Haneul Yoo

About Pol II condensates in muscle cells and huddling dynamics of penguins

Haneul Yoo is a Postdoc in the Cissé Lab at MPI-IE. Discover her journey to science – from an artist family to biochemistry to biophysics – and her views on reading papers in science.

Tell us a little bit about your research project here at the MPI.

Right now I'm involved in a couple of different projects, but the one that I like to focus on is studying the relationship between Pol II clusters and gene regulation in muscle progenitor cells during muscle development. Differentiation of muscle progenitor cells into myofibers has been carefully studied for decades and a lot is already known about how this system works in terms of which genetic elements are involved. How these genetic elements dynamically interact with Pol II clusters to regulate gene expression is not known. And this is exactly what I want to figure out using the cutting-edge live-cell imaging microscopy tools in the lab.

When you look back at your career, what inspired you to go this route?

I don’t think I had any one dramatic moment where I was like ‘Oh, I want to be a scientist.’ It was more of a continuous exploration, search, and self-reflection. Both of my parents studied art and I did not have any scientists in the family. I still did well and liked science classes, especially chemistry. But biology always puzzled me. In chemistry and physics, you memorize certain core rules and then you apply those rules to solve more complicated problems. In biology, there seemed to be no such rules. Biochemistry appealed to me, because it studies biology at the molecular scale, at the scale of chemistry.  Then I had to think about what kind of job I can get if I study this. I was a very shy person at that time and I naively thought that if I become a researcher then I'll be able to work alone in a white room with a white coat, write a paper, publish it, and that's it. That sounded like something I could do. So I joined a research lab and quickly learned that my naive expectation was wrong. But fortunately for me, the people I met in that lab were all really nice and fun people. Both my group leader and the graduate student mentor were women scientists who cared about mentorship and were very patient with me. Working in that kind of environment was just fun and rewarding, so I continued in science and now I’m here.

What’s your advice for choosing a good lab to start your research career?

I think what a good lab means is different for different people. So first you have to use some self-reflection to think about what you want. For me, a good lab is where everyone is respected regardless of their experience or position. If you can go to their lab meeting, see who talks and asks questions during the meeting. I think it’s a good sign when students ask questions because it means they feel comfortable expressing their thoughts to the group. If you are just starting, I think it’s also important to join a lab where there are people who can train you and mentor you.

When you think about your normal work week, what of the different tasks you do is your most favorite in science?

I actually like reading papers. Most of the time I’m reading papers in my field to learn and update my knowledge about the current status of the field. But I also like to read papers outside my field because I think there's just so many interesting sciences people are doing and I am curious. For example, one of my favorite papers is this work by physicists studying the phase transition behavior of emperor penguins. These researchers went to Antarctica and recorded videos of emperor penguins. They calculated the apparent temperature felt by the penguins and plotted how much the penguins huddle as a function of the perceived temperature. Then they apply the concept of phase transition to explain how, when it's warm, the penguins behave like molecules in the gas phase and, when it becomes really cold, the penguins huddle to form a very compact colony like molecules in the solid phase. I think this is really cool and creative. I read outside of my field because of my curiosity, but I also do believe that reading broadly helps me stay creative in science.

You're quite new to Germany. What have been the biggest challenges living here? Do you feel more or less settled? What do you do in your free time?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had since I moved here was finding housing, although I think finding housing in Freiburg is difficult even for German people. It is challenging to live in a foreign country where you can’t really speak the language. But I do think that a person grows most when he or she is challenged, so I view it rather as an opportunity to learn and grow as a person. I do feel more or less settled now and more comfortable speaking German. I like to travel in my free time. I also like to read for fun. I recently joined an online book club where I can meet other Koreans living in Germany. Because most of the time I’m speaking English with other scientists at work, it’s very refreshing to speak Korean with people who are not scientists and talk about all the books we like.

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