Advice From a ‘Wunderkind’: Why MSK Is Great for Early Career Researchers

Mijin Kim seen working in laboratory.

Mijin Kim, PhD, was recognized in the STAT "Wunderkind" Class of 2023 for her research at the Sloan Kettering Institute, the hub for basic and translational science at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Mijin Kim, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), has been recognized with the prestigious Wunderkind award by STAT, the well-regarded news site covering science and medicine.

Each year, STAT seeks to find “the best researchers in health and medicine in North America who are on the cusp of launching their careers but not yet independent.” In 2023, STAT named a group of 28 Wunderkinds, including Dr. Kim, who “promise to shake up the world of the life sciences.”

Her research at MSK’s Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI) focuses on biosensor development for cancer research and diagnosis using carbon nanotubes, which can be altered to emit infrared light in the presence of specific molecules. Dr. Kim is helping pioneer a liquid biopsy technology that utilizes carbon nanotubes and machine learning to detect ovarian cancer, which is challenging to diagnose in early stages, when it is easiest to treat.

“She was able to use machine learning to discover a version of the nanotubes that would react to the blood of ovarian cancer patients,” wrote STAT. “With refinement, the technology could be used as a test to find hard-to-screen diseases like ovarian, pancreatic, and other cancers, and help clinicians intervene earlier for patients. That could make an enormous difference in those patients’ survival and morbidity outcomes.”

This award also helps mark a major milestone in her career, as the MSK community and Dr. Kim celebrate her transition to leading her own laboratory at Georgia Tech. This step is vital to the MSK core value of helping to mold the next generation of biomedical researchers, as they carry the MSK standard of excellence into the world.

In 2018, Dr. Kim joined the lab of Dan Heller, PhD, Head of the Cancer Nanomedicine Laboratory and a member in the Molecular Pharmacology Program.

Below, Dr. Kim reflects on the Wunderkind award, her life-changing experiences at the Sloan Kettering Institute — a basic and translational research hub with MSK — and why she enthusiastically recommends MSK to people pursuing a career in biomedical science.

On the Wunderkind Award

This is a great honor, but it also recognizes the effort of the entire team at Dan Heller’s lab at SKI.

My background is in physical chemistry and my doctoral work was on photophysical properties of nanomaterials. There was absolutely nothing related to biology, cancer, or disease.

But Dan’s lab is very interdisciplinary, and we thought my research could be potentially useful for cancer research. On my very first day, I learned how to culture a cell. So I really started from scratch! That’s why this award belongs to the whole team.

Why She Chose MSK

I was particularly drawn to Dan’s research to develop and utilize nanomaterials to study biology in living systems and knew I really wanted to be part of MSK. Recently, MSK also launched a PhD program in cancer engineering, named The Pat and Ian Cook Doctoral Program in Cancer Engineering.  So there are even more opportunities for people to pursue cross-disciplinary research here.

On Her Development as a Scientist at MSK

MSK has been significant in my career development and my transition from being a physical chemist to a biomedical engineer. I had a lot of opportunities to communicate with world-class researchers in biomedical fields not only at MSK but also at other institutions, such as Weill Cornell and The Rockefeller University, and collaborate with them.

How MSK Supports Early Career Researchers

In addition to great mentorship from my advisor, Dan Heller, I am so grateful to the Office of Scientific Education and Training, led by Ushma Neill, PhD, for their support in early career researchers’ professional development. They provided helpful advice and resources on writing funding proposals, the academic job search process, and building a scientific network. MSK also offers multiple awards and fellowships for postdoctoral researchers to support postdocs to continue innovative research.

On Work-Life Balance

Outside of the lab, there are so many exciting things to explore in New York City. Nice restaurants and coffee shops made my time at SKI more joyful. In addition, my advisor, Dan Heller, and my labmates understood the challenges of maintaining a good work-life balance as a mom of a 2-year-old son and helped me a lot.

On Women Scientists at MSK

I met many great female scientists at MSK. In 2021, I was awarded the Marie-Josée Kravis Women in Science Endeavor (WiSE) Postdoctoral Fellowship which promotes gender equity in science through funding and professional support. We had a panel discussion session in the Kravis WiSE Symposium to discuss how to overcome barriers and promote gender equity in academia with women leaders. The discussion helped me learn how to contribute to improving equality and equity for women in the workplace and how to overcome challenges as a woman in science. This is just one of many efforts that reflect MSK’s commitment to supporting women scientists.

On Her Mentors

There are so many!

First is my advisor, Dan Heller. I learned so much from his positive energy about how to run a lab that is diverse, inclusive, and professional — and does great science.

Heeseon An, PhD, who runs a lab at SKI in the Chemical Biology Program is my role model. We collaborated on how my sensor technologies can be useful in biological research, specifically in the area of autophagy. Her advice on running a lab as an early-stage investigator helped me to learn about soft skills for group leaders.

Clinical chemist Lakshmi Ramanathan, PhD, and gynecologic surgeon Kara Long Roche, MD, MSc, have also been great mentors and role models for me. They are examples of the kind of cross-discipline collaboration that makes MSK special.

Her Advice for People Pursuing a Scientific Career

MSK has scientists and resources that help you focus on great science. Regardless of your future scientific career, MSK would offer opportunities to be successful toward your goals.

What can I say, I love the Sloan Kettering Institute!