The beauty of biology

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When Hanjun Lee arrived at MIT, he was set on becoming a Course 5 chemistry student. Based on his experience in high school, biology was all about rote memorization.

That changed when he took course 7.03 (Genetics), taught by then-professor Aviv Regev, now head and executive vice president of research and early development at Genentech, and Peter Reddien, professor of biology and core member and associate director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

He notes that friends from other schools don’t cite a single course that changed their major, but he’s not alone in choosing Course 7 because of 7.03.

“Genetics has this interesting force, especially in MIT biology. The department’s historical — and active — role in genetics research ties directly into the way the course is taught,” Lee says. “Biology is about logic, scientific reasoning, and posing the right questions.”

A few years later, as a teaching assistant for class 7.002 (Fundamentals of Experimental Molecular Biology), he came to value how much care MIT biology professors take in presenting the material for all offered courses.

“I really appreciate how much effort MIT professors put into their teaching,” Lee says. “As a TA, you realize the beauty of how the professors organize these things — because they’re teaching you in a specific way, and you can grasp the beauty of it — there’s a beauty in studying and finding the patterns in nature.”

An undertaking to apply

To attend MIT at all hadn’t exactly been a lifelong dream. In fact, it didn’t occur to Lee that he could or should apply until he represented South Korea at the 49th International Chemistry Olympiad, where he won a Gold Medal in 2017. There, he had the chance to speak with MIT alumni, as well as current and aspiring students. More than half of those aspiring students eventually enrolled, Lee among them.

“Before that, MIT was this nearly mythical institution, so that experience really changed my life,” Lee recalls. “I heard so many different stories from people with so many different backgrounds — all converging towards the same enthusiasm towards science.” 

At the time, Lee was already attending medical school — a six-year undergraduate program in Korea — that would lead to a stable career in medicine. Attending MIT would involve both changing his career plans and uprooting his life, leaving all his friends and family behind.

His parents weren’t especially enthusiastic about his desire to study at MIT, so it was up to Lee to meet the application requirements. He woke up at 3 a.m. to find his own way to the only SAT testing site in South Korea — an undertaking he now recalls with a laugh. In just three months, he had gathered everything he needed; MIT was the only institution in the United States Lee applied to.

He arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2018 but attended MIT only for a semester before returning to Korea for his two years of mandatory military service.

“During military service, my goal was to read as many papers as possible, because I wondered what topic of science I’m drawn to — and many of the papers I was reading were authored by people I recognized, people who taught biology at MIT,” Lee says. “I became really interested in cancer biology.”

Return to MIT

When he returned to campus, Lee pledged to do everything he could to meet with faculty and discuss their work. To that end, he joined the MIT Undergraduate Research Journal, allowing him to interview professors. He notes that most MIT faculty are enthusiastic about being contacted by undergraduate students.

Stateside, Lee also reached out to Michael Lawrence, an assistant professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and assistant geneticist at Mass General Cancer Center, about a preprint concerning APOBEC, an enzyme Lee had studied at Seoul National University. Lawrence’s lab was looking into APOBEC and cancer evolution — and the idea that the enzyme might drive drug resistance to cancer treatment.

“Since he joined my lab, I’ve been absolutely amazed by his scientific talents,” Lawrence says. “Hanjun’s scientific maturity and achievements are extremely rare, especially in an undergraduate student.”

Lee has made new discoveries from genomic data and was involved in publishing a paper in Molecular Cell and a paper in Nature Genetics. In the latter, the lab identified the source of background noise in chromosome conformation capture experiments, a technique for analyzing chromatin in cells.

Lawrence thinks Lee “is destined for great leadership in science.” In the meantime, Lee has gained valuable insights into how much work these types of achievements require.

“Doing research has been rewarding, but it also taught me to appreciate that science is almost 100 percent about failures,” Lee says. “It is those failures that end up leading you to the path of success.”

Widening the scope

Lee’s personal motto is that to excel in a specific field, one must have a broad sense of what the entire field looks like, and suggests other budding scientists enroll in courses distant from their research area. He also says it was key to see his peers as collaborators rather than competitors, and that each student will excel in their own unique way.

“Your MIT experience is defined by interactions with others,” Lee says. “They will help identify and shape your path.”

For his accomplishments, Lee was recently named an American Association for Cancer Research Undergraduate Scholar. Last year, he also spoke at the Gordon Research Conference on Cell Growth and Proliferation about his work on the retinoblastoma gene product RB.

Encouraged by positive course evaluations during his time as a TA, Lee hopes to inspire other students in the future through teaching. Lee has recently decided to pursue a PhD in cancer biology at Harvard Medical School, although his interests remain broad.

“I want to explore other fields of biology as well,” he says. “I have so many questions that I want to answer.”

Although initially resistant, Lee’s mother and father are now “immensely proud to be MIT parents” and will be coming to Cambridge in May to celebrate Lee’s graduation.

“Throughout my years here, they’ve been able to see how I’ve changed,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a great scientist, yet, but I now have some sense of how to become one.” 

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