Seo Jung “Debbie” Hong

Pathobiology PhD student

What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“I think the key to success as a scientist is first and foremost to stay curious and focused on your passion for learning and exploring…remember that you are not alone in the struggles. And last, but certainly not least, you must never stop believing in yourself.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing is ramping down for Seo Jung “Debbie” Hong, a Ph.D. student in the Pathobiology Program at Columbia University. Working in Dr. Alejandro “Alex” Chavez’s lab, Debbie is designing a method to identify antiviral drugs that will stop the spread of viral proteins within a host. Coincidentally, Debbie was already using this system to study SARS and MERS (two other diseases caused by coronaviruses) when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, she found herself a key player in the ongoing pursuit for a potential COVID-19 drug at the height of the pandemic, when many other labs at Columbia and around the country were forced to close down. 

In order to identify antiviral drugs, Debbie adds each drug onto yeast cells that produce viral proteins. Specifically, she looks for drugs that inhibit (or block) viral proteases—the proteins that are key to replicating a virus within the host and are similar across different strains of coronaviruses. If a drug successfully blocks the activity of these proteases, the virus will not be able to replicate properly. “So far, we have witnessed three major coronavirus outbreaks, including [SARS, MERS, and] the current pandemic that continues to have devastating impacts around the globe,” Debbie explains. “By identifying drugs that harbor inhibitory activity against multiple coronaviruses, we hope to equip our current… antiviral arsenal with effective therapeutics to combat future outbreaks.”

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Debbie moved to Toronto, Canada, at the age of nine. Moving to a new country was a difficult transition. “I remember going to school and not understanding a word that anyone was saying in class,” she recalls. “I had of course taken English classes in South Korea, but I couldn’t actually apply any of it in real life.”  It was in one of these English classes that her teacher dubbed her “Debbie”, an identity she assumed in the new English-speaking world in which she felt like an outsider. While Toronto’s large Korean population helped Debbie feel less lonely, things became more difficult when her family moved to the suburbs, where she would sometimes be the only Asian kid in her class. 

“…we hope to equip our current … antiviral arsenal with effective therapeutics to combat future outbreaks.”

While school often served as a place where Debbie felt pressured to assimilate into Western culture, it was also the place where Debbie’s love of science began. As a creative child who enjoyed playing piano and making works of art out of recycled materials, Debbie saw a similar element of creativity in science. Science allowed her to use her inventiveness to ask questions and put pieces of information together to solve a puzzle. When learning about the process of cell division in her middle school science class, she became fascinated by the order that could be found in intricate biological processes, and she sought to learn more about the mysteries of biology that remain to be solved.

         Eventually, Debbie’s interest in science led her to pursue bachelor’s degrees in Biochemistry and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. Initially unsure about her trajectory, Debbie considered pursuing a career in medicine, but she knew that science was her true passion. During her senior year, Debbie took an upper-level biochemistry course taught by Dr. Alex Palazzo focusing on RNA biology. Debbie became fascinated by the complexity of regulatory mechanisms in the cell, as well as the background history of how these mechanisms were discovered. Inspired to gain hands-on research experience, she decided to work in Dr. Palazzo’s lab the following term as part of a research course. This experience sparked her interest in a potential career in research and led to her pursuing a master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Toronto under the mentorship of Dr. David Williams.

Though Debbie was excited to foster her growing enthusiasm for scientific research, her master’s experience was rife with challenges. In her first project, Debbie was tasked with identifying genes that play a role in the recycling and movement of proteins in the cell. Unfortunately, this project did not go quite as smoothly as she had hoped, and though she worked tirelessly,  none of her results merited further study. Her next project resulted in another dead-end, and it was not until she moved on to a third project focusing on prion proteins — abnormally shaped proteins that collect in the brain and cause brain damage — that she was able to successfully identify potential targets of prion diseases, like mad cow disease. Despite these hurdles during her master’s studies, Debbie remained resolute in her pursuit of scientific knowledge and yearned to delve even deeper into the world of research.

No one thinks twice when they see a male professor. They’re just the norm.

Eager to try something new, Debbie applied for a technician position in Dr. Anne-Claude Gingras’ lab at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. There, she studied proteomics—the large-scale study of proteins. It was the first time Debbie encountered a female professional in science whom she could look up to as a role model. Seeing a female as a leader in her field, Debbie became inspired to conduct her own independent research, an aspiration that would eventually lead her to pursue a Ph.D. Debbie concedes that women are still perceived as outsiders in the world of science. “I think that, unconsciously, both men and women are more critical of women in leadership positions,” Debbie observes. “When people see a female professor, it’s still natural to wonder, ‘What did she have to do to get here?  What was special about her abilities and credentials that qualified her for this position?’  But no one thinks twice when they see a male professor. They’re just the norm.”  Debbie believes that both men and women must actively work to be mindful of this often unintentional bias.

While the demands of tackling a Ph.D. project so timely and relevant to the ongoing pandemic can be challenging, Debbie finds invaluable support from her lab-mates and mentor, Alex Chavez. “I consider it an absolute privilege to be working with Alex… Not only is he a prolific and passionate scientist, he is also an incredibly caring mentor who is always willing to do whatever he can to help you achieve your own goals.” After earning her Ph.D., Debbie hopes to find a job where she can use her knowledge of basic science to act as a liaison between the worlds of science and medicine. Debbie’s inquisitiveness, determination, and work ethic demonstrate that she is on her way to achieving these goals. In the world’s current state of uncertainty, it is encouraging to know that scientists like Debbie are working tirelessly to find solutions.

by Marina Triplett

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