Fresh Faculty: Sally Kim

Sally Kim is an assistant professor of biology and neuroscience. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Haverford College and a doctorate in biomedical sciences at the University of Texas, Houston.

Q: Where were you before coming to Amherst?

A: I was in Silicon Valley in the Bay Area. I was working at Stanford both doing research and teaching [undergraduates] over there. 

Q: What is your research and what inspired it?

A: I did more bioengineering when I was at Stanford, but my lab now, and the work that I was doing there, is looking at the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying autism, and trying to understand what happens in terms of neurodevelopment: When neurons talk to each other, how do they come together? How do they mature that connection? And what happens when that goes a little sideways in terms of some neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism spectrum disorder? 

I started at Stanford, looking at a particular protein called SHANK3. SHANK3 is a scaffolding molecule that connects many different proteins in the receiving side of the synapse. We know that if you have any kind of mutations or deletions of that [molecule], it results in very severe autism in the patients. So, we are trying to understand what this molecule does, and how it plays a role in this receiving side of the synapse. In particular, since arriving at Amherst, we are looking at its interaction in this particular pathway, where it is playing a role in the structure and the shape of the receiving side of the synapse. We’re looking at a couple novel proteins that we think will interact with this protein, trying to understand how they all come together and perhaps play a role in how synapses are structured.

There’s two proteins we’re interested in. One is called Zyxin, and the other is called LASP-1 —  they are two actin-binding proteins. Actin is this protein in cells that acts as the skeleton of the cells, and these proteins bind to that skeletal element. They’ve been very well-characterized, both in cancer and in fibroblasts, a different type of cell. But they haven’t really been characterized too much in neurons. The Zyxin protein has never been characterized in neurons, so we’re really excited that everything we find is something very new. LASP-1 has had, I think, three papers in neurons so far: One was twenty years ago, and there’s been two that are more recent. So, we are really excited. I have one honors student who’s studying one, and a student who’s studying the other, and then all the other people in the lab are in one of these teams. We all work to try to understand how these proteins are working.

Q: How many people in total do you have working in your lab?

A: I have eight people, which is pretty astonishing. I started with two in the summer — we did remote [work]. Then I arrived here in August, and we started working in the lab. I took three first-year [students] in the middle of the fall semester, and then at the end of the semester, I took three more. 

Suddenly, I had eight, but I think the type of work that I do is very labor-intensive. Neurons that we study are what we call post-mitotic, [meaning] they don’t divide, so every week we have to actually make neurons — we get an animal, take the neurons out and grow them on pieces of glass. That’s a lot of moving parts [and it takes] a lot of time, so in order to be able to do that work, we need lots of hands.

[The lab] has many different kinds of things that we do. We do some molecular biology, we do some cell biology, we do imaging, we do biochemistry. In order to be well-versed in all of these things, you have to start early and learn a lot. So we just tried to get people on board so that we can start doing all the things that we need to be able to do experiments effectively.

Q: What courses are you teaching?

A: I taught Biol-191, the introductory biology course, in the fall, which I loved. It was so much fun and a great introduction to Amherst, how things worked and the biology department. I was also grateful, because of the pandemic, to not be teaching by myself. I think it was much more fun to be [part of a] team — teaching and engaging with people — and having a lot more students to get to know and interact with. 

This semester, I’m teaching Neur-301. It is a molecular neurobiology class, which has been fantastic. The students are amazing, and we have been learning all sorts of things at a rate that I find really incredible. I can hardly keep up with them, and [I] keep changing everything to keep up with the speed that they’re learning things and engaging with the course. I’ve been delighted by how excited and how invested they are in the class. It’s been so much fun. And I’ve been teaching HyFlex, which has also been super challenging.

Q: What has the pandemic taught you?

A: At least in the fall, teaching remotely was really interesting. I taught a lot of different courses [at Stanford], but of course, [I had] never taught remotely. [The teaching team] tried super hard. We spent a long time before the fall [semester started] trying to create a way to still have community, and I think the students had community. But I think it was still hard to be a part of that community as a faculty [member]. And even take office hours — it’s still not the same, right? You don’t, kind of, hang out — the students come and they ask you questions and then they leave. I’m very invested in fostering community and I think the pandemic has been a challenge for that and trying to maintain that for me. 

