she invites anyone to reach out and grab a coffee with her: “Many inspiring conversations and connections can be made from sharing a simple cup of coffee with someone,” she says.