Exceptional Thesis Award 2016

By Shelby Lyon, CMB Graduate Student
Jae-Sung Yu and Joseph Bruckner
Jae-Sung Yu and Joseph Bruckner

Meet Jae-Sung You and Joseph Bruckner, the 2016 recipients of the CMB Exceptional Thesis Award. This award is given in recognition of the distinguished work contributed by a student during the completion and defense of their thesis. Each recipient has earned a $250 reward in addition to the placement of their name on a plaque that can be found in the Bock Laboratories Penthouse.

“Don’t be afraid of failure and keep moving forward.” – Jae-Sung You 

Jae-Sung You had always been inquisitive, but it wasn’t until high school that he developed his love for science. To his surprise, he found himself drawn to chemistry and the idea that “everything we see is finely governed by numerous chemical rules.” It wasn’t long before this interest led Jae-Sung to Seoul National University (SNU). There he continued studying chemistry and began body building in his spare time as a way to relieve stress.

In fact, Jae-Sung might never have become interested in biology or a doctoral degree, if a terrible accident hadn’t changed everything. Just before graduation, Jae-Sung experienced a knee injury that resulted in significant loss of muscle mass. It took two years of grueling rehabilitation to regain function in his leg, but Jae-Sung never gave up and, in the process, he became fascinated by muscles and how they function.

“The incident taught me the significance of maintaining skeletal muscle mass and awakened my passion to investigate the mechanisms of muscle plasticity and the role of various nutrients on it.”

Jae-Sung returned to SNU to obtain his masters in nutrition where he realized just how many people suffer from a loss of muscle mass due to disease, inactivity, or aging. He knew from experience the serious impact muscle loss could have on a person’s quality of life and began looking for a doctoral program where he could learn from specialists committed to conducting cutting edge muscle research. That search ultimately led him to the CMB program and the lab of Dr. Troy Hornberger.

For his thesis work, Jae-Sung focused on the regulation of skeletal muscle mass by mechanical loading, things like exercise and limb immobilization, and the role of mTOR activity in this process. He also identified and defined a role for a protein called diacylglycerol kinase zeta (DGKζ) in the regulation of anabolic and catabolic events in the muscle.

Like all projects, there were many ups, downs, and frustrating moments where Jae-Sung relied on support from his PI and lab mates to resolve issues and alleviate stress. When things failed, he kept trying different possibilities. Sometimes they worked, but often they didn’t. In the end, Jae-Sung says he still learned from every attempt and believes this is one of the sources for his success.

“Although many people say no, you actually don’t know until you try. Don’t be afraid of failure and keep moving forward!”

According to Jae-Sung, the other key to his success was maintaining his quality of life outside of the lab. Jae-Sung’s best memories from his time in Madison came while spending every weekend playing his favorite sport – baseball. His advice to current CMB students?

“You will have to go through this arduous process over 5 years, so keep your life balanced and avoid exhaustion.

Jae-Sung is continuing his studies on muscle mass as a post-doc in Dr. Jie Chen’s lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where phosphatidic acid-mTOR signaling was first discovered. Jae-Sung’s goal is to become a PI, but, he says, he’s “open to any job that allows me to conduct muscle research that would ultimately help people improve the quality of their life.”

“The bumps and falls are where you learn.” – Joseph Bruckner

Joseph Bruckner was naturally drawn to science by his innate desire to ask questions as a kid growing up in his hometown of Seattle. He knew that he didn’t just want to learn science – he wanted to be involved in discovering how and why things worked.

During his time as an undergrad at Colorado College, Joseph’s favorite subject became parasites and the host pathogen interaction. He knew that if he wanted to study microbiology further, he would have to find ways to gain hands-on research experience. After completing an undergraduate thesis on a hepatitis C protein, Joseph worked as a technician in a herpesvirus lab at the University of Washington before applying for graduate school.

Joseph then chose the CMB program for two reasons: its reputation as a world leader in cell biology and, of course, the many opportunities to study parasites. But Joseph quickly found that other aspects of cell biology interested him too. His rotation in Dr. Kate O’Connor-Giles’s lab revealed how much he enjoyed working with fly neurons and studying genetics in a model organism. In the end, he decided to join the lab and enter an area brand new to him – neuroscience.

For his thesis project, Joseph examined Fife, a protein in the active zone cytomatrix of the drosophila synapse. This protein served as his starting point for exploring the molecular machinery at the synapse and the dynamic regulation of neurotransmitter release, something that contributes to many different disorders when dysfunctional. Employing a variety of approaches from physiology techniques for recording neuronal activity to imaging experiments where “it was nice to just look and see what’s going on” ensured that there was always something different and exciting to try.

Joseph said his work benefitted from collaborations that spanned everyone from fellow lab mates to experts across the country. In addition to significant encouragement and support from his PI, Joseph took the initiative to contact people with the expertise or skills he needed. While this strategy helped him avoid many roadblocks, there were still times he stumbled along the way. Joseph summed up the importance of these moments with a saying he encountered while skiing, “the bumps and falls are where you learn so if you’re not falling, you’re not learning.”

Winning the exceptional thesis award was an enormous honor for Joseph because he knows the strength of his fellow CMB students’ work. He attributes a portion of his own success to the insights and skills he picked up by presenting and seeing everyone’s data at retreats and seminars over the years.

“The nice thing about CMB is that we all work on such different things that when we talk, we can’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty. We’ve had to learn this global approach to asking questions that’s taught us how to answer them in the most fruitful way.”

He also advises current CMB students to engage in interactive discussions with their fellow students and to pursue a passion outside of the lab to prevent burnout. For him, that outlet was kite surfing and snow kiting.

“Being able to get outside and have fun is incredibly important for clearing your head. Experiments are complicated enough. If something’s not working, step away for a bit and breathe.”

Joseph is now a post-doc at the University of Oregon in Eugene where he has joined the lab of Dr. Judith Eisen and Dr. Philip Washbourne. His project deciphering the gut-brain axis in zebrafish will blend his newfound interest in neuroscience with his love of microbiology. Joseph also enjoys teaching and one day plans to run his own research program where he can do what he loves most – designing questions and experiments to his heart’s content.