Thoughts on Theses: Eric Jung

Eric Jung is a biology major. His thesis investigates the migration and motility of the single-celled organism dictyostelium discoideum. His thesis advisor is Assistant Professor of Biology Marc Edwards.

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: We use this one little amoeba, which is a single-celled organism called ‘dictyostelium discoideum.’ We grow up a bunch of those, and we do genetic experiments on them. We come up with very large scale assays, so we’ll watch how fast they move across certain plates. That’s essentially what my thesis is on, how cells move. We’re studying this one eukaryote because it is very similar to human cells and human cancer cells, so anything we study genetically here can be directly applied into medicine and pharmaceuticals. [Further] implications of this are studying embryo genesis: when a fetus gets conceived how does that embryo develop into a person, are there issues there? Can we stop poor developments? Can we stop down syndrome? That’s all involved in cell migration and cell motility.

Q: What interests you about this topic?

A: It’s cool because what we’re doing is super niche. At bigger laboratories they work with stem cells and cooler stuff. So no one really cares about this one little organism in terms of the broader field of science. There hasn’t been a lot of extensive research done in this one organism, which means that most of what we’re doing is new stuff that no one’s done before. So it is really cool to think about, ‘How do I want to approach this? How do I want to write out these protocols and go through these experiments?’

Q: How does this thesis apply to your future plans?

A: My mindset is less concerned with the thesis and more concerned with my publication, which [my thesis advisor Assistant Professor of Biology Marc Edwards and I] think we can get out by winter of next year. We’ve been working together on that since the summer of 2018. I’m going to do all this work to try and get a paper published, and whatever work falls within the course of this year I’m going to write up and turn in as my thesis. Then looking forward to the next two years, I am thinking about medical school. If I’m going to pursue an M.D. degree, there are some research components available there. I’m also toying with the idea of an M.D.-Ph.D., which does a lot of research in a huge lab setting, which is what I do here, what I’ve been doing for the past two years. So being involved in medical research from a cell bio perspective might be my future.

Q: Have you ever doubted your future in STEM?

A: This summer when I worked, it was the first time where I had the choice to not be in academia. Last spring, I was like ‘Oh, I’m going to graduate in 2021, take a gap year, and go to med school.’ I had all this stuff planned and it was super revolving around the academic institution. And then when I took some time off and started working full time, I realized that if I wanted to, I could really just do this for the rest of my life. I really could. It kind of opened my eyes to, ‘Alright, do I really want to go back to school?’ It’s nice to have that perspective now, because even though I knew I liked school before, I’m realizing how much I like learning and being a student. Having that choice not to come back really amplified all my emotions and thoughts about school, work, life.

Q: What has been your favorite part of your research so far?

A: Through my freshman and sophomore years of college, all of my learning has been very traditionally academic: go to lectures, it’s one professor teaching a course with a designed course syllabus to a bunch of people. You can accumulate knowledge that way, but I’ve realized that there are other ways too. A lot of the times when I’m meeting with my professor, we don’t know what the next step is. We’re working together to ask, ‘Alright, what’s been done before? And what can we do now?’ So it’s cutting-edge thinking … it’s learning how to ask the next questions that nobody’s really asked before, instead of learning from a syllabus.

Q: What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your research?

A: I have realized that there is a huge separation between your knowledge and then your actual lab technique. There’s a muscle memory as to how to grow these [organisms], and then grow them up without having them get infected, how to handle equipment so it doesn’t break. And then there’s a certain amount of delicacy with which you have to perform experiments, and a certain amount of timing. It’s super interesting to think, you actually have to be good at pipetting, and you have to know all the stuff.

Q: How has Covid-19 changed your thesis writing process and plans for the future?

A: In terms of the lab … since our organism is so small, we freeze it at -80 C, and it just stays. It’s like the Captain America thing, in the Marvel movies. We froze it and we just thawed it two weeks ago, and now it’s back and alive … we kind of just put everything on pause and threw it in the freezer. And now we’re back. But aside from that, I was going to work in a lab in Boston this summer, and that lab stopped their summer programs. So I went home and I worked on an ambulance for about four and a half months. I wasn’t going to come back to school this year, because I got into a couple of fire[fighting] academies. I was actually thinking more like, ‘Do I want to go back to school? Do I want to stop what I’m doing and just go into EMS for a little bit?’ But then I decided that I wanted to finish my undergrad first and then reassess.

Q: Do you have any advice you’d give to people thinking about writing a biology thesis?

A: Just understand that things start really slow. Last fall, I did my first special topics with Professor Edwards, and I was super hyped, I was like ‘oh my god, this is an independent research thing. I’m going to be doing all this cool work.’ Looking back on that retrospectively, I didn’t really do anything. A lot of the stuff I did in the lab got infected, or died, or I dropped a plate and had to start over … there’s a huge learning curve and the amount of stuff that actually works is very little.