Also, I’m new to Amherst, so I don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like when things are normal. The Science Center is very quiet, and I’ve heard that that is not normal at all. I don’t see so many people walking in the halls. It’s nice, my lab — there’s, you know, people when I go in there. But it feels a little strange. It’s crickets in there, there’s hardly anybody there. And because of social distancing, there’s like one person sitting by themselves. I heard that [normally] in the evenings, it’s just all sorts of people sitting at tables studying together and working together. [That’s] hard for me to imagine, but it’s just a weird time, I think, to come into Amherst College. 

Q: What are you looking forward to during your time at Amherst?

A: The normal experience, just being able to interact more with the students. Because I’m teaching this HyFlex [course], it’s been much better. I see the students in 3D, but [with everyone wearing masks], I only see them, of course, from here up. I’m very visual, and so people’s expressions are just hard to read  — how they’re feeling or how they’re understanding things. [I’d like] to engage with people, and be able to see their whole face, and not be in this Zoom environment. There’s benefits to Zoom, I have to say, though. I learned that it’s not all bad. 

Hopefully, some of the good things will persist in the time after things go back to normal. But I think just engaging with people in person, and being able to see Amherst College in its full normalcy, will be great. I think it will just get better and better, so I am excited to see things that will be more normal. Hopefully, in the fall, things will be. Fingers crossed!

Q: What do you like most about Amherst so far? 

A: I think hands down — and this is probably the most common answer — it’s the students. I have been astonished by how open, honest, intelligent, caring, engaged [and] resilient they are. It’s a hard time to be a student in college with a lot of the normal things that are now privileges — just normal living that you take for granted. And I’ve been so impressed by all of the students’ ability to engage in the situation that we have now, and still flourish, learn and do the things they need to do. 

[It’s] the students and the faculty and staff. When I came and interviewed, I was just so impressed — it felt so comfortable for me. I didn’t even realize that it was the perfect job for me,  so when I came for my interview, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing!” I was just really pleased to be offered the position. It feels very right to be here and to be teaching, doing research and engaging with people. I really enjoy all the people in my departments, both in the biology and the neuroscience department, and I have loved the students both in 191 and 301 so far. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

So I think it’s been great. I enjoyed teaching at Stanford immensely. It’s definitely different — the students are very different, and the feeling of the school is different. I love both environments, but Amherst is very special. It’s been great to get to know the place, the people and the students. I think it’ll be a wonderful place to be.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time when not teaching?

A: I haven’t had a ton of that this year, but normally, when I do have some free time, I play the violin. In California, I actually played in a symphony, which was really fun. I started playing in a quartet. But then the pandemic hit, and then I moved here, so that stopped. I [also] like to bake. I’m really an avid baker, and was really working on my sourdough bread during the pandemic. In the Bay Area, sourdough bread is a whole culture. 

I love to read, and I love to knit. I was trying to finish (before I moved here) a sweater that I had started for my husband. I had started the sleeves three different times, and they were the wrong length and the wrong tightness. [But] I finally got the sleeves done and I was ready to assemble the entire sweater.  Then I found that the front and the back had gotten eaten by moths. I just put that aside, and we’ll have to deal with it at some point. In college, actually, I was in an acapella group and we went on tour. I get carsick, so I can’t read in the car. One of my friends taught me to knit, so I learned to knit a sweater while we went to New Orleans to go to Tulane. And I just knit, knit, knit, knit. There [were] actually, I think, three or four of us knitting in the van. It’s somehow very relaxing.

But I like doing anything that’s creative and artistic or making things or designing things. I haven’t been doing much of that yet here, but I hope that after the pandemic, and [after I] get settled in, there’ll be a little bit more time to do the things. I also like to cook. I was hoping to do more. I wanted to do some watercolor and some things in the pandemic, but when we were trying to move here, it was just too crazy. I couldn’t pick up another hobby while we were in the process of moving across the country.