TDC member Emily Olfson interviews Jeenah Park, PhD, Trainee Representative to the ASHG Information & Education Committee.
ASHG: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Dr. Park: I received my BS degree in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology and my Master’s degree in Education at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I taught high school biology for two years in underserved communities before returning to graduate school. I completed my PhD under Garry Cutting, PhD, in Human Genetics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. My dissertation was on the characterization and evaluation of a lung function modifier in patients with cystic fibrosis. I’m now a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in a breast cancer lab working under Pamela Munster, PhD. My current project focuses on developing a novel strategy to locally deliver a drug to prevent breast cancer. The therapy would be used for women with known breast cancer-causing mutations and those with a strong family history.
ASHG: How did you first become interested in genetics?
Dr. Park: The very last science class I took as an undergraduate student at UCLA was a human genetics course. Until then, I didn’t even know that the field existed. Listening to lectures given by renowned genetics researchers, medical geneticists, and genetic counselors blew my mind. That’s when I knew that I had to go to graduate school to learn more about human genetics.
ASHG: What areas in genetics are you currently enthusiastic about?
Dr. Park: I’m interested in accurate assessment of hereditary cancer risk as well as development of novel alternatives for cancer prevention. For instance, preventive measures for women at high risk for breast cancer are limited. The current choices (prophylactic mastectomies and systemic hormonal therapy) are drastic and unacceptable to young women, even for those known to be at high risk. As a result, many high-risk women opt for neither measure. I think there should be a novel preventive approach that is less invasive, less toxic, and less permanent than those options currently available.
ASHG: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Dr. Park: In ten years, I hope that I am teaching upper division biology courses at a small liberal arts college and mentoring undergraduate students. I would love to teach seminars where students get to read and discuss seminal genetic papers.
ASHG: Tell us about your interest in teaching.
Dr. Park: As an undergraduate at UCLA, I first became interested in pursuing a career as a professor that involved teaching. Through my coursework, I observed that although many professors were knowledgeable, only some were effective teachers. This emphasized the importance of formal training in education and prompted me to pursue a Master’s in Education. Through this Master’s, I was able to teach full time at a high school in South LA, where I developed skills in classroom management, curriculum development, and teaching techniques. This experience solidified my passion for teaching. Afterwards, I decided to pursue a PhD in Human Genetics. During this time, I was able to continue teaching in the evenings as an adjunct faculty at Towson University.
Teaching in graduate school helped me to stay organized and efficient in lab, and I was fortunate that my graduate school mentor was supportive of my passion. During my postdoc, I have continued to be involved in teaching as an adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco. In retrospect, I think that the training I gained through my Master’s in Education has complemented the research experience that I gained through my dissertation work. I am a strong believer in the importance of pursuing your passion even if it falls outside of the traditional academic research path.
ASHG: Can you describe your experience on the ASHG Information & Education Committee?
Dr. Park: I was one of the first trainee members on the committee. I was a bit hesitant about applying at first because I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the time commitment and the job responsibility. I was encouraged by the ASHG Program Chair at the time, Andy McCallion, PhD, to apply for the position. As a matter of fact, he got me in touch with the Director of Education at ASHG, Michael Dougherty, PhD, who runs this committee, and I got to ask him detailed questions before deciding to apply.
I chose this committee because I have always been interested in teaching and education. Being in the committee has helped me understand how the organization runs as a whole, and has allowed me to contribute my ideas regarding strategic goals of the society. I’ve had an opportunity to provide feedback on the undergraduate faculty workshop, evaluate education award applications, serve as a judge for the DNA Day essay contest, and review education session proposals.
Our committee meets twice a year (once in the spring in Bethesda and once in the fall at the Annual Meeting). We periodically connect with each other via emails or phone conferences. My responsibilities are the same as any other committee members–I just try to provide the perspective of a genetics trainee, a former high school teacher, and an aspiring college professor.
ASHG: What do you like to do in your free time?
Dr. Park: I spend my free time hanging out with my six month old son and my husband, who is completing his residency. I sing a lot of ABCs and count numbers in my native language. I am now a pro at eating my meals one-handed and catching a pacifier before it hits the ground. When I actually have some alone time, I like to read the New Yorker and bake desserts. The most recent thing I baked is banana bread with walnuts (recipe from the King Arthur cookbook).
ASHG: Do you have any advice for other trainees?
Dr. Park: Get involved in activities outside of the lab. Don’t be afraid to pursue non-academic careers after graduate school. Find mentors who care about your career aspirations and personal goals.