Meet Dr. Ji-Yong Julie Kim

Written by Pamela Monahan and Dawit Tesfaye in Celebration of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month

In celebration of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage month, Diversity Committee members Dr. Pamela Monahan and Dr. Dawit Tesfaye virtually sat down with Northwestern University Professor, Dr. Ji-Yong Julie Kim.

Julie Kim, Ph.D. is the Susy Y. Hung Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Division of Reproductive Science in Medicine at Northwestern University. She is also the Co-Director of the Center of Reproductive Science at Northwestern. She sat down with us as part of our series on Reproductive Scientists of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage. The Kim Laboratory is interested in understanding the role of risk factors and how they intersect with sex hormones in reproductive diseases including Endometrial Cancer, Endometriosis, PCOS, and Uterine Fibroids. We also build and use appropriate in vitro and in vivo models that best represent the physiology of tissues, including 3D organ cultures on microfluidic platforms, patient-derived xenografted tumors, and transgenic mice. The Kim Lab is wholeheartedly invested in research that will ultimately benefit women with reproductive diseases.

What is your current position and what does it entail?

I am the Susy Y. Hung Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. I also serve as Co-Director of the Center of Reproductive Science at Northwestern. I direct a research lab that focuses on mechanisms of hormone action and risk factors in uterine diseases including endometrial cancer, endometriosis, PCOS, and uterine leiomyoma. My lab is involved in developing innovative models to better mimic physiology. I also participate in the education program of graduate students at Northwestern directing courses and teaching.

Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

I grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and did my undergrad in Microbiology at the University of Toronto. During my senior year, I met a professor, Dr. Patricia Quinn, who was giving a lecture on the impact of mycoplasmas on fertility. Not only was the topic highly interesting, but her enthusiasm and passion for research and discovery were contagious. I asked her if I could do a summer project with her. She agreed but with a caveat. Since she was on sabbatical at Laval University in Quebec City I would need to work in Quebec city for the summer. I knew this would be an adventure and needless to say, that was an understatement. I fell in love with the city and the people in the lab right away. Even though everyone spoke French and Laval University was a French-speaking school, I applied to grad school there and the rest is history. My advisor, Michel Fortier, was an incredible mentor who advocated for me in every way. When it was time for me to pursue postdoctoral training, Dr. Janice Bailey, who was faculty at Laval University at that time, sent me a job posting in the Fazleabas lab to study uterine receptivity in the baboon. My first trip to Chicago was the deal breaker for me – another new environment, another new adventure, plus the reproductive biologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago were the best. I remained in the Fazleabas lab for a while unsure of whether academic research was for me. I was encouraged to write an R01 which I had never written before. I gave myself an ultimatum, that if I was awarded the R01, I will remain in academia and give it my all. Needless to say, it was a bit of a miracle that I was funded on the first try, of my very first R01 writing attempt but this was back in the days when grants were funded at the 20th percentile. I was recruited to Northwestern University as Assistant Professor and the rest is history.

What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and your research?

The pandemic has affected me in the same ways as most others. Other than baking bread and decluttering the house, the one thing I highly appreciated was that it forced me to slow down. It provided more quality time with my family and my research. Without the craziness of life and distractions, it gave me a chance to re-adjust and to think about the things that matter in life. We’ve also had to change how the research was done since all of the samples we use in the lab come from human surgeries. When access to those samples was stopped, we had to be creative and turn to data analysis and designing experiments using fixed tissues and frozen cells. It was also important to keep morale up and to encourage each other in the lab. We had to adjust and adapt and set the bar at a different place. We had to focus on the positive and celebrate whenever we could. We had some interesting lab group chats over the years and some funny memes to lighten the mood. I’m hoping I can preserve some of the positive aspects of the pandemic as life slowly returns to a new normal.

Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?

It is important to slow down and enjoy the view. Focus on things that matter – like people and relationships. We are far more resilient than we think we are and focusing on the positive, keeps the love for science going.

What are you most excited to do over the next year?

I am looking forward to more in-person time with my lab. I’m looking forward to sitting in my office with my door open and people popping in to ask random questions about their projects or to talk about the latest headlines. I’m looking forward to fewer zoom calls!

What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists? 

The difficulties in research are real – publishing papers, obtaining grants and getting a permanent position. However, what we went through in the past 2 years has been quite difficult as well. Your resilience, your ability to adapt, and your resourcefulness in working effectively given the circumstances – have risen to the surface and hopefully, you will realize that you’re stronger than you think. Make sure you have to surround yourself with supportive people, like great mentors to guide you and to connect you with experts and colleagues to grow your network. Make yourself visible and always be a mentor to others too.

Julie Kim Twitter – @JulieKim20; Pamela Monahan Twitter – @DrPamMonahan; Dawit Tesfaye Twitter – @DtesDawit

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