Every principal investigator, or P.I., as the lead scientist of a research group is known, writes the grant proposals for the funding that keeps his or her lab functioning and prepares research papers for submission to scientific journals. P.I.s plan and run the experiments that lead to new discoveries, serve on institutional committees and manage the day-to-day operations of their labs. Many have young families, with all the responsibilities: child care, meals, gymnastics meets, help with homework. None has enough hours in the day.
Assistant Professor Kyuson Yun, Ph.D., a cancer researcher at The Jackson Laboratory, strides into her first-floor office, energetic and chatty. "The last two nights I've been getting home at midnight," she says, as if to apologize for starting her day later than usual.
Yun hangs her coat up and sits at her computer. She scans her electronic calendar for the day's appointments and then triages the emails that have accumulated overnight.
Yun is waiting for a phone call from a foundation grant officer, "to see what I need to do to get my project funded," she explains. In the meantime she's got a travel agency on another line on her phone to nail down lodging plans for an upcoming conference on tumor microenvironments.
Ted Duffy, Ph.D., manager of the Laboratory's Flow Cytometry Service, comes to Yun's office to consult with her on procedures that need to be completed before the lab can proceed with one of the day's experiments.
The Yun lab focuses on two kinds of brain cancers: medulloblastomas, the most common pediatric brain tumor, and glioblastomas, the most aggressive form of brain cancer, which is currently incurable. The lab investigates the role of cancer stem cells in those tumors.
Just as normal stem cells develop into different kinds of cells that make up a healthy body, cancer stem cells give rise to all the other cell types found in cancer. The experiments in Yun's lab involve isolating and targeting cancer stem cells in mouse models of brain cancer, the first steps in developing potential new treatments for cancer patients.
After speaking to Duffy, who will sort medulloblastoma cells so that they can identify the cancer stem cells, Yun prowls the hallways in search of Seungbum Choi, the graduate student in her laboratory. "We've got to get going on this," she says.
Though her seven-days-a-week work schedule has no time for a formal exercise program, a recent pedometer test shows she can rack up five miles a day just dashing around the Laboratory. Choi, who is from Seoul, South Korea, and is in the second year of a Ph.D. program at the University of Maine, appears moments later, and they both head into the lab.
P.I.s are managers as well as innovators, and each has a distinctive leadership style. Yun is a coach: part teacher, part cheerleader-motivator. When she assigns tasks, she takes time to explain why they're important.
"I've been working in Kyuson's lab for about eight months now," Choi says. "She's always here for us, and for students it's really important to be close to your advisor."
Yun gathers her laboratory staff around her like a coach in a pregame huddle and explains the shifts in the day's schedule. "What do we do in this lab? Multitask!"
Choi moves to the front of the lab to a hooded procedure area, where he gowns and gloves up and proceeds to collect medulloblastoma cells. In the meantime Yun is discussing her own experiment with research assistant Ben Low.
"This is the moment I've been waiting for," Yun says, swiveling on Low's desk chair. "We've been watching this very special mouse, which has three cancer gene mutations and is the only one we've managed to breed so far. It has some paralysis in its left leg, so it may have a brain tumor."
She pauses a moment. "I hope it's a good day. It's possible that this mouse has only a very small tumor in the spinal cord that's causing the paralysis, which won't allow us to do the study that we need to do." Then she gets up and goes to help Choi.
Now that Choi has passed the tumor cells to Duffy, there's time for the "journal club" discussion originally scheduled for 10:00 this morning. This is a weekly meeting in which Choi reports on recent scientific papers on cancer stem cells and other relevant fields that Yun has assigned him to read.
Teaching, she has said, is one of her most important roles. "I'm here to make sure that what they're working on is helping them to meet their goals as scientists," she says.
Yun received her B.S. in biology from Caltech in 1989 and her Ph.D. in biology from Caltech in 1997. She came to the Laboratory from Dartmouth College, where she was an instructor in the Department of Genetics.
She was born in South Korea well after her father fled North Korea during the Korean War. He brought his family to California when Kyuson, who spoke no English, was 13. Her brother is an astrophysicist. (Perhaps their childhood arguments were along the lines of "It's not rocket science" and "It's not brain surgery.")
At the monthly scientific faculty luncheon, Yun gets in the buffet line beside Associate Professor Judy Blake, an expert in bioinformatics, and the two chat as they carry their trays into the conference room. Professor David Serreze is at the front of the room, setting up for the talk he'll present on type 1 diabetes.
"There's such a collegial environment here," Yun comments later. "Everybody wants to see you succeed, and they provide so much help along the way."
On the agenda for the weekly Yun lab meeting is a presentation by Low on the proper use of nomenclature—the very specific letters and numbers that designate a gene. Yun sits at the end of the table, facing the screen, arms folded, attentively watching and occasionally checking in with the other members of the group to make sure they understand the concepts Low is explaining.
Scrolling through the latest batch of emails, Yun sees a note from Ted Duffy that the cells have been sorted and would be delivered shortly to her lab. She calls Choi's extension.
Choi hastily walks towards the Research Animal Facility. Yun leaves her lab heading in the same direction as Choi. "I'm the technician for my graduate student—isn't that great? Ha!" Yun jokes about multitasking, but her actual working style is highly focused on one undertaking at a time. She will spend the next two hours helping Choi inject into mice the four kinds of cells from the morning's medulloblastoma cell sorting.
Yun, her husband, David Gallup, and young sons, Andy and Tommy, live at the top of a wooded street less than a mile from the Laboratory. At the stove in the large kitchen-living room rimmed with wide windows, Yun gently probes a fish fillet with a spatula. She seems more relaxed, her voice softer than when she's at work. She moves efficiently, but without hurry.
The boys bound into the kitchen and onto their dad in a bear-hug scrum. What's it like to have such a busy mom? "She's away a lot," says Tommy, punctuating his words by jumping up and down, "but it's great when she's home!"
Yun later says she could not do her job without her husband's dedication to caring for their family. "When we were in San Francisco, he was growing his business and I was the one who was home with the kids. Now he's semi-retired, so he's able to be home with Andy and Tommy. I'm really lucky."
After dinner, Yun is back at the Laboratory, settling at her desk to work on a grant proposal. On her door she has stuck a pink card that reads: "Granting, Grumpy, Go away." New researchers receive start-up funding from The Jackson Laboratory, but after three years she must assemble enough public and private funding to support her lab's ongoing operations.
Where does Yun get the energy to get through these long days? "I'm very impatient, and there is so much to do," she answers. "I don't have the patience to say I can wait until tomorrow for answers.
"Also, a lot of caffeine. Ha!"
On a deeper level, Yun is highly motivated to find a cure for cancer. "Cancer has had a big impact on the world and on my family," she says. "My father died from lung cancer, and my older brother had a sarcoma when he was in his mid-20s. Helping to cure cancer—that would be exciting and worthy of the sacrifice I ask from my family. That keeps me going."
Back home and ready for bed, Yun picks up a book she recently bought for her kids. "I've found that reading children's books is very relaxing," she says, "and at the same time I can make sure the books are suitable for my sons."
Multitasking to the end, she opens the book and starts to read.